The National Catholic Review

'Incivility hurts the pro-life cause', posts John Allen, referring to how some activists act "so shrill, so angry and judgmental, that fair-minded people simply tune out the pro-life message." He refers to the extraordinary fury -- not to mention the nastiness and loopiness -- of the attacks generated against Sr Carol Keehan, CEO of the Catholic Health Association, and Fr Tom Rosica, head of the Canadian Salt & Light network, over health care reform. But he might equally have been referring to some of the reactions to Ted Kennedy's death, or Obama's speech to Notre Dame.

'Civility' is also what former Milwaukee archbishop Rembert Weakland identifies as lacking in some parts of the pro-life movement. Recalling in his memoir the hearings on abortion he arranged in 1990 -- he wanted to hear from ordinary women on the issue, not to challenge the Church's teaching but because their voice was absent -- he writes (p. 332) that in his report on the hearings,

"I also tried to answer those in the pro-life movement who felt priests were not supportive of their groups and their aims, would not publicly associate with them in their cause, and did not preach often enough about the evils of abortion. I pointed out some characteristics of their groups and their approaches about which priests felt uncomfortable -- lack of compassion, narrowness of vision, ugly and demeaning rhetoric, questionable tactics, and lack of interest in other life issues. I was very surprised, even disturbed, by the strong influence of Protestant evangelical and fundamentalist positions among some pro-life Catholic women. They arrived clutching their bibles, opened to show specific texts underlined in red, and carrying tightly in their fists imitation rubber fetuses that they then placed on the tables for public display. They did not seem to understand that proof-texting, taking quotations out of context to prove a point, was not the Catholic approach to scripture and not part of our tradition. Many women who had been politically active in the pro-life cause were frustrated, their efforts having shown no clear results. I felt sympathy for them. Nonetheless, I had to ask if at times they were not their own worst enemies. At the end I called for more civility in this debate."

A few months back the Jesuit professor John P. Langan also called for civility to be restored to the Church's pro-life agenda. He warned against those "who use scurrilous and vicious language to attack those who deviate from the antiabortion line which they identify with Catholic orthodoxy", a line which lumps  together "both those who deny that abortion is a moral evil and those who believe that even while it is indeed a moral evil, it cannot be effectively forbidden by law in the contemporary United States." Prof. Langan warned:

"To an increasing extent, the pro-life movement within the church shows a desire to act in ways which break amicable and civil relations with those both inside and outside our church who favor abortion or who support compromise on this issue."

Catholics here in Europe admire the US Church for two public stances in particular which are brave, bold, radical and effective. One is the anti-death penalty campaign, the other for comprehensive immigration reform including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants. Both have been models of civility: neither has been accused of vicious rhetoric and fundamentalism. Yet they are radical witnesses to the Church's teaching on the human dignity and sanctity of life, and have been effective in changing hearts and minds (the Church's main task, as I posted the other day).

Neither have "succeeded" in the sense that federal laws continue to allow criminals to be executed, and 12m undocumented migrants in the US are still waiting on their fate. But the Church's very public stance on these issues, and the patient work of bishops and campaigners, have awoken consciences. And unlike the pro-life movement, the activists have not rendered their cause disreputable by a lack of civility.

There may just be a lesson there.

Austen Ivereigh

 

Comments

Anonymous | 9/22/2009 - 11:16am
I am relatively new to the 'pro-life' cause, having realized about 10 years ago how wrong I was about being 'pro-choice'. Now, I hear and read so many words about the incivility of 'pro-life' people. I stand now, with them, on the street corners of abortion clinics, praying for an end to abortion. Sometimes, we are able to talk to women who are considering an abortion. Sometimes, they change their minds. Sometimes, we are yelled at, stuff is thrown at us and often we are cursed. And I marvel at the courage and sacrifice it takes to do this - to stand there and face the truth of what abortion is and does and to be persecuted for it. These pro-life souls are not screaming and yelling, it is the other way around. They stand quietly, praying, begging God to save a baby, heal a woman wounded by abortion, and to lead those who work in the abortion business out of it. I will continue to stand with them, because they are the ones who bring peace, civility, and love into this darkened world. I invite you to join them, away from the safety of your keyboards, to where the real battle rages. Stand there with us, and see it with your own eyes, who is civil and who is not - the ones who lift up life or the ones who would deny it. For peaceful prayer vigils, you can go here: www.40daysforlife.com
Anonymous | 9/13/2009 - 3:04pm
I know there are many who strongly identify with the prolife movement, both Catholic and otherwise, who have all manner of ulterior motives. Looking over the comboxes at a fairly prominent Catholic blog shortly after the election last year I saw Obama being referred to as a 'mulatto', a technically correct term but one I haven't seen since reading Gone with the Wind.  Many of the posters claimed to believe that he would only work for "those people" the ones who loaf around ghettos waiting for welfare checks. I saw virtually no concerns expressed about abortion, FOCA, gay unions or fetal stem cells, but the racism was hanging out all over the place.  Eventually the mod stepped in to warn that their comments might be "misunderstood".  Of course, what he really meant was that it might be understood too well, as it was by me.
Am I saying all prolifers are racist? Not at all.  But I do know of many examples, both public and personal, of people who attempt to hide all manner of ulterior motives under the prolife banner.
Anonymous | 9/13/2009 - 12:15pm
The challenge the pro-life movement faces is to change hearts and minds-to convert people who disagree.  Some of those folks are Catholic, but many are not and simply appealing to the authority of the Pope and the bishops is unlikely to work: they do not recognize the authority of the Catholic Church even if they have respect for the Church (and of course not all do). Nor does simply citing Natural Law work.  How many Americans even know what Natural Law is?  Converting people requires, in most instances, civil, respectful, patient conversation.  It very likely requires some measure of iimaginative sympathy-some compassion for what convinces women that abortion is an acceptable choice and then an attempt to show a better way.  Angry rhetoric, even if justified, generally does not work, especially in a pluralistic and at least partially secularized American society.  We should stress love and compassion, not righteous anger.  And we shoud continue to stress love and compassion even if we're abused for doing so.
Anonymous | 9/12/2009 - 8:12pm
Someone was killed at a protest, although we are told not because he was protesting.  Someone he knew was on a murder spree.  I fear the killer was likely somone who was off meds.
 
Does anyone know what the High School protest was about?
Anonymous | 9/11/2009 - 9:12pm
Didn't a pro life person get murdered today?
Anonymous | 9/11/2009 - 7:18pm
It does not seem to have occurred to you that Europeans admire the anti-DP and pro-immigration campaigns conducted by American Catholics because they themselves strongly oppose the death penalty and strongly support immigration.  In contrast, they may dislike the campaigns against legal abortion because they have ''made their peace'' with it, and so it seems distressing (hard on the conscience, perhaps) that Catholics elsewhere get hot and bothered about it.
Anonymous | 9/11/2009 - 7:16pm
Joe: I was careful to say ''some activists'' and ''some parts of the pro-life movement'', ie minorities, fringe groups and so on; I certainly would never imagine that your priest used scurrilous attacks and vicious language. Yet enough do, and they are sufficently prominent to undermine the pro-life cause.
You ask for examples: Allen mentions attacks on Sr Keehan in ''a blog operated by the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese'' and on Rosica by ''a pro-life website called 'LifeSiteNews,' which prior to the Kennedy
funeral invited readers to send protests to Cardinal Sean O’Malley in
Boston''. So that's pretty specific. Weakland, of course, doesn't name names, and nor does Prof Langan. But Michael Sean Winters does in his passionate post on the boors who demean Ted Kennedy. See http://www.americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=2&id=12821765-3048-741E-6581036289637179.
So with respect I think the claim is neither empty, nor old: it is pertinent and current.
Anonymous | 9/12/2009 - 3:11pm
Re: "impossible goal of overturning Roe," If the slavery laws can be undone, so can Roe.  It is only impossible if people of goodwill will "make their peace" with an unconscionable state of affairs.
Anonymous | 9/12/2009 - 1:58pm
The prolife cause is shrill but I would ask, ''what do you expect?''  I too am glad our Bishops take strong stands against the death penalty and immigration but are these morally equivalent to abortion?  Try to look at it from the pro life perspective if you can:  If abortion is the brutal murder of millions of innocent children and if we as a church don't take the strongest, most immediate stand what good is immigration or health care reform.  It may seem jejune to the liberal and learned Catholics but until this is answered don't expect an end to the bitterness and incivility which is borne out of the frustration archbishop Weakland sensed.
 
On the other hand, I'm with Mr Binder on the direction the prolife cause shouldn't go.  I believe the Constitution advocates a stronger federalism than Mr Binder, never the less if Roe v Wade were overturned today what then?  Does anyone expect states such as CA, MA, NY, MD, WA or OR to pass abortion restrictions?  Does anyone suggest the objectification of human beings, this being a principle cause of abortion, to end with the overturn of Roe?  CA voters won't even approve a parental consent referendum.  No, the answer is our culture.  How to change it, I have no idea.  It is why I used to like this magazine before it became so partisan (please consider this constructive).  On that note, there is a great article in ''Christianity Today'' by Dinesh D'Souza about the direction of the prolife cause...check it out
 
One post script on frustration (not meaning to ''hijack'' the thread):  With our current government being entirely Democratic nothing should stop health care reform.  If it doesn't pass in this environment it will never pass and imagine our frustration....What more could we have done?  If you understand this perhaps you will understand the prolife cause.  We can argue their efficaciousness but not their passion.  They just want to save unborn children and they are getting nowhere in our political system and culture and are all too often spiritually abandoned.
 
Anonymous | 9/11/2009 - 5:24pm
''He warned against those ''who use scurrilous and vicious language to attack those who deviate from the antiabortion line''
I wish those who make this claim and argument would give real examples of Catholic Prolife groups that do this.  I wish they would document the examples for us.
Are they talking about ''Priests for Life''?  The diocesan Prolife ministries?  A specific bishop?  Were they talking about Richard John Neuhaus?  Who?
This claim about prolife groups is empty and old.  I have not seen this ''scurrilous and vicious language''.  I have seen Catholic question those in the Church who avoid this issue completely.
At my parish we had a new priest who gave a homily about the Church's teaching on abortion and contraception.  He got run out of the parish.  He was moved within a year of being at our parish.  He was moved to a more ''conservative parish.  He used NO ''scurrilous'' or ''vicious'' language.  In fact I heard people say ''scurrilous'' and ''vicious'' things about him because their teenage daugher had to sit at mass an listen to this talk.  Meanwhile she goes to the public school and gets the other version of the story.
Anonymous | 9/11/2009 - 3:55pm
I think you have something here.  It will take much more civility in the Pro-Life movement to have them work with Obama on limiting abortion in the third trimester - which would be a good start on working to do so in the second at a later time since it would force a winnable constiutional challenge.  Sticking to the impossible goal of overturning Roe, and indeed castigating those who explain why it is impossible, will bear no fruit - unless of course the entire movement is really about getting Republicans elected and advancing a states' rights (and anti-civil rights) agenda.  Of course, even that approach has backfired and will continue to.