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Abortion rift troubles Pax Christi

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Liberal Catholics have often squared off against conservative Catholics over abortion. What makes a recent battle over abortion and free speech unusual, though, is that contenders are members of Pax Christi USA -- an organization associated with the Catholic left.

Last month, Pax Christi, the Erie, Pa.-based Catholic peace group, canceled its annual national assembly amid a storm of controversy over its keynote speaker, the Rev. James Lawson (NCR, July 13). Lawson, a retired United Methodist minister, is a civil rights activist and an outspoken pro-choice advocate.

To Pax Christi’s observers, the controversy is significant because members objecting to Lawson are placing abortion on a par with other issues traditionally on Pax Christi’s nonviolence agenda -- issues such as human rights violations, war, capital punishment and racism. While some members may personally oppose abortion, the issue has not had a high profile in the organization’s initiatives and programs.

Nancy Small, the organization’s national coordinator, was forced to spend her final days on the job trying to restore harmony. Small had previously announced plans to resign effective Aug. 6.

The controversy began when Christian Brothers University in Memphis, where last month’s national meeting was to be held, refused to allow Lawson to speak on campus. Pax Christi’s response: to cancel the meeting rather than withdraw its invitation to Lawson or arrange a compromise allowing Lawson to speak somewhere nearby. The decision to cancel was supported unanimously by national council members.

Among critics of the decision to invite Lawson is Julianne Wiley of Erie, Pa., who said, “Not only do I doubt that the top leadership of Pax Christi has a serious commitment to the unborn, I wonder whether they have a serious commitment to Catholicism. It seems clear to me that if Pax Christi was going to make a list of the 25 top violence issues that they wanted to address as a nonviolent movement, abortion would be somewhere between 26 and infinity.” Wiley, longtime Pax Christi member and organizer, describes herself as a strong advocate of the seamless garment position, which opposes both abortion and capital punishment.

This year’s conference theme was to be “Justice for All: A Culture of Peace Through Nonviolence.”

Small said the decision to cancel the assembly rather than disinvite Lawson came after a considerable discussion and reflection. “We didn’t make the decision lightly,” she said.

While most Pax Christi members supported the council’s decision, most did so with sadness, said Rosemarie Pace, coordinator of Pax Christi Metro New York, a chapter that has more than 600 members. Pace, though opposed to abortion, feels Pax Christi should reflect and support a diversity of views. “Having 100 percent purity when it comes to speakers is not possible,” she said.

Tom Egan of New Orleans said inviting Lawson was a mistake in light of Pax Christi’s “consistent life ethic.” But rather than cancel the meeting, he wishes Lawson’s program slot had been replaced with an open forum for talk about abortion.

“The abortion issue is strikingly divisive, but so is nonviolence, war, the death penalty,” Egan said. “I might add that I have been more than a little curious at times as to why Pax Christi USA has not addressed the abortion issue with the vigor with which it has addressed the other issues.”

Ron Chandonia of Atlanta came down hard on the national office when he learned of Lawson’s strong pro-choice views. After failing to dissuade Small and others at Pax Christi USA to drop Lawson early on, Chandonia began a letter-writing campaign to Christian Brothers University, Memphis Bishop James Steib and Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life among others, urging them to oppose Lawson’s part in the program.

Chandonia, who holds a doctoral degree in black studies and works in the inner city, said he told Small that he found it “especially ironic” that the leader of a Catholic organization would see an abortion advocate as a fit spokesperson for African-American concerns. “I have witnessed the great harm that legal abortion and the mindset behind it have done to black women and to black families,” he said. “As I see it, the casual destruction of nascent human life so commonplace among the urban poor is both symptom and cause of the violence that characterizes their condition generally.”

Members of the national council, including Small, planned to meet in Memphis Aug. 3 and 4 to work at reconciliation.

One local member, Memphis physician Manuel E. Soto-Viera, said he was looking forward to voicing to national council members his view that inviting Lawson had been a mistake.

“Pro-choice opinion is one thing. Activism another,” he said. “To knowingly invite a pro-choice activist to be the keynote speaker at an assembly dedicated to extend the culture of nonviolence would be offensive to many Catholics. … The local group and the national staff should take full responsibility for this fiasco and analyze why it happened.”

On the other hand, Michael W. Hovey, coordinator of Peace and Justice Education at New York’s Iona College, said in a prepared statement, “I must admit I find it difficult to have any good feelings toward those narrow-minded folks who made this unfortunate action necessary. Contrary to their fondest intentions, they have only brought dishonor and shame to Christian Brothers University, which, in refusing to permit such an august figure in our movement as Jim Lawson to speak on their campus, have shown that they are neither Christian nor brotherly nor, in reality, a real university. … This is only the latest of so many manifestations of a cancer that eats at the heart of our church, this single issue litmus test on abortion at the expense of every other issue.”

Antiwar activist Elizabeth McAlister, who, along with her husband, Philip Berrigan, was going to receive this year’s Pope Paul VI Teacher of Peace Award, an annual award bestowed by Pax Christi at the national assembly, said the dispute over Lawson has deeper roots.

“Are we about seamless garment or are we about antiabortion?” McAlister asked. “Clearly many of these religious groups, including most of our [Catholic] universities, are antiabortion and pro-war and pro-death penalty and pro everything else,” she said.

Wiley, however, thinks abortion is the issue that is often slighted.

“If Pax Christi cannot get it together to be a pro-life peace organization at some point, I think it will lose a great deal of credibility with its own members,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001