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Pax Christi’s inclusivity worth defending


As one who was closely involved with the decision regarding the cancellation of the Pax Christi USA national assembly when the university where we were scheduled to meet objected to our keynote speaker, I feel it is important to clarify some of the issues that have surfaced in the news and letters pages of NCR.

The first thing to make clear is that this conflict is not about the church’s teaching on abortion. Pax Christi has always embraced the church’s teaching on the violence and immorality of abortion and has made its views public. What is at issue is the way this teaching is lived out in our political and social context.

Pax Christi USA is a membership organization. Our registered members, through their elected representatives, set the direction for our work. I believe the majority of our members have strategically determined that the best way for Pax Christi USA to address the issue of abortion is to focus on many of the hardships faced by women who find it difficult to bring children into this world, that is, the second-class status of women in society, reinforced by the church, which limits the ability of women to come through for their children; the violence and sexual exploitation of women that makes it difficult for many to claim control over their own bodies; the lack of affordable family housing, a family wage for workers, quality child care, family health care, and the misappropriation of resources for weapons of war that leaves so many women and their children struggling for survival.

The U.S. Catholic church has allocated an enormous amount of resources primarily toward political strategies to criminalize abortion. Given this context, I believe the majority of our members see no need for Pax Christi USA to become involved in the effort to criminalize abortion when the institutional church has already provided so many ways for them to join in this effort. Our members want Pax Christi USA to take a different approach.

Pax Christi USA embraces the seamless garment ethic that was championed by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. I believe that within Pax Christi there is a consensus on this approach. What is at issue for a minority of our members is how the seamless garment is to be used -- especially as it relates to making moral assessments of individuals and organizations.

There are some Pax Christi members who would use the seamless garment ethic in an exclusive manner. These folks take the view that because the seamless garment holds to a consistent life ethic on all life issues, any individual and/or organization we might hold up, honor or work in close association with, should have the correct views on every life issue. One problem with this approach is that no one completely conforms to this measure. For instance, any U.S. citizen who pays taxes or purchases consumer products made overseas participates in systems that kill. Another problem comes with trying to identify which life issues to include in such a litmus test.

The second approach, which I believe represents the majority of Pax Christi members, uses the seamless garment ethic in an inclusive manner. Assessments by these folks are based on looking at all the views and actions of the person or group across the entire life spectrum and making judgments based on the whole person or group and not on a check list in which one wrong answer calls for immediate disqualification. One shortcoming with this approach is that it can lead down a slippery slope where assessments become rationalizations. For instance, how many “wrong answers” does it take to make a negative overall assessment?

Given the pros and cons of both approaches I believe that the Pax Christi national leadership did the right thing by embracing an inclusive approach regarding the speaking invitation extended to the Rev. James Lawson, civil rights activist and retired United Methodist minister. I say this for four reasons.

The first reason is that our members would have been blessed by hearing Lawson speak to us about his lifetime commitment to nonviolence, peace and racial justice. Given his historical connection to Memphis and the depth of his spiritual journey, he was, in my opinion, just what our movement needed at this crucial point in our history.

The second reason is that historically, the seamless garment approach came out of a struggle within the church over the place of abortion in Catholic social teaching. The seamless garment position expressed the desire of many in the church to place the abortion issue within a larger context that would enable Catholics to make political judgments about candidates that would be larger than the single issue of abortion. The seamless garment approach was a challenge to single issue pro-lifers as well as a challenge to liberals who paid no attention to the abortion issue. In the context of Bernardin’s later work on the Common Ground Initiative, I think we can see his desire in the seamless garment approach to find an inclusive way of acting in the political arena. Let me quote here from the mission statement from the Seamless Garment Network:

We are committed to the protection of life, which is threatened in today’s world by war, the arms race, abortion, poverty, racism, capital punishment and euthanasia. We believe that these issues are linked under a “consistent ethic of life.” We challenge those working on all or some of these issues to maintain a cooperative spirit of peace, reconciliation, and respect in protecting the unprotected.

The third reason for advocating this approach is that, given the current climate of intolerance within the U.S. Catholic church on so many issues, I think it is important for Pax Christi USA to be a countersign. There are so many Catholics who feel marginalized by what they see as the heavy-handed approach of the institutional church when dealing with those calling for dialogue on many important issues. In almost every issue of NCR we see instances where good, faithful men and women are banned from Catholic institutions, dis-invited from conferences, silenced from public speaking and threatened with dismissal or fired from working within the institutional church. Organizations like Pax Christi USA represent, for many, a safe haven within the Roman Catholic community. For Pax Christi USA to fall into a position of intolerance would be a crushing blow to all those who still wait in the dark for the sun to shine again.

The fourth reason for favoring the inclusive approach to the seamless garment position is the recognition of our social and political context in the United States. The cause of peace with justice is not served by narrowing our constituency or making negative moral assessments of those individuals or groups we may disagree with on any given life issue. To be sure there are pitfalls in this approach. Mistakes may be made and correct judgments are often hard to come by. But, as followers of the nonviolent Jesus, who held up as examples and honor occupying Roman soldiers, heretical Samaritans and sinners of all sorts, I think we can do no less.

Tom Cordaro is Pax Christi USA national council chairperson.

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001