Lessons in radicalism and civility
'Incivility hurts the pro-life cause', posts John Allen, referring to how some activists act "so shrill, so angry and judgmental, that fair-minded people simply tune out the pro-life message." He refers to the extraordinary fury -- not to mention the nastiness and loopiness -- of the attacks generated against Sr Carol Keehan, CEO of the Catholic Health Association, and Fr Tom Rosica, head of the Canadian Salt & Light network, over health care reform. But he might equally have been referring to some of the reactions to Ted Kennedy's death, or Obama's speech to Notre Dame.
'Civility' is also what former Milwaukee archbishop Rembert Weakland identifies as lacking in some parts of the pro-life movement. Recalling in his memoir the hearings on abortion he arranged in 1990 -- he wanted to hear from ordinary women on the issue, not to challenge the Church's teaching but because their voice was absent -- he writes (p. 332) that in his report on the hearings,
"I also tried to answer those in the pro-life movement who felt priests were not supportive of their groups and their aims, would not publicly associate with them in their cause, and did not preach often enough about the evils of abortion. I pointed out some characteristics of their groups and their approaches about which priests felt uncomfortable -- lack of compassion, narrowness of vision, ugly and demeaning rhetoric, questionable tactics, and lack of interest in other life issues. I was very surprised, even disturbed, by the strong influence of Protestant evangelical and fundamentalist positions among some pro-life Catholic women. They arrived clutching their bibles, opened to show specific texts underlined in red, and carrying tightly in their fists imitation rubber fetuses that they then placed on the tables for public display. They did not seem to understand that proof-texting, taking quotations out of context to prove a point, was not the Catholic approach to scripture and not part of our tradition. Many women who had been politically active in the pro-life cause were frustrated, their efforts having shown no clear results. I felt sympathy for them. Nonetheless, I had to ask if at times they were not their own worst enemies. At the end I called for more civility in this debate."
A few months back the Jesuit professor John P. Langan also called for civility to be restored to the Church's pro-life agenda. He warned against those "who use scurrilous and vicious language to attack those who deviate from the antiabortion line which they identify with Catholic orthodoxy", a line which lumps together "both those who deny that abortion is a moral evil and those who believe that even while it is indeed a moral evil, it cannot be effectively forbidden by law in the contemporary United States." Prof. Langan warned:
"To an increasing extent, the pro-life movement within the church shows a desire to act in ways which break amicable and civil relations with those both inside and outside our church who favor abortion or who support compromise on this issue."
Catholics here in Europe admire the US Church for two public stances in particular which are brave, bold, radical and effective. One is the anti-death penalty campaign, the other for comprehensive immigration reform including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants. Both have been models of civility: neither has been accused of vicious rhetoric and fundamentalism. Yet they are radical witnesses to the Church's teaching on the human dignity and sanctity of life, and have been effective in changing hearts and minds (the Church's main task, as I posted the other day).
Neither have "succeeded" in the sense that federal laws continue to allow criminals to be executed, and 12m undocumented migrants in the US are still waiting on their fate. But the Church's very public stance on these issues, and the patient work of bishops and campaigners, have awoken consciences. And unlike the pro-life movement, the activists have not rendered their cause disreputable by a lack of civility.
There may just be a lesson there.