James Martin, S.J.
Whenever I say that I am pro-life, it always surprises some people—which always surprises me.
Last summer I attended a conference on polarization in the Catholic Church, held at Georgetown University. One evening, when I mentioned my pro-life convictions to a participant, her face registered shock. “I’m so relieved to hear that,” she said.
Maybe because I also advocate for refugees and migrants, L.G.B.T. people and the environment—causes usually championed by those who identify as politically progressive—some people tell me that they wonder about the sincerity of my public comments in support of unborn children. By the same token, others with whom I share common ground on a variety of social justice issues often express discomfort, disappointment and even anger when I use the phrase “pro-life.”
So perhaps it would be helpful to explain what I mean when I say that I am pro-life. And I would invite you to consider this more as a profession of faith than as a political argument.
The best way of explaining my belief is this: The longer I live, the more I grow in awe of God’s creative activity and in reverence for God’s creation.
I see God’s creative activity in countless ways, but mainly in the ways that God is active in the spiritual lives of people with whom I minister. Over the last 25 years, I have accompanied perhaps hundreds of people in my ministry as a spiritual director—that is, someone who helps people notice God in their daily lives and in their prayer.
In the process I have seen first-hand how God encounters individuals in breathtakingly, sometimes nearly miraculously personal ways. With one person, God encounters him or her through a powerful experience in private prayer, with another during an almost mystical experience amid nature, with another in a conversation that suddenly heals an old emotional wound. The expression “God meets people where they are” captures some of this reality—but only a little. God’s ability to enter a person’s life in ways that are perfectly tailored to that life always amazes me.
The more I see this, the more my awe of God’s creative activity naturally grows.
But I notice God’s creative activity in other ways, too. The birth of my two nephews, who are now 20 and 13 years old, profoundly deepened my appreciation for the mystery of life. When I first saw my oldest nephew in the hospital a few hours after his birth, I was tremendously moved. After returning home, I wept for joy, completely overwhelmed by the gift and vulnerability of God’s new creation. Over the years I’ve watched them learn how to eat, sit up, talk, crawl, laugh, walk, read, run, ride bikes, make jokes, throw a ball, drive a car and take joy in the world.
Recently I had dinner with my older nephew and thought, “I can’t believe that he didn’t exist 20 years ago” and felt a surge of gratitude for God’s grace. (I knew enough not to tell him this, since he’d probably say, “Uncle Jim, give me a break!” Or more likely, “Uh huh.”)
The more I reflect on this the more my reverence for God’s creation grows. All of this naturally increases my reverence for the life of the child in the womb.
Now, as a man and a priest, and therefore someone who will never experience the joys and challenges of being a mother, someone who will never have to make a decision about an abortion and someone in a position of some power in the church, I recognize the limitations of my experience. And I recognize that many women consider it offensive to hear this from a man—because they have told me.
Many women whom I love, respect and admire support abortion rights and see these rights as a constitutive part of their authority over their own bodies. And who can doubt that over the centuries, women have been dominated and abused by men—even men responsible for providing them with legal, pastoral and medical care?
But acknowledging that women’s bodies are their own does not diminish my own reverence for the living body in a woman’s womb. Thus, I cannot deny that I see the child in the womb, from the moment of his or her conception, as a creation of God, deserving of our respect, protection and love. Mysterious, precious, unique, infinite, made in the image and likeness of God. Holy.
And my respect for life extends to life at every stage, a feeling that has only grown though my experiences in various ministries during my 30 years as a Jesuit—for example, with refugees.
For two years, as a young Jesuit in the early 1990s, I worked in Kenya with refugees from around East Africa, who, in search of a safe life for their families, had fled war-torn countries like Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia and Rwanda, and settled in the slums of Nairobi. There, along with colleagues from the Jesuit Refugee Service, I helped them start small businesses to support themselves.
Many of them had suffered the severest losses in their home countries, tragedies that might seem unbelievable to some—seeing spouses hacked to death with machetes before them; watching their children have their throats slit; and being brutalized, kidnapped and tortured themselves. Sometimes people think I am concocting these stories. I’m not. I have met these people, and in many cases have seen the proof: medical records, newspaper clippings, gruesome scars.
Their lives were devalued, threatened and imperiled. It’s no wonder that refugees and migrants flee their home countries. Nearly all of them flee to save their lives and protect the lives of their children. So when I think of “life issues” I often think of the 68 million refugees, migrants and internally displaced people whose most important “pro-life activity” is to flee. Their lives are often at risk not just in their home countries, but also in transit through the deserts and on the seas, and later in teeming refugee camps, where, despite many noble efforts, they and their children die due to lack of food, sanitation and medicine.
Every life is precious to God—including the lives of refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons. In other words, the life of a child at a border is precious, just as the life of a child in the womb is precious.
To take another non-traditional “life issue,” think about L.G.B.T. people. In the past few years I have learned a great deal about how these precious lives are also in grave danger. Consider this: lesbian, gay and bisexual youth in the United States are almost five timesas likely to commit suicide than their straight counterparts. In many countries around the world, a gay person is at serious risk of being beaten or killed if his or her sexuality is discovered, and in eight countries homosexual acts are punishable with the death penalty. And in the last 10 years, over 3,000transgender people have been murdered worldwide, and the most common causes of their deaths are shootings, stabbings and beatings.
In some places, then, L.G.B.T. issues are truly life issues. The life of an L.G.B.T. teenager in a family that rejects them is precious, just as the life of a child in the womb is precious.
I could also tell you about many other vulnerable lives that I have encountered as a Jesuit, which are equally valuable in the eyes of God: the lives of patients with traumatic brain injuries confined for years in a hospital in Cambridge, Mass.; the lives of the poor, sick and dying men and women in their final days at Mother Teresa’s hospice in Kingston, Jamaica; the lives of street-gang members in the violent, deadly and now-demolished housing projects in Chicago; the lives of men who have attempted suicide and who now sit in solitary confinement in a prison in Boston. All these people are God’s beloved children, made in God’s own image.
So my respect for life extends to all people, but most especially those whose lives are at risk: the unborn child, to be sure, but also the refugee whose life is threatened by war, the L.G.B.T. young person tempted to commit suicide, the homeless person whose life is endangered by malnutrition, the uninsured sick person with no health care, the elderly person in danger of being euthanized, the inmate on death row. I have come to value all life, from conception to natural death, and believe that our laws should reflect this important principle.
Sometimes this is referred to as the “consistent ethic of life” or the “seamless garment” approach, a reference to the robe stripped from Jesus before his crucifixion and for which soldiers cast lots (Jn 19:23-24). It has been criticized unfairly by some people as “watering down” pro-life activities. One strong advocate of that approach, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the late archbishop of Chicago, lamented it was wrongly used in that way. But the misuse of a principle does not invalidate it.
In fact, the point of the consistent ethic of life is not that we should focus on other issues instead of abortion, but that our witness for social justice and in defense of all life is strengthened when we base it clearly and consistently on the recognition of the dignity of every human life at every stage.
No less a person than St. John Paul II, in his encyclical “The Gospel of Life” (“Evangelium Vitae”), pointed to several “life issues” beyond abortion, invoking the Didache, one of the most ancient Christian texts outside the Bible, which dates to the first century. The Didache (which means “teaching” in Greek) not only inveighed against abortion but also condemned those who “show no compassion for the poor” and who “do not suffer with the suffering.”
In his encyclical, John Paul highlighted not only “the ancient threats of scourges of poverty, hunger, endemic disease, violence and war but also “new threats.” “Evangelium Vitae” joined with the Second Vatican Council in “forcefully condemning” practices that are “opposed to life itself.”
The long list often surprises people, but it is a reminder of the breadth of human life and the many threats to it.
…any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed.
Today we could add even more to St. John Paul’s list. The threats to human life in all its diversity grow with each passing year.
Perhaps it is time to expand our understanding of what it means to be pro-life. During the Georgetown University conference, I met many thoughtful people who proposed other ways of framing the discussion: “Whole Life,” “One Life,” “Every Life.” These may be some helpful ways forward.
What would help even more than a new label is for all of us to care for every life. For the refugee advocate to care passionately about the unborn. And for the pro-life marcher to care passionately about the migrant. We should care for all life.
Because, as our faith teaches, as I have learned, and as I believe, every life is sacred.
James Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit priest and editor at large at America. He is consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication and author of many books, including most recently Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity.