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Pax Christi national assembly canceled

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

For the first time since 1974, Pax Christi USA has canceled its annual national assembly. The reason: Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn., the host of the conference, refused to permit a speaker who supports abortion rights to appear on campus grounds.

The Rev. James Lawson, civil rights activist and retired United Methodist minister, was slated to deliver the keynote address at the Aug. 3-5 assembly, but opposition to Lawson’s stance on abortion led the 1,200-student Catholic university to withdraw its consent to host the assembly.

The meeting usually draws about 500 Catholic peace activists from throughout the nation.

“We invited Rev. Lawson to speak about building a culture of peace through nonviolence, which was the theme of our national assembly,” said Nancy Small, national coordinator of Pax Christi USA. “We did not invite him to speak about abortion.” She added, “Pax Christi USA has a longstanding practice of refusing to make judgments about the moral fitness of individuals based on a litmus test of any single issue.”

Ironically, Lawson, who once served as pastor for a church in Memphis, delivered the keynote address at the 1977 Pax Christi USA assembly, which was held at a Memphis hotel. Lawson, who worked closely with the late Martin Luther King Jr., was also with King on April 4, 1968, the day the civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis.

Small said Pax Christi USA is not casting any blame on Christian Brothers University. “We believe that the underlying problem is the divisiveness that surrounds the way the Catholic church deals with the abortion issue,” Small said. “We believe that this divisive climate is what led [the university] to decide not to allow Rev. Lawson to speak on its campus. The need for dialogue as a way to address this divisiveness is vital.”

Small said the university feared a possible backlash of protests by abortion foes during the assembly if news of Lawson’s views became public.

The university’s president, Br. Stan Sobczyk, did not respond to telephone inquiries.

Lawson, who has served on the board of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights and is outspoken in views on abortion rights, said he was disappointed by the decision to cancel the assembly. In the 1960s, then-Christian Brothers College was a partner in “the effort to eradicate segregation,” Lawson said, adding that he received Communion for the first time while attending “an ecumenical peace service” in the Christian Brothers chapel.

“A single issue cannot become the basis for not having public conversation or for rejecting a person as a speaker,” Lawson said.

Lawson, 72, said those connected to the antiabortion movement have been “disconnected for a generation from the issues of the need of the nation to dismantle its racism, and the spiritual disease that racism has shown in the churches and in the hearts of far too many people for 400 years.”

“I know that some very strongly convicted pro-life people are white people who for years have refused to get involved in the dismantling of racism and the ending of segregation and its idolatry in America,” Lawson said. “But they are now very zealous on pro-life -- so-called. I have never said that publicly before, but I am profoundly aware, having worked 50 years or so, and in the King movement in the South for 17 years, I’m profoundly aware that this is the case.”

In a statement released June 29, Pax Christi said: “The administration at Christian Brothers University presented options that would have allowed Pax Christi USA to hold its assembly on its campus, but without Rev. Lawson as the keynote speaker.” One option was to hold the meeting at the university but have Lawson speak off campus. Small said those options were unacceptable.

The rift began when some members of the Atlanta Pax Christi chapter as well as some members of the Memphis chapter complained about the selection of Lawson. Pete Gathje, associate professor of religion at Christian Brothers University and a member of Pax Christi’s Memphis chapter, said he dropped off the local organizing committee for the national assembly to protest Lawson’s role.

“I had hoped that Pax Christi would not cancel the assembly but would rather find a speaker whose commitment to nonviolence is consistent and therefore extends to the unborn,” Gathje said in a statement he provided to NCR. “In other words, I believe that Pax Christi USA had the opportunity to make clear its commitment to its own endorsement of the consistent ethic of life.”

Small, who will be leaving her post at Pax Christi Aug. 6, said the decision to cancel the assembly was “a unanimous decision made by the entire national council.” The national council includes the organization’s president, Bishop Walter Sullivan of the Richmond, Va., diocese. Small said the decision won’t sit well with everybody but will be applauded by most of the membership.

“Our Pax Christi members expect us to stand up for principles,” Small said. “We apologize to our members for the difficulties that canceling will cause them, but we are confident that they will understand our decision to sacrifice practicality in order to uphold our principles.”

Pax Christi USA plans to hold its next national assembly at the University of Detroit Mercy July 26-28, 2002. A keynote speaker has not been announced, but one has been invited. Small said she didn’t know how the Lawson incident would impact future keynote speaker selections.

National Catholic Reporter, July 13, 2001