What does it mean to love our enemies in the abortion debate?

Young people hold a sign during Chicago's March for Life Jan. 14. Thousands of participants braved frigid temperatures during the annual event. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)

This homily was delivered at the Jesuit Mass for Life at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church before the 45th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19, 2018.

Today, when you go out to the Mall and walk along Constitution Avenue to stand before the steps of the Supreme Court, will you be going out as God sent out Jeremiah, formed from the womb to be a prophet to the nations, to uproot and tear down, to build and to plant? Or will you be going out to walk those 1.3 miles with thousands upon thousands of people the way Jesus invites his disciples: turning the other cheek, rejecting the logic of violence and supremacy, willing to walk the extra mile even in the face of persecution? And even, for this is Jesus’ great challenge and invitation to us, to walk that mile with and for the persecutor?

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Of course, the answer that our faith calls for is, in the great refrain of the Catholic tradition, both-and. We will be doing both—we will be speaking truth to power on behalf of the defenseless unborn and, if God gives us the grace, at the same time loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.

Very few if any of the counter-protestors we meet at the steps of the court will be able to recognize in our faces any love at all.

What we are doing today will be ignored by many people in our country. Many of those who do not ignore it will misunderstand and even mistrust our marching today. Very few if any of the counter-protestors we meet at the steps of the court will be able to recognize in our faces any love at all—for them, for women struggling with pregnancy and considering abortion or even for the unborn.

But you know this already. If you have managed to get from your school or campus into a pro-life meeting, onto a bus or plane and all the way to Washington, you have certainly already had your motivations and your pro-life commitment challenged and mistrusted. You have probably had someone accuse you of wanting to control women’s bodies or of hating sex or of wanting to impose a theocracy or of only caring about babies until they are born. Of course, none of these caricatures are fair to what pro-lifers believe at our best. Nonetheless, we will be mistrusted, sometimes even persecuted, and these will be the excuses.

And let’s be honest: We often return that mistrust in our assumptions about pro-choice activists and politicians and sometimes even just people who tacitly support abortion or try to let themselves off the hook with something like “Well, I don’t believe in abortion, but I can’t impose my beliefs on someone else.” We think they are willfully ignoring the science on fetal development; we are tired of the way they keep changing the subject from the hard question of abortion to argue about something like funding for contraception; we suspect that their real reason for defending abortion is because it is the final back-up to birth control and the sexual revolution cannot keep going without it. But most of all, we do not trust that they really believe in human dignity as a basic moral rule—and that often means that we feel we cannot really trust them at all.

This mistrust is neither accidental nor inevitable. It is the product of our broken politics on the abortion question.

This mistrust—on both sides—is neither accidental nor inevitable. It is the product, most of all, of our broken politics on the abortion question: Forty-five tragic years of struggling against the constitutionalization of abortion, where no real progress or compromise seems possible until we finally win at the court. Forty-five years of abortion being used as a litmus test, for or against, for which candidates can get support. Forty-five years of abortion providing a reliable wedge issue, on both sides of the aisle, to turn out the base.

Lack of trust is not a problem for partisan politics; on a wedge issue like abortion, it actually serves as an advantage more often than not. But it is a problem for the Gospel.

Considered from the standpoint of politics, it seems the right tactical move is to press whatever advantage we have as far as it will go. Pass every law we can; appoint every judge we can; and align ourselves with whoever gets us closer to the goal of overturning Roe v. Wade, no matter the other costs.

The Gospel we heard today is a tactical trainwreck. It tells us to offer no resistance to enemies and love them instead.

In contrast, the Gospel we heard today is a tactical trainwreck. It tells us to offer no resistance to enemies and love them instead. To be blunt, it calls for pre-emptive unilateral disarmament. To be even more blunt: When we began Mass with the Sign of the Cross, we were embracing exactly where the logic of today’s Gospel leads us and where it led Jesus.

The Jesuit Mass for Life in Washington, D.C., Jan. 19
The Jesuit Mass for Life in Washington, D.C., Jan. 19

On the cross, Jesus calls us to embrace our enemies, but we also need to remember how we got to the point of enmity to begin with. We become enemies when we lose the hope of being able to trust one another. We become enemies when our goals seem so different that we cannot imagine how we would ever walk together in the same direction for 20 feet, much less two miles.

The politics of the last year have, I fear, even further entrenched that enmity in many of our communities. We have only to look at how our politicians are, right now, trapped in a crazy zero-sum game where they cannot figure out how to pay for health insurance for children that almost everyone agrees is a good idea—or how to avoid deporting 800,000 young people who have lived here most of their lives, which almost everyone agrees is a bad idea. Even when we mostly want the same thing, we cannot figure out how to do it together.

Jesus calls us to embrace our enemies, but we also need to remember how we got to the point of enmity to begin with.

And let’s be honest again: The pro-life movement is not blameless in this mess. We have allowed our support to be claimed by politicians who are right on abortion and wrong on nearly everything else and who have a more consistent respect for the pro-life vote than they do for the dignity of every human life at every stage. And these are among the reasons that we are often mistrusted and that we will be mistrusted by many people we pass in our march today. Even if the court reversed Roe v. Wade tomorrow, that mistrust would still need to be overcome in order for unborn children to be truly welcomed in love and protected in law.

I don’t know what rebuilding that trust will look like. But I do know how the Gospel calls us to start: by turning the other cheek, by walking the second mile, by loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors. The Gospel calls us, in other words, to accompany people who do not deserve it at great risk to ourselves, and in that accompaniment both we and our enemies may be transformed by grace in ways we do not expect.

The Gospel does not call us to win. It calls us to love.

And yes, we are also called to prophetic witness, as Jeremiah was. But Jeremiah was called to uproot and to tear down in order to clear the ground to build and to plant. He was formed from his mother’s womb to call Israel back to the covenant of love for which God had created them.

So, too, when we march, we must set out both to struggle for justice for the unborn and also to call our brothers and sisters back to the recognition of God’s love for each and every human life—both for the unborn and for themselves.

I have spent long enough in the pro-life movement to know how impractical and idealistic this all sounds. And if we leave it at the level of rhetoric, then it is impractical. Talking like this is not immediately likely to change any laws, get any judges appointed or win any cases.

But the Gospel does not call us to win. It calls us to love. And when we actually go out into the world and risk taking Jesus at his word, truly loving our enemies and walking the extra mile with them, we cooperate with God’s grace, grace so powerful that it was victorious even through death. I do not know what that is going to look like. But I trust that it will be better than any victory we could win for ourselves.

Readings: Jer 1:4-10, Ps 139, Mt 5:38-48

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Melissa McCracken
10 months 3 weeks ago

Up here in Canada, us pro-life folk have been trying to turn the other cheek for the thirty years since R. v Morgentaler, our court case that nullified our abortion laws. Pro-lifers have been, for the most part, putting their resources into pregnancy resource centres, and there has been no concerted effort, except by one group that takes an all-or-nothing approach, and has thus alienated most of the pro-life and all of the pro-choice community, to put any commonsense restrictions on abortion in place.

And where has that got us? Our prime minister has recently announced that, in order to receive summer job grants that they have gotten for years, our faith-based charities must attest that they support "women's reproductive rights", or they don't get the money. And our media are starting to question whether or not our pregnancy resource centres, who do good work, should receive charitable status.

All this to say that, in hindsight it is important to work to change those laws, to get those judges appointed, and to win those cases.

Rosemarie Zagarri
10 months 3 weeks ago

It's interesting--and significant--that a priest characterizes someone who disagrees with him about abortion as an "enemy." I think that tells you all you need to know about the possibility of dialogue.

Sam Sawyer, S.J.
10 months 3 weeks ago

Hello Rosemarie — would it make any difference to remember that this is a homily, and I'm preaching from a Gospel text where Jesus commands us to "love our enemies"? I'm not sure how I could have spoken in the context of the Gospel without using that term.

Rosemarie Zagarri
10 months 3 weeks ago

I understand that it was a homily based on a reading. But the first thing I would have done is asked, "Should we consider those who differ from us in their views on abortion "our enemies"? And then I would have talked about the need for empathy and compassion with those who' disagree. And I would have said that starting out from a position of concern rather than enmity might lead lead at least some of those who disagree to consider the otherpoint of view. But I also don't deny that demonizing the opposition is a position people on both sides of the issue often take.

Lisa Weber
10 months 3 weeks ago

I think "loving your enemies" in the abortion debate means not to demonize the other. A person who disagrees with you is only that - someone who disagrees.

It is difficult to have a nuanced discussion of abortion in the Catholic Church because the church bans contraception. The faithful do not abide by that ban, by and large, and yet we cannot acknowledge that it. We end up talking about matters irrelevant to the issue at hand.

Nora Bolcon
10 months 3 weeks ago

Amen Sister. It is the church which is using its influence to break the reasonable, facts-based political discussion on the topic of abortion and birth control. This is the number one reason for the polarization and self-destructive limbo we reside within in our country on this subject. Knowing now that Obamacare's increased access to better quality, artificial, birth control for more women in the U.S. (especially poor women) has already shown a decrease in the abortion rate to the point where our abortion rate is either at the same rate as it was when it was illegal in the U.S. and possibly even at a lower rate than that because it is likely stats are less accurate in how many reported it when it was illegal, should not this automatically create the demand from our church to change its rules on contraception? Yet, it has not done so and neither do we hear that demand from Pro-"Life" Groups. We are also given no sane reason for our church leadership or these groups not changing there minds on the subject of contraception. Sometimes suspicion of a group's priorities is warranted by their actions and inactions.

Nora Bolcon
10 months 3 weeks ago

A long comment because this subject is too important and too many Catholics do not have any idea what the facts on this subject actually are.

Well we must start with this highly incorrect statement: "This mistrust is neither accidental nor inevitable. It is the product of our broken politics".

Nope, sorry, it is the product of our broken religious politics and misogyny.

How do I know this with confidence? By examining actual facts.

There have been 3 major articles on abortion laws and contraceptive laws taken on a global scale over that last two decades. The first of the three was written in 2007 by a newspaper in Rome. All three gave reliably sourced statistics stating that outside of one small country in Western Europe, the countries with the laws which are most prohibitive of abortion and birth control are the countries with the highest abortion rates per pregnancies of all countries and also the countries with highest maternal deaths per pregnancies as well. The World Health Organization is one of the reliable sources for the stats. but not the only one and there is no even quasi-legitimate source contradicting these findings over the last several decades. These statistic also pointed out quite clearly that the countries which are most lenient with abortion rights and who offer free contraception or tax-paid contraception to all citizens while offering easy access thru the government system, have, by far, the least amount of abortions and maternal deaths per pregnancies. There are also direct links between extreme poverty in many countries and the inability for women of these countries to access any birth control. So there are the FACTS. NOT OPINIONs, NOT BELIEFS, BUT THE FACTS - realities proved by actual large scale research and evidence. This research was done by specialists in the fields of health care, global population trends and trends in poverty and global violence.

Now I am Catholic, which means I believe first and foremost in the Gospel of Jesus Christ being the ultimate Truth above all Truths. What I have come to understand, over much time, is that this ultimate truth may or may not be able to be proven true, during the age I am currently in, by scientific method or other reliable evidence. However, this truth is also never adequately disproven by legitimate science or research either.

This is where the Pro "Life" movement has its main problems. If your movement's CHOICE of actions against even a genuine immorality cause more of the immorality to occur, i.e, in this case - more stricter laws always equal more abortions, how do you justify continuing to push this choice of action in order to deal with the immorality? Why are you not instead choosing a different approach which has already been proven to work better at lessening the immorality occurring in the world to a great degree? Whether the Pro-"Life" movement wants to deal with the reasonableness of this question or not, others will demand a reasonable answer to it, including Catholics.

Many Catholics and others will also make the reasonable assumption that protecting the unborn was perhaps never Pro-"Life's" agenda because these facts would likely stop any reasonable person, genuinely seeking abortion to be lessened, right in their tracks, and make them instantly consider another path or another CHOICE of reactions to the immorality of abortion. Yet this does not seem to be this group's choice.

For example, if rape were proven, globally, 99 % of the time to be increased in countries where the strictest rape laws existed and were meticulously enforced, and the countries that had practically no anti-rape laws had the least rapes occurring over the last several decades, I would promote countries not illegalizing rape. Why? Because the point of the rape laws is to stop or at least decrease, as much as possible, the occurrence of rape. Does that mean I believe rape is moral? NO - not at all. It means I don't support criminal laws that have already, on a global scale, been proven to increase certain immoralities occurring. Some sins are not decreased by criminalization of any of the involved parties (women or doctors re: abortion). Rape is a sin that has been proven to be substantially decreased the stricter and more enforced the laws are globally despite the country but the reverse is true of abortion. These are the facts.

Unfortunately, our church has a misogynistic streak which is evidenced by the fact that without cause in any gospel, we refuse to treat and ordain women equally to men. Abortion is a sin only women can really commit and our church up until this past year let women know that abortion was so sinful that it required women to get absolution from a bishop where a male mass murderer did not need to go to these lengths officially unless he killed a pregnant woman to gain absolution. This gives "The enemies" to Pro-"Life" good cause to not trust the motives of Pro-"Life" as an organization. The broken politics came from the broken religious attitudes of misogyny and the real desire to control women by our Christian Churchmen over the last millennia.

As a good Christian and a Good Catholic who believes Jesus Christ said Yes, you may judge a behavior as immoral and not choose to support that behavior itself, and teach against it to those who seek to hear the truth, and help anyone who is in a desperate situation get help, but this does not mean you have the right to judge or condemn people. This is the Lord God's job, alone. This translates for me - use the common sense God gave you when choosing to support laws. I do not have to support governmental laws criminalizing all immoral behavior, especially, if facts have broadly proven that such laws will cause real harm to the situations involving that behavior rather than cure them.

If we, Catholics to Catholics, and Pro-Life to Pro-Choice, refuse to dialogue honestly regarding the facts and the alternatives to illegalizing abortion and reconsider our beliefs on artificial contraception, based on the facts regarding abortion too, I see no end to the nonsense or lack of peace on the subject.

To note: The countries with the lowest abortion rates also tended to supply universal good quality health care for all of their citizens and the unborn while also offering good quality free day care for all their citizen's children. I offer this as a couple of possible examples of how alternative choices from criminalization, as a reaction to abortion, can make a much bigger difference in how much abortion occurs. There are other non-criminalizing possibilities beyond these which would likely also lessen abortion numbers.

However, none of these ideas matters for anything, if Pro-Life's agenda is not one of reducing abortions as its first and top-most priority.

Henry George
10 months 3 weeks ago

Nora,
You seek the better but you allow evil.
We live in a Fallen World and now in a world where people refuse to feel any guilt.
The Pro-Life Movement should seek to support all Mothers/Children.
But does that mean we have to condone laws that make the killing of children in the womb - legal
because to make the killing of the babes in the womb - illegal cause more abortions ?

Suppose Hitler in March of 1940 made the proposal to England, France and Russia.
Let me keep Poland.
Deliver me the Jews of Europe so that I might exterminate them and I will not wage war in
Europe. Think of it, no new World War for the deaths of 8 million Jews.
Or do you want a new World War and 60 million dead...?

Nora Bolcon
10 months 3 weeks ago

Hello Henry,

I believe you mean well but you are comparing apples and oranges. Your example leads people to believe that we can have any real control over anyone's lives in the abortion area because we have made laws criminalizing abortion. Which is the point of my comment, that is a false belief. History has already proven that criminalizing laws not only don't lower abortion rates in any country, they instead do drastically increase abortion rates in every country, and without exception, the stricter the abortion and contraception laws are, the higher the number of abortions, and maternal deaths there are in any country. No one is offering Poland.

So the correct "Nazi killing Polish Jews" comparison to my comment is this: If we make it illegal for Nazis to kill Polish Jews, but we don't make this illegal anywhere else, and this law, over decades, and based on continuous research, has absolutely proven that since the presence of these Polish Protection Laws, there has only been a dramatic increase in the number of Jews being killed in Poland by Nazis, and in every other country in Europe, where it is perfectly legal for Nazis to kill Jews, there are much fewer Nazis killing Jews, should we keep the laws against killing Jews in Poland or not? What is the more compassionate decision? To keep laws we know will result in enormous and continuous deaths but they sound much more moral to the public than laws that allow the killing? I can tell you if I was a Jew in Poland with my families life on the line, and the research was as clear as the research on abortion is, globally, I would beg Europe to keep the killing of Jews in Poland legal.

You need to realize your comparison is not a very good one to begin with because women do not abort for the same reasons Nazis kill Jews and the reasons women abort can be alleviated without criminalizing abortion. Also attacking abortion in other ways than criminalizing it keeps women with their rights over their own bodies intact. Again, this alternative choices to illegalization have already been proven to work better based on facts. For example, countries, like Germany, who have very lenient abortion laws but great access to free contraception, free and excellent daycare, excellent paid long term maternity and paternity laws, and universal health care protecting the financial wellbeing of new parents while insuring excellent health care for both mother and child even long after child birth and into adulthood have the lowest abortion rates, on a global scale, and have had these lower rates for decades.

The Pro-Life Movement should indeed seek to support all mothers and children, and they should powerfully support free and easily accessed contraception but they don't usually. The majority of Pro-lifers are republicans who are against paying for most, if not all, tax funded social programs. But if they did support these things, this would likely help the situation somewhat. Still it does not change the fact that illegalization of abortion increases it. This fact has been proven in every country of the world. The only country where we are not certain if law changes would decrease or increase abortion rates is Sweden. This is because despite the extremely lenient laws with abortion, in this one country the rate is still very high. This does not mean however, that if Sweden did make stricter laws, it would not just result in Sweden's rate rising even higher than its already high rate.

We are supposed to be Christians. Jesus never once told us we are responsible to make any laws in any country regarding anything including even actual murder. He commanded we love God and love each other. He told us do not judge or condemn if we do not wish to be judged or condemned. He told us do what is right ourselves, teach others to do the same, and help anyone who is in a bad situation whenever they ask. This is how we prove we are Christian. Thru example and teaching what is right, not trying to force people to do what is right.

As an American, not so much as a Christian, we must make some laws in order to avoid total anarchy and keep extremely violent crimes or financially devastating crimes that have been proven to decrease with legal punishment or incarceration from happening with frequency and in order to keep the peace in our country and keep a basic level or just playing field for all citizens. This is also the problem with any abortion law we would try to make, we are demanding not equal rights for the unborn but more than equal rights, as we are taking away the basic rights of women to choose not to use their bodies for the support of another human's life, and giving that right to choose to the state. Men are not demanded to use their organs to support other human beings lives against their will. For example, We do not force men and women to donate organs, even if doing so will very likely save another person's life. We recommend people offer their organs or blood donations but we don't call people murderers if they refuse to save another persons life in this way. We have no laws demanding organ tissue or blood donation even from parents to save their own child's life. So we need to face the fact there is some latent misogyny in the treatment of women compared to men on these similar subjects and as Christians we need to face the fact that God does not value the unborn more than the born or babies more than their mothers or fathers. All lives are equal in God's eyes.

I wish you Peace and Christ's Blessings Henry, as I do believe you mean well with your comment but I hope you can try to understand why I can't support the choice of criminalizing abortion over other choices to deal with this immorality. This seems a completely wrong choice given the evidence, even though I do not support abortion and I do find it immoral. At the same time I would never get an abortion myself or recommend others do so. However, evidence show us that not all sins are cured with the same medicine and I refuse to ignore that evidence.

Henry George
10 months 2 weeks ago

Nora,
Again you mean well, but you are condoning the abortion of innocent babes.
Your contention is that if a mother wants an abortion she will somehow get one,
so why pass a law against it ? The laws against abortion only drive women who are
fully intent on procuring an abortion to illegal abortionists or self-inflicted abortions.
Thus women should be free to seek an abortion if they so wish.
All you are saying is that murderers - instead of killing their victims in broad daylight,
which they could do, must now use stealth and the cover of night because we dare
to have laws against Murder.

You wish to grant a free license but then claim that your hands are bloodless.
You also approve of contraceptive use - though it has been shown to increase
the rate of abortion and children born out of marriage.

You cannot offer up innocent lives to make life, apparently, easier.

Rosemarie Zagarri
10 months 3 weeks ago

Thank you for this factual and eloquent assessment. But how many priests are listening to women who understand the complexity of this subject? Because of this failure, when Church officials promote the March for Life they are doing nothing more than acting as shills for the Republican party and attempting to indoctrinate a new generation of Catholics with a narrow definition of "pro-life" that is confined to the anti-abortion cause. And by continually referring to abortion as the gravest of evils, the Church focuses, as they have for millennia, on women's ostensible sinfulness while ignoring or minimizing men's complicity..

Nora Bolcon
10 months 3 weeks ago

I agree with you Rosemarie that is why I wrote this on a Jesuit Magazine's comment section. I believe priests read these comments. I can tell you whenever I have let priests or clergy or other Catholics know about the facts on this issue, they are almost always genuinely surprised and shocked. We must fight the many forms of misogyny in our Church before we can call ourselves a just church. Changing our unjust use of Holy Orders to keep women without voice and the respect of equal sacredness in our church is the rule that in my belief underlies all the other misogynistic ideals and myths in Catholicism. So I work to change these beliefs with protests and letters to bishops, Cardinals and even the Pope, and with comments like these today designed to speak the truth against commonly held falsehoods within our religion. We must never give up Rosemarie! Never! This world needs a just church desperately to lead it to Christ and right now we are a church that hurts people often as much as it heals them. This is not what Christ wanted but it is up to us to pray and work diligently for change. Peace my Sister and God Bless You.

R Henry
10 months 2 weeks ago

"We have allowed our support to be claimed by politicians who are right on abortion and wrong on nearly everything else and who have a more consistent respect for the pro-life vote than they do for the dignity of every human life at every stage."

How can you simultaneously "call us to love" while lobbing such a blatantly biased, disparaging political remark toward those who hold views in contrast to your own?

Sorry good Brother, epic fail. Rewrite?

Jim Lein
10 months 1 week ago

I think that we men have little to say on this issue, especially about law change. We, after all, are responsible for all pregnancies, including the unwanted or problem ones. If we behaved less badly, fewer women would feel abandoned, alone, in a very difficult and unique situation. Favoring law change is, I think, a cop out for us, especially considering that in some instances the significant other pressuring a woman to have an abortion is the man responsible for the pregnancy.

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