Pope Francis raised eyebrows in the United States on Sunday when he connected two lightning rods on the nation's political landscape—abortion and the White House's recent bid to rescind protections for undocumented early arrivals. "The President of the United States presents himself as pro-life and if he is a good pro-lifer, he understands that family is the cradle of life and its unity must be protected," the pope told the press after his return from a trip to Colombia.
The connection between the two was not immediately apparent, at least to the non-Catholic eye. At a glance, it appeared the pope was compounding one hotly debated question of civil liberties with another. But the pontiff is known for speaking in catechismal riddles that are ultimately designed to elucidate—for President Donald Trump and the greater American public—fraught ethical issues; to understand is forcibly to dig a little deeper.
The pope's criticism followed an announcement issued by the Department of Justice on September 5th saying the president would rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which offered temporary protection from deportation and work permissions for undocumented people who arrived as children. DACA had been a centerpiece of former President Barack Obama's action on immigration.
Sunday's comments are certainly a great deal more pointed than Pope Francis' have been in the past. Addressing the Congress on a September of 2015 visit to the U.S., he observed that he and many in the audience were immigrants and that immigrants deserve respect. The pontiff has directly opposed Trump's anti-immigrant policy. In February, just after Trump's inauguration, Pope Francis famously said in a public address that Christians must "not raise walls but bridges, to not respond to evil with evil, to overcome evil with good." In that instance, Francis stopped short of uttering Trump's name.
Some may have found Sunday's comparison perplexing, others saw in it a bit of characteristic humor. "The pope has a very Latino sense of humor, and it is wonderful that his voice is not censored at such important moments in global affairs," says Loyola Marymount University Chicana/o studies professor Deena González, adding that the pope's comment was an "interesting twist on the meaning of 'pro-life' because the traditional meaning seems more concerned about 'conception' than about life on death row, for example, or on a battlefield."
In his comments on DACA, the pope appears to take on a prominent inconsistency of ethics in not just the Trump White House, but one that is also prevalent in the U.S.
Roughly the same number—around 70 percent—of Republicans oppose abortion and support the death penalty, according to the most recent Pew Research poll data. This is the same party that, under the presidency of George W. Bush, entered the U.S. into costly—in both currency and lives—wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The opposite is also true, of course: Democrats and social progressives oftentimes support abortion rights and oppose the death penalty and U.S. military action abroad. The difference is that they often do not believe life to begin at conception.
There is a faction of abortion opponents, however—lesser known in the U.S., although it actually includes the Vatican—whose ethics aren't so self-contradictory. Like most American abortion opponents, Consistent Life Ethicists—a term coined in a 1971 speech by then-archbishop of Boston, Humberto Medeiros—believe life begins at conception, but where they believe abortion is killing, they also typically oppose the death penalty and war.
"The pope has a very Latino sense of humor, and it is wonderful that his voice is not censored at such important moments in global affairs."
It was unclear at first how proponents of undocumented immigrant rights would view the pope's comments; many undocumented immigrants in the U.S. were raised in devout Catholic families, but many of the former DACA recipients—or DACAmented people, as many refer to themselves in jest—are women, affected like all American women by the growing restrictions on reproductive procedures here.
Many say that the pope's comments weren't directed at abortion or DACA; the targets were instead Trump, his administration, and, more broadly, Trump supporters—all caught in an instance of what the pontiff had deemed unchristian moral hypocrisy.
"The phrase 'pro-life' is coopted by anti-abortionists, but to the faithful Catholic—of which I consider myself—'pro-life' is protecting the sanctity and dignity of human life from natural conception to natural death," says a spokesperson for DREAM Team Los Angeles, an advocacy organization that originally authored the administrative relief proposal that became DACA in 2012. The spokesperson asked not to be named. "The bottom line is that being 'pro-life' is more than anti-abortion, it is an active protection for the most vulnerable among us. At the core of this teaching is the family unit, that the family is an extension of the covenant that God has for his people."
The view of advocates like the spokesperson is that immigrants' rights are women's rights—and that reproductive issues can often compound issues of immigration to result in even greater suffering for undocumented women.
"More than half of all undocumented people are women, so that fact immediately makes deportation an issue for women's rights," Alejandra Marchevsky, the director of the Program in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at California State University–Los Angeles. "There is ample evidence that being undocumented subjects women to specific forms of gendered violence, from rape and sexual abuse while migrating to the U.S. and being jailed in immigration detention centers, to labor exploitation, to sexual harassment in the workplace, to legitimate fear over reporting domestic violence to the police due to the threat of deportation."
And yet the focal point of what the pope was saying was neither abortion nor DACA, Marchevsky says.
"The pope has rightly pointed out a central contradiction in conservatives' claims to be pro-life at the same time that they advocate for many policies such as deportation and cuts to medical insurance that are, in fact, both anti-life and anti-family. President Trump's decision to rescind DACA perfectly illustrates this contradiction," Marchevsky adds. "Deportation is an anti-family and anti-life policy."
Church members agree; just as the pope has spoken indirectly to the Trump administration's anti-immigrant policy, so too was abortion used as a means of addressing a deeper, underlying lack of consistent ethics.
"The Holy Father has noted that it is possible to become 'obsessed' with the evil of abortion and fail to see the entire gamut of life issues in all their complexity and urgency," adds Father Allan Figueroa Deck, a scholar of theological and Latino studies at Loyola Marymount University. "Refugees and immigrants, whether authorized or not, are persons whose lives are seriously in jeopardy and society has a responsibility to do what it can to protect the dignity and life of these very vulnerable persons. If we show concern for fetuses we must show it also for refugees and immigrants."
For many DACAmented people themselves, the pope's message was very clear and necessary, regardless of their stances on abortion.
"Trump should be promoting laws and policies that benefit the people he serves and help people thrive," says Vania Agama-Ramirez, a DACAmented student at the University of California–Irvine who arrived in the U.S. as a one-year-old and works three jobs to help support her family and pay for her education. Agama-Ramirez now faces an uncertain future—barring congressional action, she may be forced to return to a country where she never learned to navigate employment, public services, and incomprehensible social nuances. She speaks Spanish in the home, but has never had to write a professional correspondence or academic work in that language.
"Rescinding DACA does the opposite and can not be seen as a 'pro-life' choice, when his action ultimately decreases the quality of life of DACA recipients and places them in situations of danger and uncertainty," Agama-Ramirez says.
Karen Zapien, another DACAmented recent graduate from California State–Fullerton, agreed. "If you are truly pro-life, you cannot split up families. I feel that's what [the pope] was getting at."
Agama and Zapien's readings—almost theological in their ability to see beyond the mundane—reveal a pope endeavoring to treat a subject weighing heavily on many minds in the U.S. with a sort of liturgical nuance.