Charles Camosy is an associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University. A board member of Democrats for Life, he is author of the upcoming book Resisting Throwaway Culture. He’s a Catholic who won’t let the Democrats go down without a fight, and you can often find him trying to build bridges and find common cause between liberals and conservatives on saving human life and building a culture of life. He’s also an adoptive father. We talk about some of these issues as we approach the March for Life this week and the anniversary of that grave Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, 46 years ago.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why did you bother to write an op-ed about abortion and life issues in the New York Times last week?
Charles Camosy: Well, to be honest, I was disgusted by the recent fetal-personhood series published by the Times editorial board. It not only lacked viewpoint diversity and used offensive language to describe the prenatal child, it cynically used outlier cases to give the impression that one of the goals of pro-lifers is to jail women. Despite the fact that every pro-life organization has repeatedly and publicly said they do not want this.
To their credit, when I wrote to the op-ed folks at the Times and challenged them on the lack of viewpoint diversity in the series, they gave me the chance to respond. I decided to highlight the offensive and disingenuous use of using certain kinds of language — phrases like “clusters of cells” — to refer to prenatal children. This is the classic methodology of what Pope Francis calls “throwaway culture.” Vulnerable populations that are most inconvenient for those who have power are often branded with certain words or phrases that “thingify” them so they can be more easily used and/or discarded as mere objects or trash.
Lopez: The theme of resisting throwaway culture is at the heart of your upcoming book, yes?
Camosy: Yes, in the book I argue that Pope Francis builds on the pro-life views of St. John Paul II (particularly in Evangelium Vitae) and Benedict XVI (particularly in Caritas in Veritate) in offering a consistent life ethic. One of the limitations of the consistent life ethic, in my opinion, is that it has been more an attitude or stance than something principled and capable of making important distinctions. I wanted to try to write book which built on the work of John Paul, Benedict, and Francis, but answer questions like: What, precisely, is the consistent life ethic? What principles govern it? How to the issues relate to each other, especially in terms of moral gravity? I found Francis’ call to resist throwaway culture — and replace it with a culture of encounter and hospitality — absolutely invaluable for building a coherent and relatable vision of the consistent life ethic. And publishing with New City Press, run by the Focolare, is no accident. I have hopes that, properly articulated, such an ethic can be a source of dialogue and even unity for those currently separated by simplistic liberal/conservative political, ethical, and theological imagination.
Lopez: This book seems like yet another effort of yours at bridge-building. How goes it? Where have you seen progress? What are the greatest challenges?
Camosy: Boy, it is really, really difficult. Especially in the academy. We are being overrun by a certain kind of intersectional discourse that often looks very skeptically at the kind of bridge-building I want to do. Instead of engaging in intellectual solidarity and mutually exploring evidence and arguments, we are being corrupted by raw activism and attempts to wield power at the service of a point of view.
Happily, as I have to remind myself, in the real world the liberal-conservative binary I mentioned above is crumbling and it is unclear what will replace it. This is a very hopeful thing for those of us who want to build bridges between people who currently think of themselves as enemies. In the right-left binary, opposing “the other side” is built right into one’s very identity. Authentic dialogue, by contrast, requires solidarity with one’s perceived ideological or political opponent. As it becomes increasingly unclear what liberals and conservatives (to the extent those words have any fixed meaning right now) actually believe, this provides important opportunity to see others anew — and create openings for unity that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.
Lopez: What has your experience of adoption been like?
Camosy: Simply incredible. Three years ago, three siblings from the Philippines were living in an orphanage unsure of their future. Today they live with us in New Jersey and are on flourishing paths as members of our family. Our oldest has been accepted to a couple colleges already and is currently figuring out where to go next fall. Her brother and sister continue to grow in wisdom and love — including love for their little brother, Thaddeus Michael, to whom my wife gave birth last May. We had so many people tell us that we would get pregnant after adopting, but I largely dismissed such comments. Not only because we didn’t adopt for this reason, but because it seemed like a wacky thing to claim at the time. But now, having lived it, and heard the stories of so many others who have experienced something similar, I’m beginning to warm to the concept. There is something very mysterious about it.
Anyway, we are in some ways a strange family, knit together in ways that aren’t traditional. And like all families, we have stiff challenges. But the way we’ve come together really is a beautiful thing. Dinners are full of such joy. And though the kids’ grandparents live far away, they are all a profound part of their lives, especially via the new ways the internet makes possible. Every day I’m reminded of Jesus’ vision of the family, one which doesn’t fit very well, actually, with the dominant US American version. Christians are called to vision of family which is, to employ an overused term, “messy.” Adoption is one way in which one can have an authentic and full family life, but in a way which troubles the neat and clean expectations many of us have for what a family is supposed to look like.
Lopez: Am I crazy or should adoption be the greatest work of common ground and moral consensus? Can we do something about making it more that way?
Camosy: Not crazy! I’ve thought about this for some time and wish it would be a subject of more common-ground work. For some time now, I’ve admired your own work in this regard. I think one of the most important moments for the pro-life movement was our hammering Congress to keep the adoption credit in the midst of the tax-reform debate. In addition to showing beyond doubt that the “pro-birth” critique is absolute nonsense, it was an important political moment to see that we could detach from the expectations of the libertarian wing of the Republican party, moving beyond the uncritical injunction that government ought not to get involved in who gets tax benefits. The pro-life movement needed to show it could stand-up to this wing of the GOP, and in so doing they signaled that we can be open to a host of policies which mitigate abortion demand. Paid family leave should be next!
Lopez: Isn’t adoption, too, at the heart of the Christian identity? Do you run into people who see it that way?
Camosy: Exactly. In a very real sense we are all adopted sons and daughters of God and thus are brothers and sisters in Christ. Close colleagues of mine from when I first got hired at Fordham, in fact, adopted with precisely this vision of their Christian identity in mind. In addition, they were also moved by the early Church’s response to the abandonment and exposure of infants in the ancient world. Inspired by Jesus’ unusual focus on children, these Christians became known for rescuing and adopting these children (who were often female or disabled) and in so doing, they saved them from a life of slavery or prostitution, being eaten by animals, or dying from exposure. The parallels with what adoption can do in the face of the violence today’s youngest children face are difficult to miss.
Lopez: What do the March for Life and the anniversary of the Roe decision mean to you?
Camosy: This marking of one of the darkest days of the U.S. republic goes back a long way for me. These days I do talks or have meetings associated with the March for Life (though this year I’m staying home to meet our childcare needs), but perhaps my best memories come from my time as a high-school teacher about 15 years ago when I would take students from the pro-life club to D.C. for the March. I have such great memories: the joys and challenges of traveling from Wisconsin, braving the weather, hearing Rock for Life bands play, attending mass, keeping teenagers in line in the hotel, and being profoundly moved by the gravity of the mass killing to which we are bearing witness.
In light of some of what I have mentioned above, however, I do worry about featuring Donald Trump and Ben Shapiro in back-to-back years. Working on the “supply” end of abortion is absolutely essential, and (for the moment) fits well with featuring right-leaning politicians and activists. But we should be equally interested in addressing the demand for abortion. I’m glad that a pro-life Democrat like Dan Lipinski is speaking at the March this year, but I hope in future years, the event will feature pro-life activists focused on the interconnected goals of saving babies’ lives and increasing social support for mothers.