In his wonderful address to a group of Italian gynecologists (my translation attempt here) on September 20, Pope Francis made his first address as Pope on the subject of bioethics.  Following on the heels of his interview to Jesuit periodicals, this allocution is a clear example of Pope Francis attempting to present Church teaching as a positive whole, rather than as a series of prohibitions.  In doing so, he presents a beautifully Christian bioethics, one that elevates traditional notions of "do no harm" by identifying patients with the suffering Christ.Pope Francis blesses baby before his inaugural mass

Progress and Waste: the Modern Paradox

Pope Francis begins by laying out the paradoxical modern medical situation: One the one hand we have witnessed incredible medical advances; on the other hand, doctors are losing their identities as servants of life as a result of what Francis called "the cultural disorientation" ("il disorientamento culturale").  The Holy Father points out that medicine's disregard for human life diminishes other forms of societal recognition of life.  This diminishing of man's moral sense lessens his capacity for mutual support of his neighbor, for the poor, for the sick, and for the defenseless, because what is transcendent in man (the imprint of God's image upon his nature) is being disregarded.

The Holy Father invoked a striking image after which medical practitioners should aspire: that of a "co-mother."  The Pope emphasized the "humanity" with which medical practitioners must be instilled.  Charmingly, he recalled to the doctors the fact that in the Italian language, midwives were called "co-mothers" (Italian comadre).  The doctor's mission of promoting and fostering life is so central that the doctor should be viewed as almost "another mother, along with the true mother."

His Holiness speaks of the "culture of waste" as the antinomy of a respect for this divine image in man.  Through an excessive focus on worldly success and material prosperity, human beings (particularly those in the weakest physical and societal condition) become expendable.  The societal "cost" of an unwanted pregnancy is deemed too high; thus, the unborn child, who cannot defend himself, becomes expendable.

While acknowledging the simple truth of our shared human nature, Pope Francis attempts to put a more relatable face on the unborn and the weak: the face of the suffering Christ.  He says, "Every child that is not born, but condemned unjustly to being aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord, who even before he is born, and then as soon as he is born, experiences the rejection of the world."

In the final point of his address, Francis encouraged doctors to become witnesses to and transmitters of a culture of life.  Doctors must strive to establish coherence between their beliefs and their medical practices, the Pope teaches, but this balance alone is insufficient.  Rather, doctors must strive, through their ethical practice of medicine, to impart to all they encounter a profound respect for the transcendent dignity of human life, "the imprint of the creative work of God."  Through their work, the Pope hopes that gynecology clinics could become "privileged places of witness and evangelization."  He echoed the words of Benedict XVI by affirming that the transmission of medical care is not a job, "but a mission; where the charity of the Good Samaritan is in the first place, and where the face of suffering man is the Face of Christ."

Providing a Context: Exhibit A of Franciscan Evangelization

The media, as usual, has utterly missed the point of what the Pope is doing here.  He is not simply "blasting abortion" or, even sillier, "extending an olive branch to conservatives" following his lengthy interview that was released a day prior.

As the Pope said in his interview, "But when we speak about these issues [abortion, contraception, homosexuality], we have to talk about them in a context" (my emphasis).  Clearly, the Pope was not saying that the Church should never speak about abortion, let alone abandon its teaching.  Rather, the Church, he insists, must give the more fundamental and more positive context in which this teaching is set.

Pope Francis does this by first throwing his support behind traditional Western conceptions of medical ethics.  The traditional goals of a doctor's service were, as Pope Francis rightly identifies, the preservation and fostering of the lives of patients.  The motive for viewing human life as this good to be achieved, the Holy Father acknowledges, is our common human nature, one which we can identify (because of humanity's unique capacities for understanding, free will, cognition, etc.) as having a unique status, greater than that of all other animals.  The Hippocratic Oath's primary principle of "do no harm" is a profound expression of reverence for the dignity of the human person.  Just as we hold our own lives to be precious and inviolable, so too the lives of patients (who are in a weak, perilous, vulnerable state) must be carefully guarded and fostered.

Pope Francis then goes deeper into the question, and gives a Christian face to these traditional ethical norms by identifying the patient with the suffering Christ.  Christ himself says, "Whereupon the just will answer . . . 'When was it that we saw thee sick or in prison and came to thee?'  And the King will answer them, 'Believe me, when you did it to one of the least of my brethren here, you did it to me' " (St. Matthew, 25:37-40). The entirety of the Pope's speech clearly gives expression to this Gospel passage.

Opposition to abortion is therefore not simply based on negative prohibitions, but on love.  It is the same love that has compelled the Church in every era, including our own, to exhaust itself in the service of the poor, sick, and weak.  The Church loves the "least of my brethren" because she loves Christ.

This is precisely the kind of "context" that Pope Francis believes necessary for a fruitful proclamation of the Gospel.  As much as the media may mischaracterize it, this speech was not "obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently," as the Holy Father had said in his interview.  Rather, it focuses on the foundational philosophical and theological principles undergirding the Church's profound respect for human life, from which the prohibition of abortion flows.  As the Pope said, "Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus."


I was incredibly happy to see the Holy Father speak on abortion in this fashion, particularly in light of his interview's commonly perceived implication that the Church should talk about these issues less.  In a few days I hope to continue this discussion by analyzing the kind of tone the Church ought to adopt in approaching and answering these questions.

In the meantime, I will simply say this: Thank you, Holy Father, for defending the dignity of the human person, the dignity of the unborn, and the dignity of the medical profession.  We, your faithful sons and daughters, beg you never to cease to fight for the protection of all frail and vulnerable human life.