09/09/2014 04:29 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

Standing With Pope Francis for Human Life and Dignity

Though some American Catholics imagine that being 'pro-life' means, and only means, being anti-abortion, such a use of the term distorts and misrepresents what it means for the Catholic Church.

In making economic justice and a more equal distribution of the world resources second to none in his priorities, Pope Francis points the way forward to a broader use of the term pro-life. And there are important ways in which other Catholic leaders, the U.S. bishops among them, have highlighted how this country must change policies and practices that treat human life, and especially the lives of the poor, as of no value.

Under the heading Human Life and Dignity, the web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops addresses a broad range of issues, among them the rights of workers, the abolition of the death penalty, access to affordable healthcare, and a more humane approach to immigration policies.

Not only Pope Francis, but a whole series of popes since Leo XIII (pope 1878-1903) have insisted on fair treatment of workers, including decent working conditions and the provision of a living wage, that is, a wage adequate to live on. In the U.S., the federal minimum wage likely needs to be doubled in order for it to be a living wage. Some states are making important strides in this direction, but others are happy to leave those who work the hardest, and who work the longest hours, in a poverty that mocks the notion that hard work pays off.

The working poor must be paid a living wage, in order that they may leave poverty behind. The right of workers to organize in order to obtain just wages and working conditions is central to what the Catholic Church teaches about human dignity. To be authentically pro-life is to support justice for workers; without adequate resources to live on, workers see the dignity of their lives corroded daily. The teaching of the Catholic Church is unambiguous in its defense of workers against the stinginess of corporations and individuals and institutions that refuse to pay just wages.

In 1999, on a visit to St. Louis, Pope John Paul II appealed to the governor of Missouri for the life of a death row inmate to be spared. The governor granted the pope's request. This was a victory for Pope John Paul's inclusive pro-life agenda. Repeatedly, the U.S. bishops have called for an end to the death penalty. Though capital punishment has been abolished in several states in recent years, there remains much to be done, especially in southern states.

It makes no sense at all to call oneself pro-life but advocate the death penalty. Recent instances of botched executions resulting in torture make the urgency of abolition of death penalty even clearer. Indeed, attitudes on such abolition may offer a useful test of the authenticity and coherence of a pro-life stance.

Much media attention has been given to Catholic and other criticism of the Affordable Care Act in relation to provision of contraception. And yet such attention has largely missed a more fundamental issue: Catholic support of what that Act attempts to do, that is, make health care accessible to everyone regardless of ability to pay. The U.S. bishops have called for expansion of Medicaid throughout the country, an expansion adopted thus far in about half the states. In the other states, for what appear to be but partisan, political reasons, millions of people continue to be denied access to the care they need.

To separate guaranteed accessibility of health care from political squabbling and from ability or inability to pay is to be pro-life; to exclude from health care those unable to pay is to promote lives crippled by disease and shortened by premature death. Though the Affordable Care Act is far from perfect -- indeed, it does not go far enough in making health care accessible to all -- it is for the most part a step in the right direction, that is, in a direction that promotes human life and dignity by making health care available to all.

Pope Francis has drawn repeated attention to the plight of migrants and refugees, and to the need for a conversion of heart on the part of those that seek only to humiliate, scapegoat, exclude, and punish them. He has made the world pay attention to the avoidable deaths of many poor, innocent migrants. While persons that shout the loudest for the hateful policies that lead to such deaths assert that they are only enforcing the law, have they considered the need to change or replace unjust laws? A few months ago, some of the U.S. bishops traveled to Nogales, on the U.S./Mexican border, in order to stand with so-called 'illegal' immigrants and to raise awareness of the need for major changes in U.S. policies.

The hypocrisy of those that demonize and blame immigrants for every problem is scandalous; such hypocrites often come from families in this country for but a generation or two. How those families came to the U.S. may or may not have been legal at the time, but the point Pope Francis keeps making is more significant. He affirms the common humanity of every human being, no matter one's nationality or place of birth or race or language or religion. To be genuinely pro-life is to stand with Pope Francis in defending migrants and refugees anywhere and everywhere against those that see them as but a nuisance and a threat to be dealt with harshly.

Pope Francis may visit the U.S. a year from now, in Sept. 2015. Such a visit could do much to promote the common good, to promote a culture of universal sisterhood and brotherhood, and to enhance the dignity and the lives of workers, of the poor, of the sick, of prisoners, and of migrants and refugees. May Pope Francis continue to be a courageous voice for those that others would but silence and trample underfoot.