A photo of Pope Francis waving with a cross behind him.

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When Even the Pope Thinks You’re Too Fixated on Abortion

The Catholic Church leader is asking abortion opponents to focus their energy elsewhere. No, really.

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The anti-abortion movement in the U.S. has become obsessed with forcing pregnant people to give birth to unwanted pregnancies. How obsessed? Even the Pope is telling them that maybe it’s time to get some new hobbies.

Catholic abortion opponents are once more struggling with their “social justice”–focused Pope after he sent them a very pointed message essentially telling them, “Hey you, there really are more issues to worry about than just abortion.” On April 9, Pope Francis released his Apostolic Exhortation on “holiness,” the “Gaudete et Exsultate [Rejoice and Be Glad].” It’s a happy little missive about how each person can easily find a way to be joyful in everyday life. It’s almost Chicken Soup for the Soul–esque: Holiness and grace don’t come from acts of grandeur and martyrdom, they are simple gestures of love and support for those you encounter in your day-to-day life.

But in one section of his multipage laundry list for living a more holy existence, the Pope goes as far as to chide those who single-mindedly rail against abortion to the exclusion of all other Church-proclaimed injustices. “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm, and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development,” he writes. “Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”

For those of us who have long wondered what is so “pro-life” about rejecting health-care expansion, blocking refugees from war-torn countries access to our borders, cutting social services like free school lunches or Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Programs to the hungry or draining Medicaid and Social Security, well, we can’t help but cheer on a Pope who suddenly sounds a little bit like us. Maybe too much like us, actually, since anti-abortion leaders are scrambling to reinterpret his commands.

According to Janet Morana, the executive director of Priests for Life, it’s the media misinterpreting Pope Francis’s words, misinterpreting his message in their effort to castigate the pro-life movement. “These other issues are not being ignored, and that’s a good thing. But a person who donates his or her time to help feed the homeless at a soup kitchen cannot also be expected to be engaged in sidewalk counseling outside an abortion mill,” responds Morana in a column at the National Catholic Register. “People must choose their battles, and at Priests for Life, we choose to focus on ending abortion because the right to life is the most foundational right we have as human beings.”

Morana is correct in that people have to choose their battles, and that is exactly what the Pope says, too. What Morana seems eager to avoid is his admonition on the utter tunnel vision of the Catholic pro-life movement, which has become increasingly willing to let those who are already born suffer in exchange for the political power to restrict abortion.

That tunnel vision is clear in a response from Students for Life President Kristan Hawkins, who argues that ending legal abortion is the only battle that truly can be endorsed by the Church, since all other issues are still fraught with disagreement. “You cannot simply want quality health care for every person; you must want socialized medicine. You cannot just want humane treatment of immigrants; you must also want open borders and amnesty,” she claims in a column in Townhall. “Unlike abortion, where we are called to oppose it in every circumstance so policy disagreements with fellow Christians should be scarce, these other important issues are not defined by our Church as ‘intrinsically’ evil and therefore reasonable Christians can truly disagree about the best policy solutions to solve these crises.”

Hawkins adds that she was “saddened that our Holy Father choose to play right into the hands of abortion activists who still try to claim that pro-lifers don’t care about anyone other than the preborn, that somehow our belief that life is valuable stops once you exit your mother’s womb.”

Let’s be clear off the bat: I’m not a Catholic, and the closest I’ve come the Catholic Church is the combined total of four years my kids spent enrolled in preschool. But even I know that when it comes to being a devout Catholic, especially one who uses her faith as the cornerstone of her work, her activism, and her politics, well, the whole “The Pope is infallible” idea is pretty central to the dogma. I mean, picking and choosing what you want to agree with is basically what lead to Protestantism in the first place. That Hawkins even goes as far as to bring up and dismiss infallibility in connection with this Apostolic Exhortation is pretty radical for a movement that has been lockstep with the Church since the 1968 Humanae Vitae demanded even married couples abstain from using any form of birth control.

Of course there is a reason that the pro-life movement—the devoted warriors that have embraced their obsession against legal abortion with a devotion that would have Crusaders a little envious of their passion—are having such difficulty accepting, or even hearing Pope Francis’s gentle chastisement. He recognizes that the real danger is in so many Catholic leaders being so willing to throw aside every social injustice as long as it takes them a step further on their goal of returning abortion to the back alleys. After all, how can an activist work closely with Republican President Donald Trump and his administration and still think that they are doing the work of Christ?

According to Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Choice, the reason pro-life Catholic movement leaders are so resistant to the obvious message of the Pope is because they can’t admit how much they’ve compromised themselves by tying themselves to President Trump. “It’s not just that Catholic anti-abortion activists are not working on other matters of Catholic social teaching; it’s that they’ve embraced Trump, solely on the basis of his newly found anti-abortion stance—and they have ignored his approach to immigration which is both racist and elitist,” Kissling told DAME. “They’ve also ignored Trump’s sexual hedonism and sexual abuse. They know they have gone over the edge in doing so and that a strong commitment to banning abortion does not justify supporting Trump.”

As to Hawkins’s argument that abortion is settled as an “evil” whereas the other social issues that could be focused on still debatable, Kissling disagrees. She believes that making decisions about what is and isn’t “pro-life” is always a debate in an organic, evolving religion and that Hawkins is simply trying to justify her own actions. “Making judgments about what laws support life is what we are supposed to do whether the issue is war, capital punishment or abortion—or sanctuary cities,” she said.

It’s fairly obvious that the Pope’s message is an intervention for a flock of Catholic activists so lost in their newfound political power that they’ve forgotten the teachings of the church require them to care as much—if not more—for those who have been born and suffer than for those who have yet to be born at all. But like so many parents sadly watching their children go astray, no one is listening to the Holy Father at all.

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