Life and Justice

Early this year, as the battle over health care was nearing the end, something deeply disturbing happened. The Catholic bishops’ conference, true to its word, said it couldn’t support the bill because of its abortion-related provisions; but the Catholic Health Association, which up to then had stood by the bishops, broke ranks and backed the plan.

This incident dramatized the Church’s diminished ability to present a united front on a major political issue. But it did something more, spotlighting a split between prolife people and social justice people in the Church that has grown wider and deeper in the Obama years.

In theory it shouldn’t be like that. As Pope Benedict and many others point out, the values at stake under both headings, prolife and justice, converge in the human person. Integral human development—the fullest possible flourishing of people in all dimensions of their personhood—is the goal that links both.

But real life, alas, is not so simple, and the clash between the bishops’ conference and Catholic health care interests was a painful reminder of that. Often enough, instead of common ground, what we get instead of working together for shared goals are conflict and name-calling.

Here’s a small case in point. Not long ago I read the text of a homily praising a priest known for helping the poor and promoting social justice causes. I know the priest in question, and the praise was well deserved.

Unfortunately, the homilist couldn’t leave it at that. For no visible reason, he began by lambasting a prominent Catholic layman for saying the bishops should “stop talking” about justice issues. Surprised—since I know this man, too—I took the trouble to consult the source cited by the homilist, an article in The New York Times Magazine. According to the writer, what the man had really said was that the bishops should “stop talking so much” about these things.

Of course you can disagree with that as well, and disagreement could conceivably serve as a starting point for a useful conversation. But it should be obvious that there’s a world of difference between saying bishops should stop talking about something and saying they shouldn’t talk about it so much. Besides misrepresenting a man he thinks he disagrees with, the homilist was killing off the possibility of conversation, not encouraging it.

This was a small incident yet symptomatic. Prolife conservatives err the same way by using exaggerated rhetoric and simple misstatements of fact to slam social justice people. This quarrel has been going on a long time, though as noted the Obama agenda has helped bring it to a head.

No matter by whom pursued, tactics of misrepresentation and unjust reproach are not only unfair but destructive. They have no rightful place in intra-Church dialogue and debate. This is more than a matter of good manners. At the deepest level, the dichotomizing of morality that the tactics take for granted is not allowable. Concern for social justice and concern for human life necessarily come together in defending the human rights of flesh and blood human beings. This is what an authentic consistent ethic of life is all about.

By no means does that rule out operational specialization. Some people need to concentrate on human life issues, others on issues of social justice. No individual and no group can be fully competent and effective on both. But people in both camps should recognize and acknowledge that issues of both kinds are serious and those who work on them deserve respect.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • Richard

    It remains that the CATHOLIC health association should not prefer that babies should be murdered.

  • wgsullivan

    I understand that social justice is about caring for those among us that are best described as the weakest and most vulnerable. As mentioned in the article these two issues, pro-life and social justice, converge.
    I would go so far as to say they are one in the same but have been separated unjustly. Social justice begins with the unborn and their human dignity being upheld.
    Without life one cannot experience injustice.

  • terrygeorge

    yes there is a lot of disobedience to the command not to bear false witness against another.
    certainly true social justice will be pro life and true pro life justice will promote the common good.
    the only conflict in the Church or world is between those who are not really about true social justice or truly pro life. in both cases (not true social justice or not true pro life) the leaning is ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ (themselves terms which have been co-opted by the anti Christ crowd). so what i’m trying to say in not too many words is that the conflict is really between those who follow God vs those who do not but pretend to. Continuing to pretend someone is behaving in a Christian manner when their actions and fruits reveal otherwise contributes to the deception.
    some would say it is better to have distinction, separation and opposition than to pretend to be united. perhaps there is truth in that…

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