National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 23, 2004

More than one pro-life way

Divergent views a sign of health, says church employee who lost job


On March 9, I was asked to resign my position at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The conference had conducted a review of my postings on my personal Web log and on the Catholics for Kerry Internet forum. They reached the conclusion that many of my comments regarding the church were negative in tone, and that some political postings were made during work hours and with work computers.

The action was prompted by Crisis magazine editor Deal Hudson, who was upset that an employee of the bishops supported John Kerry’s candidacy. In supporting Kerry, I never represented myself as an employee of the bishops’ conference, but acted solely as an individual engaged in free speech. I suppose that if my activities had been in disfavor of Kerry’s candidacy, the conference’s review and action would not have been carried out.

When I started the Catholics for Kerry group, or when I entered my name on the ballot as a Maryland District 5 delegate for Kerry, or when I spoke from my conscience on what I saw as deficits in church governance by the hierarchy, did I ever imagine it could cause me to lose my job? I believed that the Catholic church in the United States appreciated the benefits of a vigorous discussion from differing ideological arenas, where criticism and divergent views signal the health and vibrancy of a community and not a lack of commitment. I believed that my personal views would not be judged antithetical to the bishops’ mission.

The signal sent reflects the message many feel the bishops have conveyed over the years, that criticism of the hierarchy is a reflection of the insufficiency of one’s commitment to the Catholic faith and the church’s mission. A further signal sent in this highly charged political atmosphere is that Catholic Democrats need to defend their choice to be Democrats. When bishops call on Kerry to not present himself to receive Holy Communion because he is pro-choice, or when Catholic legislators are said to be engaged in “formal cooperation” if they “do not oppose” gay civil unions, many of us Catholic Democrats are left defending the fact that being a Catholic and a Democrat are not mutually exclusive.

In their document, “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility,” the bishops say, “At this time, some Catholics may feel politically homeless, sensing that no political party and too few candidates share a consistent concern for human life and dignity. However, this is not a time for retreat or discouragement. We need more, not less engagement in political life. We urge Catholics to become more involved by running for office; by working within political parties; by contributing money or time to campaigns; and by joining diocesan legislative networks, community organizations, and other efforts to apply Catholic principles in the public square.”

What precisely does “more engagement” mean? What is meant by “working within political parties”? Does it not allow for Catholics to seek similar goals of creating a culture of life and human dignity, even if our political orientation impels us to seek it in different ways? After all, the Holy See’s “Doctrinal Note” says, “It is not the church’s task to set forth specific political solutions -- and even less to propose a single solution as the acceptable one -- to temporal questions that God has left to the free and responsible judgment of each person.” An example is the abortion issue, for which Kerry has had his commitment to his faith repeatedly questioned.

Catholics are called on to promote a culture of life. Reducing the number of abortions is not the sole determinant of the pro-life platform, even though it is a vital component. Life does begin at conception but does not end at birth. Our goal is to fight for the dignity of life in all its manifestations, from conception to death. With a goal as complex as this, does it not stand to reason that there could be more than one way of reasonably promoting a culture of life?

The conservative approach to reducing the number of abortions is a “supply-side” approach. The idea here is to criminalize abortion providers, thus resulting in a reduction in the number of abortions. Unfortunately, eliminating abortion providers is much like trying to solve the drug problem by solely going after drug suppliers, but ignoring demand. It is a fact of market dynamics that as long as demand exists, there will be supply.

Pro-life moderates and liberals embrace the “demand-side” approach. This approach seeks to reduce the number of abortions by addressing the social issues that compel too many women to contemplate what would normally be unthinkable. If social conditions were changed so that women were empowered, and if we effectively addressed issues such as health care, child care, family leave, wage inequity, domestic violence and other women’s issues, we could reasonably expect a significant reduction in the number of abortions in the United States. For instance, 21 percent of abortions in the United States are a result of inadequate finances. This category of women, though not exhaustive, represents a very fixable opportunity. Consider the following simplified example. If a woman for whom inadequate finances were the primary reason to consider an abortion is confident that there would be assistance to compensate for her lack of finances, the lack of finances then weighs less in her deliberations.

This demand-side approach will take time and does not immediately make abortions rare, but our goal is to change a culture, not just a law. This approach is a steady tide that lifts all boats of human dignity. It seems that this is a reasonable means of attaining the goal of a culture of life even if different from the process laid out by traditional pro-lifers.

My experience has awakened me to the danger that there are loyal Catholics who may lose faith in the possibility of a true Catholic community, a family in which divergent opinions are embraced, yet one in which no one questions the commitment and love of any individual. If we are ever going to achieve any kind of harmony within the Catholic family, our hierarchy must move to encourage unity and not divisiveness. The alienation of a vital segment of the Catholic community, which is induced by a narrow political definition of what conservatism entails, unfortunately diminishes the intellectual traditions and wealth of the church and threatens the active love of millions of loyal Catholics for the church.

Ono Ekeh, former program coordinator for the Secretariat for African-American Catholics at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, is moderator of Catholics for Kerry, an e-mail discussion list.

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 2004

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