More Catholic Than …

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“You’re more Catholic than the Pope.”

That type of gentle needling has been part of intra-Catholic repartee for decades. It demonstrates good-humored acknowledgement that a friend takes Catholicism very seriously. Going beyond Church rules, the “more Catholic” friend is making sacrifices or acting generously in ways that far exceed expectations. For example, a Catholic may voluntarily observe the pre-Vatican II sacrifices regarding meatless Fridays throughout the entire calendar year, rather than during the sacrificial Lenten season only, as required of all Catholics.

“You’re more pro-life than the hierarchy.”

In a less light-hearted fashion, that sentence may be applied to a group of Massachusetts pro-life leaders who recently penned an open letter to the bishops of the Commonwealth. The dramatic action was triggered by the Church’s “not on our property” dictum about a current petition drive to stop taxpayer funding of abortion in the state. The letter also raises longstanding questions about why Catholic institutions continue to honor and recognize pro-abortion public figures.

Whether an act of fortitude or provocation or both, the letter is unambiguously headlined “Stop the Betrayals.” It is signed by 16 dedicated pro-life leaders including Operation Rescue President Bill Cotter, the Catholic Action League’s C. Joseph Doyle, former United States Attorney Frank McNamara, and Catholic World News editor Philip Lawler, formerly the first layman to hold that title at The Pilot, the newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese. Although the petition drive was among the factors that prompted the letter writers, none of the signers were representatives of the Massachusetts Alliance to Stop Taxpayer Funded Abortions, which is spearheading the petition.

Coming from leaders usually labeled “conservative,” the pro-life letter opens an unexpected phase in relations between the laity and the hierarchy; in the past, public challenges to the Church leadership almost exclusively have emanated from progressives. Unusual though it may be, the pro-life letter demonstrates the frustrations felt by pro-lifers, as they witness the clear and unequivocal teaching of the Church on abortion seemingly contradicted by — or at least in tension with — the willingness of Catholic institutions to honor those who favor not only maintaining abortion “rights,” but also forcing pro-life taxpayers to pay for those abortions.

Although not every signer is Catholic, the letter affirms the triumph of “the spirit of Vatican II,” which encouraged the laity to become more involved in the Church and the world. It also turns the “Pope Francis effect” in an unexpected direction. The Holy Father famously encouraged Catholics to “make a mess, to disturb complacency.” The Pontiff also told the faithful to “defend ourselves from comfort, that we defend ourselves from clericalism.” One can hardly quibble with the degree to which this letter takes those admonitions seriously.

Therefore, the pro-life letter is acutely attuned to the direction of today’s Catholic Church, as jarring at it may sound to many deferential “pay, pray, and obey” parishioners.

The letter opens a broader conversation about what Catholic teaching about abortion demands of the faithful, their hierarchy, and Catholic institutions. Abortion, described by the Church as the deliberate taking of an innocent human life, has long been regarded as a Catholic non-negotiable, a teaching that cannot be weakened or compromised in order to gain any other goods. The Catholic bishops of the United States have termed it “intrinsically evil” and have warned against the “scandal” of cooperating with such evil in a public manner. “Failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race,” the bishops teach, “is to sin against justice.” 

This obviously leads to the question of whether Catholic institutions should honor or give public platforms to government officials who favor “abortion rights” in contradiction to the Church’s concrete teaching. Is this a cause of scandal as the letter writers contend and the bishops, themselves, seem to suggest?

The most current discussion within the text regards the Massachusetts Catholic dioceses’ decision to prevent access to Church properties by volunteers gathering signatures for a petition to stop taxpayer funding of abortion. Because the Catholic Church is the only important pro-life institution that reaches across the Commonwealth, that prohibition makes significantly more difficult the ability of the Massachusetts Alliance to Stop Taxpayer Funded Abortions to secure the mandatory 64,750 signatures. 

One can forgive pro-lifers for being disheartened by that decision. They undoubtedly anticipated a more welcoming attitude from a Church that inspired so many lay Catholics to take up the mission of the pro-life cause. They also may wonder precisely what the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meant by this call to pro-life action in the publication Catholics In Political Life:  “Catholics need to act in support of these principles and policies in public life. It is the particular vocation of the laity to transform the world.”

The pointed letter, along with its ancillary list of “pro-life betrayals,” uncovers a variety of institutional actions that have been highly dispiriting to pro-life activists. Among those are Boston College, the renowned Catholic university, honoring longtime pro-abortion politician John Kerry; the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle awarding the “Cardinal Cushing Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity” to pro-abortion Boston Mayor Marty Walsh; and Cardinal Sean O’Malley attending the Kennedy Library Profile in Courage Award ceremony for former President Barack Obama, whose administration promoted taxpayer funding of abortion and contraception, along with unprecedented federal mandates to undermine religious liberty.

According to the pro-life leaders, these actions contradict another aspect of the Catholic bishops’ directive Catholics In Political Life. They point to these guidelines:  “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Having made great personal and professional sacrifices for the pro-life cause, these 16 letter writers are asking why the Church is recognizing those who have advanced and enriched their own careers waving the pro-choice banner. Surely, not all pro-lifers would agree with the use of the words “scandal” and “betrayal” to describe these institutional actions. Yet Church leaders could at least make the effort to explain the logic behind a pro-life Church seeming to embrace pro-choice politicians, politicians who even promote the most extreme pro-abortion position of using taxpayer dollars for the taking of innocent human lives.

Not all contradictions in life are necessarily betrayals. Not every tension within a moral teaching is a scandal. 

Yet when public actions seemingly contradict definitive teachings, it is necessary for those holding seats of authority to explain how and why. In this case, how does honoring pro-choice public figures conform with the U.S. Catholic bishops’ own directive “to teach clearly on our unequivocal commitment to the legal protection of human life from the moment of conception”?

It’s always sad when disagreements erupt among good people sharing the same altruistic goals. Like arguments within families, the disputes often become more bitter and divisive, because each participant expects and demands so much of themselves and others. Open, honest, and consistent dialogue between pro-lifers and the Church is the best remedy for such an unfortunate development. Once again, the U.S. bishops’ statement offers a roadmap, by simply including pro-lifers in the Church’s outreach to public officials. “This requires more effective dialogue and engagement with all public officials, especially Catholic public officials. We welcome conversation initiated by political leaders themselves … We commit ourselves to maintain communication with public officials who make decisions every day that touch issues of human life and dignity.”

Substitute pro-life leaders for public officials and “effective dialogue and engagement” will be assured. 

Perhaps a good place to start is with Cardinal O’Malley’s eloquent words at the 2013 March for Life Mass. “We hear Catholic politicians saying they are not in favor of abortion but do not want to impose their religious views on others in a pluralistic society,” His Eminence said. “Abortion, like slavery, is not just a religious issue. It is a human rights issue.”

Should the Church no longer open itself to the human rights pro-life cause, what institution will? Certainly not academia, which is overwhelmingly secular, leftist, and pro-abortion. Not the media, which denigrates pro-lifers as “anti- abortion rights,” “anti-choice,” and worse. Not big labor unions, which contribute nearly 100 percent of their vast political resources to pro-choice politicians. Not big business, once vaguely aligned with traditional values, but now securely in the grasp of socially liberal interest groups.

After all, if not to the Church, where shall pro-lifers go?


Joseph Tortelli is a freelancer writer. Read other articles by Mr. Tortelli here.