26 March 2020, The Tablet

What Covid-19 means for the Catholic Church's pro-life agenda

What Covid-19 means for the Catholic Church's pro-life agenda

A senior Coast Guard officer in Taean, 150 kilometers southwest of Seoul, gives blood during a donation drive on March 26, 2020.
Yonhap/Yonhap News Agency/PA Images

Many things are changing now, and one that is apparent is that the Covid-19 pandemic will shift the priorities of the Church’s pro-life agenda, forcing it to focus on the broader canvas of preventing disease rather than abortion alone. 

During his live-streamed audience on 25 March, Pope Francis said Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life was needed more than ever in the context of coronavirus. He referred to Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life, a landmark document which emphasised the Church’s opposition to abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia and murder. 

“Today, we find ourselves relaunching this teaching in the context of a pandemic that threatens human life and the world economy,” Francis said. “A situation that makes the words with which the encyclical begins even more demanding.”

The encyclical begins by stating that “the Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message” and is to be preached with “dauntless fidelity” to the people of every age and culture. 

Protecting life by stopping the spread of Covid-19 has led the Church to take extraordinary measures. Public worship has been suspended across Europe and many churches closed. The highly contagious nature of coronavirus means that sharing the sacraments, which sit at the heart of the Church, could put people’s lives at risk. 

Some have said Masses should not have been cancelled. Cardinal Raymond Burke, a leading voice of the Church’s traditionalist wing, says: “It is essential for us, at all times and above all in times of crisis, to have access to our churches and chapels, to the Sacraments, and to public devotions and prayers.”

Meanwhile Rusty Reno, the editor of the publication "First Things”, has questioned the lockdowns in many countries writing: “There are many things more important than physical survival – love, honour, beauty, and faith." Reno’s article argues that the dislocation of lives caused by shutdowns is simply not worth it. Here he echoes President Donald Trump who argues the “cure” for coronavirus cannot be worse than the problem. The president, who has won many Catholic plaudits for his anti-abortion stance, wants the United States’ economy fully functioning again at Easter despite the health warnings.

But where does that sit with the Church’s teaching to protect all life, from conception until natural death? The crisis calls for difficult decisions to be made, but a position which puts the economy ahead of public health is not a pro-life one. And while his argument is well-intentioned, Cardinal Burke’s plea goes against all medical advice. The pro-life position must find a way to respond to a situation where, tragically, people gathering for Mass will cost lives. 

Both Cardinal Burke and First Things are vocal pro-life campaigners who are outspoken anti-abortion campaigners on the grounds of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life in the womb. But Church tradition goes further than a single issue, and Covid-19 reinforces this dramatically. In reality, Catholic teaching on life is not just about abortion: it is a “seamless garment” where campaigning to stop terminations happens alongside protecting child refugees and stopping the death penalty. With coronavirus the garment is being extended to stop the spread of disease and save lives.

As the Pope said on Wednesday: “The life we are called to promote and defend is not an abstract concept, but always manifests itself in a person in flesh and blood: a newly conceived child, a poor marginalised person, a sick person alone and discouraged or in a terminal state, one who has lost his job or is unable to find it, a rejected or ghettoised migrant.”

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