Climates of life and death

Abortion and eco issues like climate change bring different threats to human life. But that doesn't mean we can't engage both.

There have been almost forty million abortions in the world so far this year. Today there will have been about 100,000.

Put more accurately, globally some forty million people were killed in their mother’s wombs, as is the case every year. 100,000 of them were killed today.

The direct death of a child at the hands of an abortionist is an event that is easy to tabulate—quantitatively and morally. An unborn child is always an innocent, and their deaths add digits to the numbers cited above.

Ecologically induced deaths can be equally easy to count and consider when the cause is tangible, like toxin exposure. More generally, however, environmental causes of death are not so easily known, especially for issues like climate change.

Even with the best available science, it is impossible to calculate which individuals died this year that would not otherwise have been killed in, say, droughts or storms worsened by climate change. Such uncertainty is one of the reasons why comparing abortion and climate change is so unhelpful.

Dr. Dana L. Dillon, a moral theologian and Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College, told Catholic Ecology that the issues of abortion and climate change should be separated. The former is always a direct action that kills an innocent human being, while climate change is the result of multiple—indeed, countless—indirect choices that are often made with good ends in mind (or at least morally neutral ends) by corporations and individual consumers.

Dillon said that ultimately “it’s a lose-lose fight” to compare two moral issues that have such unrelated causes and such varying degrees of intentionality.

In other words, carbon emissions that have ramped up the planet’s natural heat-retention properties, and the ill effects thereof, are most often the result of economies and industries that created jobs, and that produced energy sources that kept people warm and provided electricity to factories, hospitals, and homes.

No one was intending to take a life.

Dillon said that ultimately “it’s a lose-lose fight” to compare two moral issues that have such unrelated causes and such varying degrees of intentionality.

Here's a tragic case in point: posted today about Sarah Spengeman’s resignation today as Director of Programs for the US-based Catholic Climate Covenant. Lifesitenews reported that Spengeman “made comments equating the fight against ‘climate change’ with the pro-life cause in a December 3 San Diego Union-Tribune article.”

The story added that the Union-Tribune “reported that some Catholic leaders are advancing the idea that ‘climate change’ is on the same priority level as abortion or other life issues.”

Here I should note that Ms. Spengeman's original quotes in the San Diego Union-Tribune article did not make moral equivalents between abortion and eco-issues, as is claimed in the Lifesite story.

Here's what she said:

“It’s clear that climate change is a pro-life issue,” said Sarah Spengeman with Catholic Climate Covenant, a nonprofit formed in 2006 by leading U.S. bishops to work on ecological issues. “People are being killed by climate change already, so it’s very core to our beliefs.”

She added: “If we want to leave our children an inhabitable earth, if we have a responsibility to the unborn, we have a responsibly to act on climate.”

She's right. We do have a responsibility to future generations, as well as current ones. And so we need to make sure that our choices and lifestyles will not create future harms. That seems to me to fall under the banner of respecting human life.

Note also that I don’t know why Lifesitenews places the term climate change in quotations, but I assume they’re meant to call climate science into question.

There have been attempts of late in the eco-world, in this blog as well, to express ecology as a pro-life issue—which seems self-evident, given that the planet's ecosystems are necessary for human life. There have even been talks among Catholic eco-advocates about how to better work with and support the traditional pro-life movement out of such shared concerns. (This has happened in other countries. Stay tuned for reports on that.)

I've attempted to explore this life-ecology link here in the blog and in a number of essays for Catholic World Report and elsewhere, and especially with evangelical colleagues in the Joint Declaration of Life. (In part, the declaration notes that "We also understand that these links do not imply equivalencies between particular moral concerns and issues. We therefore do not demand equalities among the myriad matters of life where none exist. Rather, we seek to call attention to, and benefit from, naturally occurring relationships between human life—from conception until natural death—and the ecological systems that sustain and foster it.") Unfortunately the life-eco link is resisted by some, especially many long-time frontline activists inspired to overturn Roe v. Wade—brothers and sisters who have sacrificed and labored for decades without the benefit of secular institutional support (from the media, from academia, etc.) that pro-environment forces have always counted on.

Clearly there is more work ahead for Catholic eco-advocates to feel welcome in the traditional pro-life movement, and vice versa.

The Spengeman episode is regrettable for many reasons. The folks at the Catholic Climate Covenant do fine work bringing magisterial eco-teachings to Catholics in the pews and in the pulpit.

Anti-life currents have been swirling everywhere humans go since that fateful moment in Eden. Which is yet another reason why the Church must be authentically present within ongoing eco-advocacy groups, so that our voice can bring Christ's gospel of life.

Likewise, the folks at Lifesite are important front-line warriors in the culture battles for human life. They were especially helpful getting out the news last year of the videos by the Center for Medical Progress that exposed Planned Parenthood’s diabolical practice of harvesting and selling body parts of their unborn victims.

Moreover, I understand and sympathize with their worries—and those of many in the pro-life movement. The story explains that "[p]ro-lifers continually point out and express concern over how environmental advocacy is more often than not tied to population control, abortion, contraception, and other issues that conflict with Church teaching.”

They do have a point there.

But my argument has always been that, yes, there are anti-life currents in many secular (and some Catholic) eco-circles. No surprise there. Anti-life currents have been swirling everywhere humans go since that fateful moment in Eden. Which is yet another reason why the Church must be authentically present within ongoing eco-advocacy groups, so that our voice can bring Christ's gospel of life.

Otherwise anti-life eco-advocates will win the day and life will lose—again.

I once blogged about this at length with the help of contemporary theologians. It's worth a read. But to sum up the points of that post, allow me to quote Benedict XVI:

Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment, and damages society. (Caritas in Veritate, 51)

Sadly, we live in a polarized age—an age in which different political, social, and, yes, even scientific beliefs often come siloed and ready made for those on one side of the isle and those on the other.

Satan, of course, must be very happy with things as they stand. And that means that prayer and, with God’s grace, the work to bridge divides and build trust among these “sides” is all the more our responsibility.

Indeed, when it comes to building a world rooted in a culture of life—in which we understand and challenge all direct and indirect threats to human life—Dr. Dillon had this to say:

“Wherever possible, Christians should be engaging the fight of how to save the most lives, how to live the holiest lives, not just the question of which issue is worst.”

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.