What it means to be pro-life in a secular world

By Nuala Kenny OC MD, 16 December 2020
Image: Supplied


The Church’s credibility is damaged when the definition of “life” is reduced to a single issue

As an American, I followed the recent US elections with great pain and anxiety for many reasons.

Primarily, this was because of the destructive, irreconcilable and theologically and politically polarised divisions which were so evident. My sorrow was intensified because these divisions were inflamed by Church leadership.

I became increasingly angry that a corrupted understanding of being “pro-life” became central to the chaos.

I have been totally dismayed by the judgment that Donald Trump was the “pro-life” candidate and Joe Biden, a faithful, practising Catholic with a long record of practical witness to Catholic social teaching, was not “pro-life.”

The judgement was based on the single issue of abortion rather than commitment to a consistent ethic for the full and seamless web of life:

Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, … whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children…disgraceful working conditions are a supreme dishonour to the Creator (Gaudium et Spes).

Pope Francis has expressed concern about the single issue judgment in these words:

Our defence of the innocent unborn…needs to be clear, firm and passionate…Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection (Gaudete et Exsultateno.101).

From the vantage point of religious life, medicine and ministry

I entered the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1962 and am a naturalised Canadian, with dual citizenship.

My ministries include almost forty years of paediatric practice caring for victims of physical and sexual abuse and seriously ill and dying patients and a professor of medical ethics with interest in care of the dying, and just health care policy.

My whole life has been dedicated to teaching and practising “pro-life” guided by the words and witness of Jesus, the Church’s moral teaching and the principles of Catholic social teaching: the dignity the human person, solidarity, subsidiarity, commitment to the common good and the preferential option for the poor. I have learned how difficult this is in a pluralist, secular society.

Clergy abuse

For almost forty years, I have worked on healing the Church from the clergy sexual abuse crisis since my participation as the paediatrician on the Archdiocesan Commission of Inquiry on Clergy Sexual Abuse in St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.

There are horrific psychological, physical and spiritual consequences of childhood sexual abuse, most of it life-long.

I have been baffled that, in a Church with a strong commitment to the unborn, the sexual abuse of born children and youth has not been considered a “pro-life” issue.

The credibility of the Church has been profoundly damaged.

Care of the dying

I have a long history of educating Catholics in the tradition of a “good death” and national multi-sectoral policy work for effective, accessible hospice and palliative care for all.

I have assisted the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to defeat repeated legislative attempts to legalise medically assisted death.

Since a February 2015 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, which decriminalised medically assisted death for a stunningly broad range of “grievous” medical conditions, I have worked tirelessly to educate Catholics regarding this medicalisation of suffering and to protect the most vulnerable from its abuse, especially the poor, handicapped, mentally challenged, and elderly.

As an ethicist, I have worked for just health care policy.

From the Catholic perspective, this requires a commitment to solidarity and the common good and recognition of health care as an element of the common good, not a market good.

I have worked at the national level for the expansion of universal single-payer health care, not its restriction, and the promotion of public health. Solidarity demands care for the environment and resisting unjust economic policies.


Donald Trump fails egregiously on all pro-life issues except the legalisation of abortion. He also actively promotes division.

On the full range of life issues, Joe Biden practices pro-life. He is personally opposed to abortion, but he is president for all and recognises the separation of Church and state. Abortion is legal.

Rather than celebration of a Catholic President-elect who understands the Church as a sacrament of unity and has committed to healing the divisions manifested in the election, Archbishop Gomez, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and a member of Opus Dei, has struck a committee to assess Biden on abortion so he “does not confuse Catholics about Church teaching”.

Many would deny Communion to politicians like Biden under Canon 915 which states that Communion should not be given to those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.”

But if you deny the sacrament to those who respect legal abortion, then you must also deny it to those who support the death penalty and unjust economic policies that privilege the wealthy, harm the poor and further environmental degradation.

Canon 18 says that Church sanctions should be interpreted narrowly and Canon 912 argues that baptised persons have a right to the Eucharist. Pope Francis says that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington has said he will not deny Biden communion. He expects respectful dialogue as they work together but also to raise matters of Church concern.

Pope Francis writes in his latest encyclical Fratelli tutti:

Let us be committed to living and teaching the value of respect for others, a love capable of welcoming differences, and the priority of the dignity of every human being over his or her ideas, opinions practices an even sin.

Unless there is a more serious reflection on what it means to be pro-life today, no Catholic will be able to enter politics in our secular world.

Nuala Kenny is a Sister of Charity in Halifax, Nova Scotia and a paediatrician. An officer of the Order of Canada since 1999, she has published several books, including Healing the Church (Novalis, 2012) and Rediscovering the Art of Dying (2017). She is co-author of Still Unhealed: Treating the Pathology in the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis (Novalis and Twenty-Third Publications, 2019).

Reproduced with permission from La Croix International.


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