Limiting Factors of the Pro Life Movement

Forty-one years have passed since the Roe v Wade ruling and likewise forty-one years of anti abortion efforts. These efforts can be expended in two directions, in some measure intertwined: (1) changing the law that permits abortion (overturning Roe v. Wade) and (2) the actual elimination of abortion from the society. To assess the accomplishments to date of the anti abortion movement, both aspects have to be examined.
In the mid-nineteen-nineties, I was serving as faculty advisor to a Students for Life organization, a group of about twenty students in a university of thirty thousand. In that capacity, I was invited to an annual meeting of Respect Life coordinators of the local diocese. The highlight of the event was a presentation by Helen Alvare, of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, regarding her legislative work, mainly lobbying, in Washington. The speaker was quite impressive, but I was left with an uneasy feeling. Thus, she stated that President Clinton was far from helpful to our cause. I remembered then that Mr. Clinton had received about 52% of the Catholic vote. During the period of discussion that followed, I offered the following comments:
“Whenever I hear of the struggles of the U.S. Catholic Church in the defense of life, I am visited by the image of a great ocean liner on high seas, in a big storm. The night before, the crew has given a firework display and, being careless, discharged one round through the hull, and now they exhort the passengers to help patch the hole with cardboard. The fact is that Mr. Clinton was elected by the Catholic vote. More generally, there hasn’t been an abortion advocate running for anything from President to dog catcher, in whom some part of the Catholic establishment wouldn’t find compelling redeeming qualities. The Church forbids abortion. If Catholics follow the teachings of the Church, we should expect that while others might abort their offspring to extinction, the world would increasingly be populated with Catholics and others sharing their pro life stand and so the matter would be taken care of. In reality, there is no statistically significant difference in the rate of abortions between Catholics and the rest of the US population.”
In her reply, Ms. Alvare attributed the failings to which I had alluded to deficiencies in catechesis. It might be helpful to survey in more detail the two aspects of the pro life activity and to identify the causes of progress or lack of it.
On the political-legislative side, one notes that since 1973 there have been 10 presidential elections (seven presidents have occupied the White House) and 20 elections for the House, while the Senate has been turned over six times. Throughout, the position espoused by our elected leaders has varied from one electoral cycle to the next, but there has been no sustained evolution toward opposing abortion. Most telling, in 2008 a higher percentage of Catholics voted for Obama, a candidate with an extreme pro abortion philosophy and record, than had voted for Clinton in 1992, and almost as many voted for him in 2012, after he had met or exceeded the worst expectations.
This unquestionable failure of the pro life efforts is easier to understand upon considering the limitations under which they have been conducted. The first limitation was brought about by the linkage principle. Thus, until 1991 the abortion issue was linked with the quest for nuclear disarmament. This intellectually deficient notion was the fruit of thought of the late Cardinal Bernadin, of whom I won’t write more here. Ironically, the nuclear danger of that time was removed by the demise of the Soviet empire, in which the deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe under the Reagan administration played a decisive role.
When opposition to nuclear arms, or more accurately opposition to the U.S. possessing nuclear arms, lost its luster, capital punishment was adopted for linkage with abortion. Rejection of capital punishment was the position of the philosopher Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II, as well as of some American theologians and bishops. It is not, however, part of Catholic doctrine, nor does it follow from it. Rather, it was first propounded by people opposed to the Church and religion in general, and logically followed from their denial of the existence of an immortal soul. This topic, however, requires separate treatment.
The linkage approach had two destructive consequences. First, it pressed a wedge between Catholics and potential allies, who did not amalgamate their pro life position with extraneous theories. Second, and worse, it provided an excuse for many to accept and vote for abortion advocates that embraced the political positions artificially linked with the defense of innocent life argument. At one time, working on a pro life legislative initiative, I had a talk with a parish Respect Life coordinator. On my mentioning a notorious abortion pusher in Congress, the coordinator (a nun, by the way) replied: “No, she is pro life; she opposes capital punishment!” One might be even tempted to think that the linkage policy was cleverly put in place by someone secretly wishing to doom the anti abortion movement to failure.
Common sense dictates that even if the other topics, or concerns had great merits, they should have been pursued separately. Their linkage with the opposition to abortion suggested that the latter was not important enough to be pursued for itself. Even the adoption of the bland name Respect Life instead of something suggesting an active posture, for instance Defense of Life for parish offices or groups engaged in this line of endeavor suggests uneasiness with it.
Another limitation on the pro life activity comes from the official adoption by the Catholic Church, including by Rome itself, of Bismarckian Socialism, a truly secularist idea which, as an added irony, was first advanced by a virulently anti-Catholic statesman. As a consequence, the defense of life issue has been now linked with a motley collection of social, or rather socialist, concerns.
A newsman from Dallas reported on a revealing explanation of the 2008 presidential elections given by a Rev. Thomas Reese, Catholic priest:
“Catholic voters ignored the instructions of a group of vocal bishops and delivered 54% of their vote for Barack Obama as president of the United States. These bishops, led by Archbishops Charles Chaput and Raymond Burke, argued that abortion was the most important issue in the election and that no other issues outweighed it. As a result, they argued, Catholics could not vote for a pro-choice candidate. . . Although these bishops were a minority of the U.S. bishops, they received much attention in the media because other bishops kept silent or simply referred people to their 2007 document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. The silence of the majority gave the impression that the vocal bishops were speaking for all the bishops. . . . Most Catholics ignored the bishops who told them not to vote for a pro-choice candidate.” [1]
It appears thus that most of the bishops did not care much about the pro life argument (at least, that’s the impression they conveyed) and that the political participation of the faithful is morally regulated by the paper cited [2].
That particular statement of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (2007), is a verbose document, running on thirty pages (with pictures!). Reading it through, one may feel that its main concern was to deflect potential criticism from the usual enemies of the Church in the press and among politicians and so every statement is carefully hedged. Matters of heaven or hell are concatenated with prudential judgment statements and with contemporary fad issues, in a monumental heap of mush. Here is a sampling from the text:
“A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity . . .
There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons . . .
It is important to be clear that the political choices faced by citizens not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual’s salvation (emphasis mine).”
One is at a loss to comment on the last remark.
With such a level of confusion, it’s no surprise that some individuals claiming to be pro life leaders not only voted for Obama but boasted about it [1,3], and that members of the pro abortion group Catholics for Choice are tolerated in all American dioceses but one [4].
Whereas the legal framework of our society is important and we have to make every effort to improve it, one should keep in mind that abortion is a form of service, regulated by supply (which legislation can favor or hinder) and demand. I use the term service in its general meaning of an activity requested by some and provided by others. Contract killing and drug trafficking are other examples. It is unquestionable that, were the demand for abortion to vanish, there would be little need for political efforts to ban the supply.
To counteract the demand side of the transaction, the first action actually being taken is praying near the entrances of abortion centers. Prayer is the most important action of a Christian. It always and everywhere helps both the one who prays and the one he prays for, so I certainly wish that this practice will continue and expand. Other activities consist mostly of seeking pregnant single women, convincing them to forgo abortion, helping them through pregnancy and childbirth, and providing material and other assistance during the time immediately after birth. It is not a uniquely American initiative. I visited a shelter, run by nuns, for such women in Spain.
As applied now, the help to unwed mothers is deficient, because it is not accompanied by the appropriate rebuke for the actions that brought them in that situation. This approach is most awkward for anyone who is part of a Christian church. After all, one may go to hell as readily on the grounds of the sixth commandment as of the fifth. Besides, the personal and social destructive consequences of families led by single mothers (other than widows) are well established. The reason for this deficiency is a justified fear that the women might respond to criticism by going away and having the abortion. Yet, the corporal work of mercy (giving food, clothing and shelter to the mother and child) should go together with the spiritual work of mercy (admonishing the sinner). I have not heard, however, of a bishop noting in public the inconsistency of the current approach, let alone proposing to do something about it. Moreover, it does not seem right to ask the government to eliminate the availability of abortion if people recorded as Catholics provide ample demand for it.
We are thus back to Ms. Alvare, who diagnosed so well the root of the problem. Moral catechesis is worse than deficient. It is almost nonexistent. Here are some illustrations: A while back, I spoke to a pastor on Long Island about an important respect life project. He replied that there is no point in doing it in his parish, because theirs is a heavily Jewish community and the parishioners have adopted the views and mores of the community. At about the same time, newspapers reported that two Catholic high schools in the same area canceled their proms when it was learned that the graduating seniors of the two sexes had reserved a sizable number of rooms in the area hotels, to spice up the occasion. And because small problems often grow into big problems, I should mention that the uniforms of students from some Catholic high schools that I saw, one in Manhattan’s East side (near 70th Street) the other in Northern Nassau County, sport hip-length skirts, which don’t reflect the best guidance from the relevant educators.
Unless such deficiencies are remedied, requests for legislative redress will not solve the problem. After all, the apostles did not petition Roman emperors from Claudius to Nerva. Instead, during that time they provided unambiguous commandments, clearly and succinctly formulated in Didache, as injunctions against common practices of those times (as of ours):
“Thou shalt not commit fornication; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not use magic; thou shalt not use philtres; thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide. . . .” [5]
The people who received those instructions went on to change the world.

[1] Jeffrey Weiss: The Rev.Thomas Reese analyzes the Catholic vote — most didn’t follow the anti-abortion line; (The Dallas Morning News), 9:54 P.M. Tue, Nov. 04, 2008
[2] USCCB: Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States (long statement), Nov. 14, 2007;
[3] Douglas W.Kmiec: Barack Obama is a natural for the Catholic vote, Feb. 13, 2008;
[5] Didache, II, 2, quoted in: Rev. Fernand Mouret, S. S.: A History of the Catholic Church, translated by Rev. Newton Thompson; Herder Books, St. Louis, MO, 1931, vol. I, p. 91

Dan Fărcaşiu, July 2, 2014