For more than forty years, America has wrestled with this issue. For more than thirty of those years I have been a Catholic priest committed to my church’s teachings in the abstract, while engaging a pastoral response for specific circumstances. I was satisfied with my position, comfortable in my conviction. Certain that no one wantonly desires an abortion, I was pro-life (in all its stages) and pro-choice. But I have grown increasingly troubled with that balance as unforeseen consequences of the anti-abortion movement have taken hold.
Oklahoma State Senator Nathan Dahm, who authored the bill, attempted to present himself as a defender of rights and stated, “Those rights begin at conception.” That is a philosophical position that cannot be proved and one that is patently contrary to U.S. law as determined in Roe v Wade.
As I look backward, I observe that in typical American fashion we, as a society, have skirted honest debate regarding abortion—at least anything meaningful. There have been no discussions to explain to Senator Dahm why his position is philosophically (and religiously) untenable. For most of us our minds are made up and there is nothing to discuss. We prefer to sequester our thoughts and marshal our forces as if we are at war with one another.
During the 1990s, it was difficult to drive more than ten miles without seeing a bumper sticker righteously screaming “Abortion is Murder” (Forgive the mixed metaphor). The sticker was simple, if not simplistic, for if ever a slogan skewed the truth, that was the one. On one end of the reality spectrum it played into popular imagination. One could visualize the termination of a living fetus suddenly rendered dead by another’s hands. But it clouded vision on the other end of the spectrum—the birth of a child into poverty, disease and destitution with no societal attention or concern for its plight. That, too, is murder, though it is not so easy to envision. And it carries with it even greater social ills.
The myopically obsessive focus on abortion, including actions by the U.S. Catholic bishops, turned millions of people into one-issue voters, enabling many an otherwise incompetent person to be propelled to public office. For two generations one needed only state his or her opposition to abortion and election was all but assured. I guess as a priest I can’t help but call to mind the biblical adage “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity” (Proverbs 22:8). As a result of these elections we are now reaping a whirlwind of calamity.
In many state legislatures, and even within Congress, Americans have elected representatives with no concept of a common good; legislators with no compassion for the poor or empathy for the infirm; no concern for the displaced or mercy for the alien. These are issues of great import in both the Old and New Testaments. “You shall not oppress an alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien; since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). When the arrogant and self-righteous challenged Jesus about his association with sinners he responded, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.” Then he concluded with the stinging indictment, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:12 &13).
This is the same Bible that right-wing elected officials claim is so dear to them and upon which most of them take their oaths. These legislators do not call out the best in us for there seems little that is Godly or biblical in them. They are driven by something else and in the process turn each of us into someone else. We are increasingly becoming a self-centered and self-serving people, unconcerned about the burdens we place on others, whether pregnant women, immigrants or the poor. America has become a country misled not by the left, but by the right. Not by those who defend personal freedoms, but by those who take them away. But there may be hope.
After forty-plus years the truth about abortion might just be emerging into focus. The facts speak something very different from what we hear in state legislatures and the halls of congress. Abortion in the United States has actually been on the decline since 1997. In 2012 there were 486,837 less abortions than in 1997. At least part of that downturn can be attributed to easier access to contraceptives. Why, then, would anti-abortion legislators want to restrict that, too? There are a number of answers.
The first is that this is really about sex. In the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind,” modestly based on the 1925 Scopes trial, the prosecuting attorney is asked about the Biblical evaluation of sex. His response? “It is considered original sin.” That is a level of ignorance that can only be found in right wing circles, and it seems as though they have not come very far in ninety years.
There is also a second conclusion. Opposition to abortion, whether genuine or merely perceived, has been but an instrument for many to obtain power. And history has repeatedly demonstrated how difficult it is to relinquish that. From one state to the next, elected officials are not content merely to force women to bring their pregnancies to term. They also want to restrict access to contraceptives, forcing women to get pregnant in the first place. And knowing full well that the wealthy will always be able either to obtain abortions or avoid the need, these elected officials target minorities and the poor and they have quite successfully managed to malign and denigrate them—the very people God chose as his own; the people Jesus frequently chose to spend time with. There is a pattern here. The same legislatures that assiduously pass burdensome anti-abortion laws also seek to exclude millions from medical coverage and food subsidies. As has been noted by others, the anti-abortion movement is not pro-life. It is, at best, pro-birth.
Should we choose honesty in this discussion, the anti-abortion laws have another intent that is beyond the birth of a baby. It is to keep women poor and disenfranchised, to strip them of their freedom and opportunities for advancement in education, employment, status—essentially all aspects of life. The extreme anti-abortion laws being advocated in various states are misogynistic and ultimately a modern form of slavery. Women become property to be owned and controlled with the result that these laws contribute to the income inequality that is so central in our current election cycle.
Finally, the third conclusion is the most insidious of all. The conservative legislatures that were created by the anti-abortion movement have cannibalistically turned on the very people they are forcing into existence by stripping them of their right to vote. Lest anyone think this is a non-sequitur, it cannot be mere coincidence that the states enacting voter restriction laws are the same ones that elected their officials with the singular qualification that they opposed abortion.
Forty-three years after Roe v Wade I still believe that no one actually wants an abortion. But I believe it is sometimes necessary and I am convinced that every woman should have the right to choose—informed by her beliefs, unencumbered by either church or state. As a priest I think, sadly, that the Catholic bishops were wrong to focus so narrowly on abortion and to encourage the election of officials whose social policies are so far removed from Gospel values.
Today I am no longer concerned about balance. I now nuance my position on a life continuum. I am pro-choice precisely because I am pro-life.
The Phantom Menace:
Women Religious and the Catholic Church
Now that I have your attention. No. This is not a blog about a Star Wars episode. It is far more serious. At the same time, not unlike the Star Wars saga, this entry touches upon the aspirations and values of people. Aspirations of equality and values of freedom. Hopefully, it is also a challenge--at least to the Catholic population of America.
Over time there have been many profound reflections on power: its place, use and misuse in history. Frequently it is the subtext of a biography about political leaders. Sometimes, power itself is the subject, occasioning a forthright and direct comment or observation. Or both.
Arguably, the most over-used, and often misquoted, statement about power comes from Lord Acton. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A second statement about power pre-dates Acton by nearly 2,000 years.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant…” This reflection, admonition, command, (call it what you will), comes from Jesus. It appears in nearly the same words in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. It would appear that the Vatican has deliberately chosen to ignore both of these cautions on power.
Recently, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s watchdog on doctrine, issued a censure against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The document chastised the sisters for publicly disagreeing with the U.S. Bishops (read health care). More perplexingly, they were admonished for remaining silent on other issues. I’ll return to that in a moment.
Some may think that I exaggerate by casting this in the light of power. However, for much of the Church’s 2,000-year history, Rome (and bishops throughout the world) has turned a deaf ear to Jesus on the very issue of power. The translation I chose uses the word “tyrant”. That may not be as extreme as it first sounds.
The women who have come under censure are highly educated. In fact, as a group they are far more educated priests. They are also profoundly religious and holy servants of the Church. Now Rome comes along and decides that these women, who have dedicated their lives in service of the Gospel, are not competent to run their own affairs. In a phenomenal abuse of power, the Vatican has decided that Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle should now control the LCWR. This includes approving what women may or may not speak at LCWR meetings. Did I mention that the Archbishop is a man?
It is not a stretch to suggest that the U.S. Bishops have opposed the LCWR not because the sisters disagreed with them, but rather because the bishops are speaking themselves into irrelevance. And they are lost.
It would be inaccurate to suggest that the bishops are single-issue oriented when it comes to public policy. However, their obsession with electing politicians who claim to be anti-abortion, has left the bishops on the fringe of American life when these same politicians advance legislation that is alien to Gospel values. The sisters were clever enough not to fall into that trap. However, there is a deeper problem. Rome does not seem to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ admonition.
Authority and power are two very different entities. The bishops are concerned that power might slipping through their fingers. This recent censure suggests that the bishops are the only ones who can be right, and everyone else (which includes all women) should serve them and acquiesce to their ideas and interpretations.
By contrast, the sisters are concerned with serving (empowering) the people, especially the poor and marginalized. They are concerned with recognizing the movement of God’s Spirit among all the people. As such, the sisters are the ones who speak with moral authority.
Rome’s censure has caused me to recall a scene in the film “A Man for All Seasons”, about St. Thomas More, who served as Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII. When More was brought up on false charges, one of the accusations was that he opposed the king’s title and claim of supremacy over the church in England.
Cromwell accused More of denying the king’s title by remaining silent. More defended his silence by invoking an ancient adage. “The maxim is ‘qui tacit consentire’. The maxim of the law is silence gives consent.” If the sisters remain silent on positions taken by the bishops, then their silence should be construed as agreement, not opposition. That is not good enough for Rome. The sisters are not only being told what not to say, they are now being told what to say.
One day the sisters will be vindicated. In ancient mythology Atlas was depicted as holding up the earth. In the real world the Vatican does not hold up the sun. Force and abuse of power cannot hold back the night. Look outside. Darkness is beginning to settle on the men who lord it over the Church.