As a Christian only recently received into the Catholic Church, I am frequently invited by other parishioners to take part in pro-life activities. I have been asked to participate in pro-life rallies, organized protests in front of local Planned Parenthood clinics and processions through the city in “marches for life.” Before I even completed the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, I was pressured to lend my signature to pro-life petitions and solicited to join the Respect Life committee. Often during discussion forums with other Catholics, the topic turned to abortion, a subject that superseded dialogue on all other important issues. The constant barrage of invitations to such ambitious activism was overwhelming—a little too much too soon.
At that time in my Catholic journey, I wanted to focus exclusively on personal piety and devotion to fundamental church teaching, history and Christology. There would be time for social action later.
My pre-Catholic religious life was deeply influenced in adolescence by Southern Baptist theology and conservative Bible teaching. While in college, I became a member of the Churches of Christ, a loving and rewarding affiliation. The Churches of Christ is an extremely conservative denomination, however, so much so that mechanical instruments are not allowed in the worship services, and women have few outlets for expression and service. The religious instruction included staunch opposition to abortion from the lectern.
I was affiliated with the Churches of Christ for almost 20 years. During these decades, I took part in evangelical and neoconservative politics in opposition to perceived “liberal” threats to Christian culture, like that embodied in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In defense against purported threats to our Judeo-Christian way of life, I was an enthusiastic soldier in the “culture wars.” In short, I can hardly be labeled “soft” on abortion.
Pro-Life Activism and Piety
Let me be clear: my visceral reaction to abortion is an emphatic no. Nevertheless, my personal opposition to the procedure is not what defines my virtue as a Christian. This is something that concerns me about my Catholic peers. It seems from where I sit (literally, in a wheelchair), that for many devoted Catholics and Protestants alike, the authenticity of a religious commitment is measured by the decibel level of one’s outrage over abortion.
I often get the impression that abortion politics permeates the religious devotion of many—and shame on anyone who does not share their enthusiasm for activism in pro-life causes. Unfortunately, many young people and new Catholics are subjected to an unwelcome kind of peer pressure to demonstrate their commitment as a Christian. For some, a willingness to join in the street activism against abortion is considered a litmus test for genuine Christian morality.
The nonconformist in me refuses to allow anyone to characterize me or scrutinize the legitimacy of my Christian experience. I refuse to have my “tires kicked” to prove my Catholic bona fides, and I place no such burden of proof on anyone else. The act of inducing shame to persuade someone to take part in a pro-life rally bears a strong resemblance to the practice in late antiquity of mandatory annual devotions to the local Roman deity—a public observance to which early Christians objected. Many embraced martyrdom in an effort to end it.
Are Catholics now required to produce public affidavits to verify their profession of faith? If so, must it address only the issue of abortion? Are depositions necessary to confirm my private fasting and almsgiving? Often peer pressure to engage in activism veils a particular political ideology. The holy Roman Catholic Church is no place for political factions or proselytizing for either political party.
A Distortion of Values?
In my short time as a Catholic, I have never been called upon to assemble on a cold Saturday morning to join in the distribution of blankets and hot soup with sandwiches to the homeless; I have never been urged to participate in weekend home repairs and yard cleaning for any disabled and elderly widows in the parish. Maybe that is because it takes more of a commitment to push a lawn mower than to hold up a sign.
This distortion of values among comfortable American Catholics is an aspect of my new faith that I find distressing. On the surface, it strikes me as superficial and self-righteous. I understand a desire not to stand idly by in the face of injustice, but I am concerned that many of my co-religionists channel their religious impulses more toward how they are publicly perceived and less toward personal piety.
I once heard, on a major cable television network, testimony from a well-known Washington, D.C., journalist and political pundit, who proudly stated that his personal religious renewal was informed by his late pro-life activism. While I applaud his newfound religious zeal, I believe faith should spring from a desire to know God through the fundamental teachings of Christ and the apostles, not from political impulses or a single act of merit.
True, our Scriptures and faith do teach that murder is sin. And the Didache, a widely circulated second-century Christian document, does specifically warn against aborting a fetus. But it is filled with additional wisdom and instruction: it charges Christians with the duties to keep the commandments and participate in the Eucharist. It calls them to engage in fasting and prayer, charity, virtuous behavior, caring for the afflicted and a host of other injunctions compatible with the New Testament.
Joining a Great Tradition
My disquiet about pro-life activism is not meant to indict the Catholic Church, of which I am now a part. On the contrary, one of the features that drew me to this church is its luminous history of social activism, from building homes and schools for orphans to openly supporting the civil rights movement to opposition to unjust wars and political oppression. The lives of the saints down through the ages speak loudly and help to shine the light of understanding on service. American Catholic luminaries also inspire me. Mother Katharine Drexel used her considerable fortune to finance over 60 schools and missions for poor African-Americans and American Indians around the country. Henriette DeLille devoted her life to nursing care and built homes and schools for orphans in Louisiana. The exemplary devotion of saints like these is not singular or exclusionary; it testifies to the all-inclusive love of Christ for the poor and the hungry, the orphan and the widow, the prisoner and the exploited, the unborn and the immigrant.
The church’s many worldwide charities have proved a powerful attraction; their importance to my conversion cannot be overstated. I am very proud to be a part now of that noble Catholic tradition. It is my goal to find my rightful place in the church and live out my faith profession by piety, service to society and the practice of good works—works that, the Scriptures teach, “God has prepared for us to walk in” (Eph 2:10).
That activity may include working toward a solution to the problem of abortion; but this will be a deliberate act of conscience on my part, not a surrender to the coercion of other parishioners. Those who confess faith in Christ must reconcile church teaching and their own conscience to determine their inclination to activity or inactivity with respect to the practice of true religion.
Since the pontificate of John Paul II, I witnessed as an outsider a revival in the American Catholic community. Catholics in the United States, unlike many elsewhere in the world, have the freedom and the means to minister to the needs of the afflicted. To limit ourselves and to focus so much energy on the single issue of abortion not only diminishes our efforts but also sets a poor precedent for new converts. Many of them are eager to engage their lives in service to God, humankind and local parish life. We ought not discourage their spiritual progress through excessive attention to one particular evil. Let’s show them and teach them to heal “all manner of sickness” in the human condition.