On June 24th, a landmark decision was handed down from the Supreme Court of the United States declaring abortion to no longer be a constitutional right. This earth-shattering news coincided with the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Nativity of John the Baptist, a providential coincidence, if a coincidence at all. For my husband and me, this was news that we had personally invested years of our lives to hear. We were a part of a team that shut down our city’s abortion clinic six years ago. When the ruling came down from the state attorney general, the relief and gratitude that washed over us was very similar to the emotion that brought tears to my eyes for days after Dobbs.
Prior to our work at Right to Life, we spent several years living and working at the Catholic Worker House in an inner city neighborhood, where the ongoing efforts of loving our homeless brothers and sisters made us understand in our bones that some work never ends. “The poor you will always have with you.” This tension, the power of a changed law versus the day to day, arduous work of loving our neighbor, is one that is not going away.
We can breathe a sigh of gratitude, recognizing that something immense has occurred at the national level that has made our country more just. But on the ground, there is the vital ongoing work, now more than ever, of championing women and supporting them to be mothers, particularly those affected by the court’s ruling.
Catholic Social Teaching is the body of teaching within the Church’s Magisterium which applies directly to the human person and to the systems and communities of which she is a part. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “The value of human dignity . . . takes precedence over all political decision making.” How we think about structures, laws, individual choices, and Church teaching on any matter starts with the dignity and flourishing of each person, made in the image and likeness of God. Essentially, we must have a vision for, in the words of Peter Maurin, “a society where it is easier to be good.”
As Catholics, there are three basic postures we must think about rightly in a post-Roe world in order to move forward in building that society with the immeasurable dignity of the human person at the forefront. First, the posture of the state. Second, the posture of the Church. And third, the posture of the individual.
Abortion—the violent severing of the most basic bond between mother and child and an egregious violation of human dignity—has not been outlawed in our country. Instead, it has been taken out of the hands of the federal government and put into the hands of the states. The principle of subsidiarity, an organizing principle by which matters should be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority, is dramatically in effect with the Dobbs decision.
At the heart of subsidiarity is freedom. Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “Subsidiarity is always designed to achieve . . . emancipation because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility” (Caritas in Veritate §57). The actions of the Supreme Court call forth the responsibility of individuals and communities to act and promote the common good around the question of reproductive care, the prenatal child, and the rights of women.
In the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court determined that the federal government had overstepped its authority in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In Dobbs, the syllabus reads “the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion; Roe and Casey are overruled; and the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.” Each of the fifty states and their localized bodies of government will need to determine the role of law and state agencies in the question of women, the prenatal child, and the practice of abortion. But what is the purpose of the state? Pope Leo XIII, father of modern Catholic social doctrine, in his seminal work on capital and labor, Rerum Nevarum, wrote:
Rulers should anxiously safeguard the community and all its parts; the community, because the conservation of the community is so emphatically the business of the supreme power, that the safety of the commonwealth is not only the first law, but is a government’s whole reason for existence; and the parts, because both philosophy and the Gospel agree in laying down the object of the administration of the State should be not the advantage of the ruler, but the benefit of those over whom he rules (§35).
The posture of each state government then should be one of protection and beneficence towards the individual citizens making up its people. In order to ensure the thriving of individuals, communities, and the state as a whole, it is the state’s job to think critically about the practical questions of life in all areas which touch its citizens, or the common good.
What are the common goods surrounding the pregnant mother? Food, healthcare, living conditions, just wages, and social and emotional support are some of the most basic goods to be considered for human flourishing. Parental leave and access to childcare and education are also necessary in many cases. Creating or bolstering more substantial structures of support for the woman facing pregnancy is a primary need in post-Roe America. In fact, the proper posture of any state voting to outlaw abortion ought to be simultaneously a guarantee of these structures for any mother or father in need.
Is it always the job of the state to provide for the physical and material needs of the single mother or family? No. If that woman has a strong safety net of family, neighbors, and friends, the state need not intervene. But if that woman is without resources or friends or family to help carry her burden of motherhood, it is appropriate that the state step in to give her the necessary aid. Pope Leo introduces the language of preferential option for the poor when he writes:
When there is a question of protecting the rights of individuals, the poor and the helpless have a claim to special consideration. For the richer class, surrounded as they are by their own resources, have less need of public protection, whereas the mass of the poor, with no resources of their own to rely on, must look to the State for protection. (RN §37)
He distinguishes between this necessary aid and overstepping in the private life of the family when he cautions:
The idea, then, that the civil government should, at its own discretion, penetrate and pervade the family and the household, is a great and pernicious mistake. True, if a family finds itself in great difficulty, utterly friendless, and without prospect for help, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid; for each family is a part of the commonwealth. . . . But the rulers of the State must go no further: nature bids them stop here (RN §14).
There is a fine line between protecting a person or family in need through aid and support and overreaching one’s authority, moving toward coercion. The state forcing a Catholic hospital to offer abortions or contraception to women in the name of support, for example, would be outside the authority of the state to determine what a subsidiary organization can or cannot do for its members, given that the organization is serving its mission.
The state requiring a pregnant woman to give her child up for adoption, as Indiana inmates were forced to do in the early 20th century, or be sterilized after birth, a horrific practice still legal in several African nations and legal in many U.S. states as late as the 1970s, reveals an egregious violation of power. Remember that subsidiarity should lead to freedom. The state’s role is actually to preserve the authority of subsidiary organizations, associations and individuals and families rather than infringing upon it. This promotes human dignity and greater liberty when applied rightly.
Second, the posture of the Church. Has she outlived her usefulness when it comes to civil matters? No. She is integral in building a good and just society, critiquing and guiding rulers in their decision making, called by Martin Luther King, Jr. “the conscience of the state.” Though the modern world has often forgotten the role of spiritual authorities, in some cases even outlawing these voices in the public square, this only highlights a spiritual poverty and even greater need for the Church to courageously step into the breach.
It is the Church that proclaims from the Gospel those teachings by which . . . conflict can be brought to an end, or at least made far less bitter. The Church uses her efforts not only to enlighten the mind, but to direct by her precepts the life and conduct of men. The Church improves and ameliorates the condition of the working man by numerous useful organizations (RN §16).
Never is the Church more needed, writes Leo XIII, then in the midst of conflict and suffering and where truth and charity are most lacking. Both the world at the end of the 19th century and our world today are places of unprecedented advancements in technology and human capacities. Both Leo’s world and our own face unimagined attacks on the human person and her dignity as a result. It is the Church who can speak calm in the middle of a storm; Christ himself stands up in the boat and orders the wind and the waves: “be still!” (Mark 4:39).
How we need our pastors and our bishops to calm fears from the pulpit and in the confessional, speaking and acting with courageous charity. How we need our Catholic hospitals, scientists and teachers to grapple boldly with the ethics and truth of our place in the universe as creatures. How we need more pregnancy resource centers, counselors, social workers, adoption agencies and families to extend the hand of friendship to women in crisis pregnancy and children in the foster care system. How we need churches to open their doors in welcome to the angry and confused “enemy” in their pro-choice parishioners and neighbors. Benedict XVI reminds us that no amount of state aid or institutions can replace human goodness, the love of neighbor:
Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. . . . The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern (Deus Caritas Est §28b).
The Church should be at the very heart, then, of the work to build a just and loving society where it is easier to be good. This call to solidarity and charity was echoed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In an open letter the USCCB called upon all bishops, pastors, and the lay faithful to pick up their cross with radical love for neighbor and coworker and family member, wherever women face pregnancy and children face neglect or abandonment.
Here then is the dynamic interplay of subsidiarity with solidarity, that radical act of identifying with the other as oneself. One without the other is weak and lifeless as Pope Benedict XVI writes:
The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need (Caritas in Veritate §57).
It is the particular gift and challenge of the Church to promote and call forth this necessary balance of subsidiarity and solidarity, truth and charity. This occurs not only in word, but through the most vital grace of the Sacraments. Without Jesus Christ and his life coursing through the world in the Sacraments, we fall prey to our own error of judgment, laziness, and selfishness. The Church speaks, acts, and serves first and foremost as the minister of these Sacraments.
And finally, the individual. Each of us, no matter how little we’ve participated in politics or the culture wars surrounding abortion, have a unique, vital role to play in post-Roe America to build or a more just and loving society where it is easier to be good.
One of the first and most basic postures we ought to adopt is one of listening. When the world is full of yelling, polarized voices, it can be deafening and impossible to hear one another. The very act of sitting down with someone and listening to them in silence is a radical one. Pope Francis identified this problem of modern life, and called us to see in St. Joseph a marvelous example, saying “with his silence, he reminds us that everything begins from listening, from transcending oneself in order to be open to another person’s word and history.”
When I was in the thick of the abortion wars, I found it incredibly fruitful and even necessary to seek out my pro-choice counterparts and have coffee with them. I needed to understand where they were coming from and why they fought so adamantly for abortion rights. It was extremely eye-opening to listen to their stories and their perspectives. This helped not only with my work but also greater humility and charity in putting myself in the place of my enemies. We cannot act without understanding. Our deeds are dead if we cannot see the other as a person worthy of love.
To all women facing pregnancy, wanted or unwanted, I say that you are doing the hardest work of all. You are giving your life for your child in the ultimate act of solidarity. You are the hero of this story and the one we champion in this work. You have the capacity to bear life, to make true all that has been said here. Pope Benedict writes: “Even in the most difficult circumstances human freedom is capable of extraordinary acts of sacrifice and solidarity to welcome the life of a new human being.” To rightly understand and say yes to motherhood is the particular cross and call of women, and to you I say we are with you and we are for you.
Let us not overlook that Roe was overturned on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Four years before his death in 1903, and fifteen years before the onset of World War I, Pope Leo XIII consecrated the whole world to that most sacred heart. We do not know if he foresaw the bloody wars which would follow. What he did see was the climate of anxiety, conflict, and fear, and in that knowledge he turned to Christ’s heart flowing with love and mercy.
We find ourselves at a similar moment nearly a century and a half later, facing anxiety, conflict and fear in a divided land. I close with a portion of this powerful prayer of consecration, that the most Sacred Heart of Jesus would have mercy on us, our Church and the whole world.
Most sweet Jesus, Redeemer of the human race, look down upon us humbly prostrate before Thine altar. We are Thine, and Thine we wish to be; but, to be more surely united with Thee, behold each one of us freely consecrates himself today to Thy most Sacred Heart. Many indeed have never known Thee; many too, despising Thy precepts, have rejected Thee. Have mercy on them all, most merciful Jesus, and draw them to Thy sacred Heart.
Grant, O Lord, to Thy Church assurance of freedom and immunity from harm; give peace and order to all nations, and make the earth resound from pole to pole with one cry: « Praise be to the divine Heart that wrought our salvation; to it be glory and honor for ever. » Amen.
 Esteves, Junno. “Pope Francis: Catholic media must not fall behind in digital age.” America, The Jesuit Review. Americamagazine.org, accessed June 26, 2020.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Speech to Participants at the International Congress « Oil on the Wounds: A Response to the Aftermath of Abortion and Divorce, » April 5, 2008, http://www.zenit.org/article-22218?l=english.