Not long ago I was speaking at a conference on the sanctity of human life. My specific topic was the way evangelicals are often tempted to neglect the most vulnerable among us, much like the priest and Levite on the road to Jericho (Luke 10:25–37). The event was in Washington, D.C., and I brought along my teenage daughter for a special trip as a birthday gift. Once the conference was over, I figured we would spend some time walking around the capitol.
In my hurry to keep us to our itinerary, I walked past a homeless veteran near the Washington Monument. But my daughter wouldn’t let me keep going. “Dad,” she said, “this man is made in the image of God. We have to help him.” After hearing my typical excuses (“I don’t have any cash on me,” “We’ll come back to find him later,” and so on), she pulled a 20-dollar bill out of her wallet and approached the homeless man. “Here you go,” she told him. “I want you to know that God loves you.” Her words broke my heart and exposed my own temptation to ignore the vulnerable.
It’s attitudes like this that Catholic theologian and ethicist Charles Camosy most wants to expose and critique with his book, Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People. (He borrows the term “throwaway culture” from a speech by Pope Francis.)
Camosy champions the idea of a “consistent life ethic.” By this, he means that an authentically pro-life witness involves more than opposing abortion. The same values that commit us to protecting the unborn, he argues, should govern our thinking on a range of issues that weigh upon the lives of the most vulnerable—issues like capital punishment, assisted suicide, war and peace, and economic and social inequality. Proponents of this approach sometimes describe it as a “seamless garment,” a term coined by Catholic peace activist Eileen Egan and popularized in the 1980s by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.
Camosy’s book begins with a useful recounting of the development of seamless-garment thinking and a careful reading of its antecedents in church history. In the first chapter, he describes the core philosophy behind a consistent life ethic as “resisting throwaway culture and promoting a culture of encounter.”
Though evangelicals will undoubtedly differ with this framework at certain points, Catholic social teaching has been a useful guide for understanding how the gospel compels us to love our neighbor. In many cases (early opposition to Roe v. Wade, for instance), Catholics have been way out ahead of evangelicals in speaking up for the most vulnerable.
The Courage to Be Consistent
Today, when people claim to be consistently pro-life, it’s often used as cudgel against those who advocate for the dignity of the unborn. But this is not what Camosy (who identifies as a Democrat) is doing. Instead, he is urging us to resist the pull of our political tribes and care for the vulnerable, wherever they may be found. He writes:
We risk applying our concern to one person or group when it suits our interests and ignoring another person or group when it does not. But when we follow our moral principles wherever they lead (even, perhaps, to places we don’t want to go) we resist the ways in which bias and self-interest can hurt our ability to protect and support those on the margins of our culture.
Nowhere is Camosy’s courage more evident than in his treatment of the issues that most divide Americans: the sexual revolution and the sanctity of human life. He is unflinching in calling out the ways in which sexuality is commoditized and human bodies are treated as objects for pleasure. He is also persuasive when he questions the benefits of the sexual revolution, arguing that sexuality without commitment only leads to disappointment (and often violence).
In perhaps the book’s most important section, Camosy raises important questions about reproductive technologies such as in-vitro fertilization and practices such as surrogacy. He is rightly concerned about the use of pre-natal screening to identify and weed out fetal abnormalities, a practice that “instrumentalizes children.” Furthermore, he writes, using these technologies to “discard and kill the unwanted sends a clear message to older people with disabilities: it would have been better had you never existed.”
If you have followed Camosy’s career, you won’t be surprised that he provides a forceful and articulate chapter condemning abortion. But you might be surprised by some of the parallels he draws between consumerism and autonomy, both in applying a consistent life ethic to abortion and busting some long-held shibboleths of its defenders. He points to research, for instance, showing that the widespread use of contraceptives—long championed by abortion rights advocates and even some progressive evangelicals as a way of reducing abortion rates—has actually increased the prevalence of abortion. He also debunks arguments for population control, often championed by pro-choice advocates and some extreme anti-immigration restrictionists. Yet Camosy looks at declining abortion rates in the United States and offers a nuanced explanation that involves legislation targeting abortion, safety-net programs like Medicaid and children’s insurance, and social stigma.
Resisting Throwaway Culture takes this approach with a variety of issues, thinking beyond the pro-life movement in ways that will rightly cause conservatives and liberals to reconsider some of their pet notions. From immigration policy to poverty to war to environmental stewardship, Camosy continually invites the reader to ask: Do these policies treat the vulnerable as human beings or as commodities to be discarded? And is our politics the kind that sees humanity in those with whom we disagree?
Begging to Differ
Though this book is extremely helpful, evangelicals will have some differences with the author. Perhaps the most stark is the way Camosy grounds his arguments mainly in Catholic teaching, especially that of Popes John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis. This is unsurprising, of course, but those looking for standard biblical exegesis to guide them will be disappointed. As a reformed Baptist, I probably would have weaved in a bit more of the gospel storyline, showing how Jesus both affirms our humanity in the Incarnation and rescues our humanity in the Resurrection.
In addition, some evangelicals might quibble with some of Camosy’s applications of a consistent life ethic to public policy, particularly in his chapter on care for the animal kingdom. I was unconvinced by his use of Acts 15 as an apologetic for veganism, especially when Acts 10 seems to give faithful Christians freedom to eat meat and 1 Timothy 6:17 seems to allow for enjoying God’s creation in moderation. Nevertheless, we should be sobered by the examples Camosy cites of exploitation and unnecessarily harsh treatment of animals.
And yet, despite these not-so-minor differences, Resisting Throwaway Culture is an important book for our time—a ringing mission statement for a growing movement to allow human dignity, rather than party or tribe, to determine our ethics. Those who welcome this revolution will consider Camosy a helpful companion.
Daniel Darling works for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission as vice president for communications. He is the author of The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity (The Good Book Company).