Our Widening Embrace

[Note: Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve approached three periodicals with strong progressive, social justice slants — one of them Christian, the other two more mainstream — with this piece. Acknowledging that the stance it takes on abortion does not fit with their own editorial positions, I noted that it embraces the premises that ground those positions and said I hoped it might offer their readers a chance to consider the issue from a new point of view at this important time in American politics and perhaps stimulate a respectful conversation. Call me naive or unrealistic. All three rejected the piece, and rather quickly. Rather than continue to shop it around, I post it here.]

 

Our Widening Embrace

As the American left surges, let’s include the unborn in its circle of care

by Barry Hudock

 

It’s clear that after a few days of post-election funk last November, the American left has no intention of languishing in despondency following Donald Trump’s rise to President of the United States. The massive January 21 Women’s March in Washington, DC, on the day after the inauguration, was only the first vivid sign of this, but it is far from the only one. Indeed, energized by threats to decades of progress on an array of human and civil rights issues by an unpopular president who leads a deeply divided party, the left is now, as Owen Jones has rightly noted, “stronger than it has been for decades.”

I have personally experienced the compulsion to action that Trump’s cynical nationalism, racism, and misogyny arouses. In the weeks following the election, I knew that as a white male born and raised in rural Pennsylvania (in a county where Trump received over 78 percent of the vote!), I could not avoid finding ways to counteract the ugly forces he had unleashed. Since then, I’ve volunteered to teach English to local Somali immigrants, begun making regular calls to my congressional representatives, and developed the new habit of thanking immigrants I encounter for choosing to make the U.S. their home. I have Donald Trump to thank for, unintentionally, goading me into action.

But even as I stand with so many other Americans concerned about those disadvantaged by our policies and our fears, I find myself keenly aware of a major difference among us. Indeed, the Women’s March brought out the difference in sharp relief.

Just days before the event, its central office released a statement to “assure all of our partners, as well as participants, that we are pro-choice.” The March, they made clear, welcomed only people who “share the view that women deserve the right to make their own reproductive decisions.” This comes in spite of the powerful statement included on the event’s website, explaining its mission: “We support the advocacy and resistance movements that reflect our multiple and intersecting identities. We call on all defenders of human rights to join us.”

Of course, one human right – surely the most fundamental of them all – is the right to life. It has a prominent place in both the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.S. Declaration of Independence. And as the very term suggests, human right come with being human. There is no achievement, skill, or ideological test by which we earn it. It is limited by no citizenship or border. Governments do not grant human rights; they are bound to respect and protect them.

It is tragic, then, that the rights of those who are not yet born are so ignored. Whether or not the pre-born are human is not a matter of creed, philosophy, or opinion. It is a scientific fact.

Now, I am not naïve enough to think that acknowledging this fact solves every question about the morality or legality of abortion. Theoretically, at least, one can argue that personhood is different than humanity. The latter is a scientific matter, but the former is a philosophical one; there is no genetic test to confirm personhood.

But this is precisely where the instincts of progressives ought to serve as a moral compass, pointing them in a different direction than they have typically taken. Such folks are more prepared than most to insist that there is no segment of the human community that does not count as people. They know better than most – or are at least more willing to admit it – that while human history (including American history) is littered with attempts to put certain humans outside the circle of those considered human persons, this has always led to profound tragedy, atrocity, and bitter regret.

Is there any example of a time when excluding a certain category of humanity from what was judged to be personhood was just and good? The progressive answer most common today amounts to this: “No, there is not. Well, except one. We have deprived black people of their humanity before the law, and that was disastrous. In various ways and through various means, we ignored the human rights of women and gays and native Americans and the poor, and in every case it led to crimes that cried to heaven for vengeance. But in the case of the unborn, yes, denying the right to life and every other right – that is the way of justice.”

Does this really ring true in progressive hearts and minds?

President Obama said in his farewell address of January 10, 2017: “[T]he long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.” Legal abortion does not widen that embrace; it narrows and restricts it. Indeed, it transforms that protective embrace to a destructive fist.

Demanding a woman’s right to abortion in the name of her bodily autonomy is a lot like Donald Trump’s jingoistic nationalism. In both cases, protection of the self comes at the expense of others, especially of the vulnerable. With both, autonomy destroys solidarity.

Dismiss this as “mansplaining” if you must – there’s no denying, that’s a thing. But before you do, please remember that it echoes the convictions of some of foundational figures of the United States’ women’s movement – Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Blackwell, and more.

Consider instead the possibility that the biological data and ethical thinking that grounds the pro-life movement is not mansplaining at all. Rather, maybe the false and tragic dismissal of the developing fetus as a mere “clump of cells” and the insistence that the rights of women must be defended at the expense of an even more vulnerable population, are what we might call bornsplaining – the efforts of those who are already born to justify ignoring the rights and dignity of those who are not and who can’t speak up in opposition.

As the strength and energy of the American left surges – like antibodies going after a disease that is attacking our body politic – I am heartened, and I pledge to lend a hand. But for the sake of consistency and of the solidarity of the human community, I implore my fellow advocates for causes of justice to broaden their minds and hearts even wider.

 

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Celebrating life at a Pennsylvania parish: my new article in The Priest

Every year on January 22, anti-abortion folks mark the anniversary of the 1972 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. The Catholic Church in the U.S. observes it formally as a Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children. And many activists, Catholic and otherwise, descend on Washington, DC, every year on that day for the annual March for Life.

Here’s my new article for The Priest magazine about one small U.S. parish’s approach the marking the day in a way that’s appealing, appropriate, and educational for kids and their families. Other parishes may wish to take up the idea.

Faith on film: A Man for All Seasons turns 50

On December 12, 1966, the film A Man for All Seasons premiered in New York City. This movie about Sir Thomas More, a Catholic saint who was martyred for his refusal to deny Church doctrine about marriage and the papacy, quickly became one of the year’s biggest hits and one several major Oscar awards.

My Our Sunday Visitor article marking the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s appearance is here.

New in The Priest: “A Civil Holiday with a Catholic Twist”

My new article on various ways that Catholic parishes celebrate Thanksgiving Day appears in the November issue of The Priest. Here are the opening grafs:

Let’s be clear from the start: Thanksgiving Day in the United States is a civil holiday, not a Catholic one. But it’s hard to deny the holiday’s religious themes and its profound resonance with Catholic faith and values.

President Abraham Lincoln, when declaring it a national holiday in 1863, spoke of it as a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Thanksgiving certainly holds a place in the hearts of Catholic families as large as in those of other Americans. And the values it celebrates — gratitude to God, freedom and dignity, unity among families and peoples — are Catholic to the core.

For these reasons, observing Thanksgiving among Catholic parish communities in the United States is both common and fitting. Let’s take a look at the ways some parishes across the nation do it.

This is my first time on the pages (and webpages) of The Priest, so I’m excited about that. You can find the entire article online here.

On Mother Teresa and her legacy, new in OSV

With the canonization of Mother Teresa by Pope Francis coming up on Sunday, September 4, Our Sunday Visitor has posted two related articles I’ve written.

The first is a biographical piece, recounting her fascinating and awe-inspiring life — which included a dramatic mystical experience, a surprising spiritual secret known to almost no one while she lived, and an iron will to make God’s love known to the poor. (This article includes a sidebar that considers several criticisms of Mother Teresa that you sometimes come across.) You’ll find all that here.

The second is a look at the ways her legacy is still being carried out very concretely today. Everyone knows she founded the order of sisters known as the Missionaries of Charity, but did you know there’s a long list of other orders and organizations as well? You’ll find that article here.

What a remarkable figure. Just preparing the articles called me to a deeper faith and greater love.

St. Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.

On women deacons: seems we need a darn good reason not to

Following up on my previous post, I offer this thought: If an all-male, Vatican-appointed group of conservative scholars (and I do not use “conservative” as a negative) with a likely interest maintaining the status quo can spend five years studying scripture, doctrine, theology, and linguistics in considering the question of women deacons, and the strongest conclusion they can reach is one that  — in the words of its general secretary — “tend[s] to support the exclusion of this possibility,” well then, we might very well call that a resounding statement in support of women deacons. That’s because, given the cultural bias against the full dignity and personhood of women that marks most of Western history and current society, and which has been well-absorbed by Catholic life, thought, and practice, we should all be able to agree that there needs to be a blindingly clear and obvious reason not to open any role to women.

The baseline principle of any such discussion should be the equality of women, and the burden of proof should be on those wish to deny them anything at all.

If there’s a flaw in that line of thinking, I’d love to hear it.

The 2002 ITC study on women deacons: a few relevant points

Now that the composition of Pope Francis’s commission, assigned with the task of studying the possibility of women deacons in the Catholic Church, has been announced, it’s worth pointing out that the topic has been addressed before at the Vatican level. Indeed, some critics are irked that Francis doesn’t consider the previous effort the end of the matter.

The previous effort these critics are referring to is a 5-year study, released in 2002 by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, titled “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles.”

At Catholic World Report, Carl Olsen wondered in May whether the Pope has “any idea of the needless can of worms he opened up,” since “the issue has been discussed. At length.” He mentions that the ITC study is a “42,679 word document.” Questioning the Pope’s grasp of the issue, Olsen thinks Francis may be “oblivious to the 2002 ITL study and all that has already gone into this topic” (while Olsen himself is, of course, “well aware of what the ITC has studied over the years”).

At the New Liturgical Movement blog, Gregory DiPippo seems to think Francis’s new commission is a waste of time as well. Like Olsen, he wants us to be crystal clear about the fact that the document was long, writing: “it clocks in at a bit over 42,000 words; this works out to about 85 single-spaced pages in the standard layout (Times New Roman, 12-point).” And he writes: “The members of the new commission probably don’t have to worry about whether they can keep their day jobs, since a very large portion of their work has already been done for them. It is difficult to imagine that any significant historical documents or liturgical texts referring to women deacons in the ancient Church have been discovered since 2002.”

In short, they’re telling us, a panel of Vatican-appointed theologians, chaired by Cardinal Ratzinger, spent five years studying the question fifteen years ago. Isn’t it a little silly to go back and hash out the same questions? What a waste of time.

In light of this, I simply want to make a few points that Olsen and DiPippo don’t mention.

(1) The 2002 document from the International Theological Commission is not a magisterial document, so it’s not binding on the Church and doesn’t represent Church teaching. There’s no reason it needs to be regarded as any more than an opinion of a few notable scholars (all of whom, by the way, were men; there wasn’t a single woman on the commission).

(2) Importantly, the 2002 document did not come down decisively against the possibility of women deacons. Admittedly, after carefully scouring the Bible, the history of the Church, and the theological and doctrinal tradition, the study did  — in the words of ITC’s general secretary Father (later Cardinal) Georges Cottier — “tend to support the exclusion of this possibility.” But if a Vatican commission, whose interests, it would not be unfair to suggest, were in maintaining the status quo, could not construct a decisive argument in favor of the status quo, that’s significant.

(3) To drive home for us what a waste of time the new commission is, DiPippo notes that absolutely no “significant historical documents or liturgical texts referring to women deacons in the ancient Church have been discovered since 2002.” And this is true. But it’s also true that since 2002, canon law has been significantly modified by Pope Benedict XVI to make clearer the theological distinctions between the diaconate and the priesthood/episcopate. (This is important since one important factor in the 2002 doc’s inclination against possibility of women deacons is precisely the idea of “the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders.”) So in fact we have more theological/canonical data now than we did then — and the additional data supports a different conclusion than the 2002 effort reached.

What I offer here is not the case for women deacons. It is, rather, a case for not putting any more weight on the 2002 ITC study than it deserves.