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Whole-life perspective: How one young activist thinks about social justice

(A series of columns focused on and written by millennials and young adults)

By Jeanne Marie Hathway
Catholic News Service

Jeanne Marie Hathway

As a college student, I spend much of my time deliberating the great questions of our day, not least among them: the limp salad or the pizza? Shredded carrots and dressing could spruce up the former; the latter’s grease I could dab off.

But increasingly, the minimal effort required to render the inedible appealing is daunting enough that I choose not to eat at all. It’s a pathetic defeat. I’m not blind to the privilege of a cafeteria at my disposal, but I know that neither will satisfy my hunger.

Young Catholics today find ourselves in a similar type of political cafeteria of options ranging from unsavory to utterly unfit-for-consumption. The preparatory document for the 2018 synod on youth discusses the despair that arises from this situation, naming young people’s “resignation or fatigue in their will to desire” in the face of causes they wish to champion. In my experience, this fatigue is traced to the fear that embracing one movement means abandoning others.

Our current political atmosphere forces us to choose which demographic plights we find most compelling: Will we vote to support the unborn, people of color, women, people experiencing poverty or immigrants and refugees?

Suffering does not discriminate. But neither does the love of the cross. Poor options in the voting booth have blurred the line between the issues we feel passionate about and the people we give our compassion to.

(CNS illustration/Nancy Wiechec)

My peers and I reject this equivocation. We are too sensitive to hypocrisy. Social media has afforded us interconnectedness and access to information. False dilemmas threaten our desire for consistency and truth.

Thankfully, there is an antidote: the whole-life perspective. Also known as the “consistent-life ethic” or the “seamless garment approach,” it is the unwavering belief that all life is inherently valuable and worthy of protection. Many consider it the natural progression of the pro-life movement because it points beyond the symptomatic issues of the culture of death to their causes: poverty, forced migration, and lack of education and health care.

[RelatedIn light of faith: Church asks young people for ideas]

When my peers and I look at the issue of abortion, we look to the underlying causes that might drive a woman to conclude that she has no other choice. What societal structures require reform (maternity leave, child care, education, health care) to make abortion not only illegal, but unthinkable?

The whole-life movement confirms our instinct that the preciousness of human life should be the starting point of policy, not an occasional byproduct. The whole-life perspective pulls us out of muddled party affiliations to ask:

Are these policies consistent with my respect for human dignity? Have I looked closely at their repercussions for the poor and marginalized? Am I settling for choices that degrade, rather than build up, the human family?

[RelatedPope announces pre-synod meeting to listen to youths’ hopes, doubts]

Potent as it is for young people, the whole-life perspective should be instinctive to Catholics of all ages. It is marked by intersectionality, the awareness that no issue can be authentically isolated because every aspect of life in society impacts the others. The interconnectedness of all suffering and its proximity to the heart of Jesus is the great revelation of the cross.

How powerful it is, the realization that the cruciform shape of our faith itself is an intersection, which by its nature drives us toward a central meeting place. In the intersection, we take the first step to healing the brokenness of suffering: encounter. The eternal cross outlasts every political platform. It is the best vantage point for the human condition.

Ultimately, this — the whole-life movement sprung from the heart of the cross — is the answer to every great question of our day. It pulls me out of the false dilemma to remember that there are options beyond what I see before me: It is the realization that, young as I might be, I still know how to cook.

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Jeanne Marie Hathway is a student at The Catholic University of America in Washington. She is a guest columnist for the Catholic News Service column “In Light of Faith.”