Thursday, August 28, 2008

Respect for Life: The Tragedy in New Orleans

As the current elections revive the increasingly enervating discussion of the pro-life principles that should guide people of faith as they make political decisions, I want to post on this blog I piece I posted elsewhere on 6 September 2006. This statement appeared on the blog of the National Catholic Reporter website at, where there's a fairly lengthy thread discussing it. I wrote the piece in September 2005.

My statement about Katrina and Catholic pro-life principles is as follows:

I’ll admit it: I’m biased. New Orleans is the lodestone of my adult life, the gravitational force always pulling me back. I began my college teaching career there, reveling in the generosity of seasoned teacher-mentors at Xavier University, who patiently taught me how to identify and use my gifts as a teacher. The jewel-like experiences I have had in that magical, maddening city near the river’s mouth have enriched my life in ways so profound that I will never get over New Orleans. Nor do I wish to do so.

I studied at both Loyola and Tulane. In my undergraduate education, what the Jesuits at Loyola taught me about God’s determination to lift up the downtrodden has forever stamped me. The Jesuits compelled me into ministry, overturning my well-laid plans to sequester myself in an ivory tower with my beloved Greek and Latin texts. Those crafty men who would not cease nattering about the importance of living for others turned my life upside down. I came to them a callow middle-class youth from a small Southern town. I left them with blinders forever stripped from my eyes. After what I learned in my years of ministry to the needy in New Orleans, I had no option except to head off to study theology, to get my mind around what my heart had learned about how systems of neglect and oppression affect the poor.

In my forays into ministry in New Orleans, I brought books, literacy training, food, and housing assistance to the needy. I approached these expeditions cavalierly: I was the one bearing gifts, after all, the one with the answers. But I quickly discovered that those to whom I reached out offered me far more than I could ever bring them. They taught me more than I could ever begin to teach them.

With these connections, I am shaken to the core of my soul by the scenes I have watched unfold in New Orleans day after day this week. I feel a frustration akin to battering my head against prison walls as I watch people pleading for food and water, even dying from lack of elemental nutrition or simple medication. I watch these scenes in helpless rage, in a comfortable house well-stocked with food and pure water. As I sit glued to my television set, I shout questions at it: how is it possible that we live in an advanced nation in which technology allows us to see people die of hunger, and yet our nation’s leaders seem incapable of delivering food to these suffering people we can see in front of us? I ask the television if we are in truth a developing nation, incapable of meeting the simplest nutritional and healthcare needs of our populace when disaster strikes.

As I worry the well-paced rug of questions in my head, I flash back to the last presidential election, when so many of our religious leaders twisted our arms as they informed us that voting for any but the pro-life candidates would be wicked in the extreme. I recall some of my own Catholic bishops compelling their flocks to vote pro-life, spelling out the “right” candidates and the “wrong” ones. I recall bishops who were willing to break with longstanding Catholic tradition and to use the Eucharist as a political whip to coerce errant believers into submission to their episcopal will.

I am also flashing back now to those grim scenes outside the facility in which Terri Schiavo died, when pro-life religious leaders held daily vigil as hydration was removed from the brain-dead woman lying inside. Where are those advocates for life now, I keep crying out to my television? Where are they as babies cry for water in the grueling heat of New Orleans summer days? Where are they, while corpses collect unburied, blankets draped over them, on the sidewalks of New Orleans?

The scenes we are seeing show us people dying precisely as Terri Schiavo died, from lack of nutrition and hydration. And yet those now dying on the streets of New Orleans are not brain-dead. They have the potential to live vibrant lives. Where are the buses of protesters now, shouting about how our nation has lost all respect for life? For that matter, where are the bishops who sought to bully us into voting pro-life in the last election? I have yet to hear the voice of a single one of my episcopal leaders, as human beings plead for food and water in New Orleans.

And the pro-life leaders the bishops told us to elect: what is their response to the agonizing scenes we see anytime we care to turn on our television sets? They are as absent as our bishops. As the grim scenes in New Orleans unfold before us, a number of bishops (along with their political allies) are engrossed in planning Eucharistic events, huge religious parties to celebrate the bread of life. Are those planning these parties recalling, I wonder, that the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper centers on a table, on bread, on wine, on food offered to the hungry? There is continuity between the dinner table at which we break our daily bread and the Eucharistic table at which the church offers bread to all hearts hungry for God.

When the church fails to do all it can to defend those who lack daily bread, it undermines everything that it proclaims about the holy bread of life. A church that neglects those hungry for daily bread cannot convincingly announce God’s invitation to hungry hearts everywhere to come to the table of living bread. Where are the bishops who teach this as the very heart and soul of Christian faith, while people lie dying in the streets in New Orleans, in this land of plenty, and no bread arrives?

Perhaps those bishops need to re-think their support for “pro-life” politicians who, to all appearances, seem shockingly callous in face of the need of poor, hungry human beings trapped like rats in a bowl in a major American city now lying largely underwater. Perhaps, as they prepare for their big Eucharistic shindigs, they should be pondering the core significance of what they profess about the bread of life. At the very least, perhaps they should be adding to their roster of speakers some who will remind us of the connections between providing daily bread to the hungry and inviting the spiritually hungry to the table of the Lord.

If they don’t do these things, it’s entirely possible that, one day, the bishops will give a party and no one will come. Or that they’ll shake their big sticks to compel the faithful to vote the “right” way, and no one will cower anymore. It’s possible that, having seen how our pro-life leaders have responded to the needs of the people of New Orleans, we will re-think what it means to vote pro-life in future elections, no matter what our bishops tell us.

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