Wednesday, October 7, 2009

When Being Pro-Life Is Anti-Life: Catholics of the Right Crusade Against Health Care Reform

I blogged recently about political uses of the rosary in American Catholicism today that militate against some core values of the Catholic tradition, including the insistence that health care is a universal right and that every society has a moral obligation to provide access to health care for all citizens.

My posting about this focused on the Midwestern heartland. I’d like now to turn the focus to my own state of Arkansas, where some Catholic groups staged a public demonstration last Sunday to commemorate Respect Life Sunday. To my knowledge, this was not a rosary demonstration.

But it had the hallmarks of the rosary demonstrations I described recently, including an exclusive focus on abortion as the single life issue that should demand Catholic (and the public’s) attention today. And this demonstration gave every sign of being as politically motivated as the public rosary recitations I discussed previously. In my view, it deserves attention as yet another manifestation of Catholic piety wedded to a single political option, which is bringing Catholic social teaching into disrepute in the public square today.

I knew nothing about the event that took place in my area last Sunday until I found myself in the middle of it. It was a “prayer chain” to end abortion organized by a local Catholic pro-life activist, Marsha Boss. The statewide Catholic newspaper Arkansas Catholics notes that there will be other public Catholic demonstrations in October, including a public square rosary at which “more than 3,500 rosaries will be prayed” (I presume the number refers to a national tally) “for solutions to problems, such as abortion and same-sex marriage.” This crusade is sponsored by the same American Needs Fatima (i.e., American Society for Tradition, Family, and Property) outfit about which I blogged several days ago—a Catholic cult that has been condemned by the Catholic bishops of its home country of Brazil.

This public square rosary and the prayer chain to end abortion are occurring on the heels of a visit by a leading Catholic Republican activist, Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, to the state. Pavone came to Little Rock 28-29 August at the invitation of the Catholic diocese’s Respect Life office. About 120 Catholics from around the state gathered to hear him speak about the evil of abortion at a conference the diocese entitled “Called to Be Faithful.”

Pavone’s pedigree as a Republican activist is well-documented. In September 2004, Pavone gave a speech to a group of delegates to the Republican National Convention, stating, “Isn't it great to be among Catholics who aren't afraid to be political? And isn't it great to find a few priests who aren't afraid to be political?” Arguing that abortion was the “single issue” that mattered in the election of 2004, Pavone endorsed George W. Bush in that presidential election.

During the last presidential election, Pavone informed Catholics that, though Sarah Palin belongs to a Pentecostal church, she is more Catholic than Joe Biden. Following the election of Obama and Biden, Pavone stated that “Americans have made a grave mistake in electing Barack Obama to the presidency,” and invited “all ‘pro-life’ people” to join him for a tele-seminar to discuss political strategy following the Obama election.

After Obama’s election Pavone also noted that the outcome “brings about feelings of great disappointment, of anger” that, in his view, will re-energize politicized “pro-life” activists. Pavone was among the “pro-life” Catholics who rushed to Notre Dame in protest after that university invited President Obama to present its commencement address this spring. He held prayer rallies for students to pray about the invitation of a “pro-abortion” president to campus. Pavone claimed that the invitation of the president to Notre Dame represented a “radical betrayal” of what the university stands for.

As with other right-wing religious Republican activists, Pavone has been working assiduously in recent months to block health care reform. On 23 July, he appeared in a nationwide webcast with James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Mike Huckabee, and others to denounce health care reform on the ground that it will promote abortion. All these leaders have been overt for some years now about their belief that the Republican party is God’s choice for America, and that the Democrats represent a culture of death. Several of them are among the most influential anti-gay leaders in the country.

As the health care debate has heated up, Pavone has announced the creation of “Political Responsibility Teams” that will assist churches to speak out on political issues and “educate and activate citizens to exercise their responsibility to participate in the electoral process.” It is clear that working against health care reform will be a key goal of these groups, since Pavone accompanied the announcement of these teams with the observation that “[t]he reason for the mess we are in with the health care reform debate is the elections of 2008, and the way out of the mess will be the elections of 2010 and 2012.”

And so Father Pavone has recently been in Arkansas to speak about pro-life issues—rather, to speak about his highly selective and intensely partisan understanding of those issues. And why do I connect him to the public demonstration, the “prayer chain” to end abortion, that took place in Little Rock last weekend?

I do so not only because that event comes on the heels of Pavone’s visit to Arkansas, but because while he was here, Pavone received the “life-time promises” of the person who organized the “prayer chain” last Sunday, Marsha Boss. At the end of August, Ms. Boss made vows to become a lay Missionary of the Gospel of Life affiliated with Pavone’s Priests for Life.

Given its lineage, how could the prayer chain that Ms. Boss organized to commemorate Repect Life Sunday this past weekend be anything other than a political demonstration? Certainly those who took part in the event were carrying signs denouncing abortion. That’s all I saw, in fact, as I happened to drive past the protesters last Sunday: sign upon sign stating that abortion is evil, and that Jesus forgives and heals.

There were no signs calling for health care for all, in line with longstanding, consistent Catholic pro-life teaching. I didn’t see any signs decrying capital punishment. There weren’t any signs lamenting the war into which the last president drove us and the continuation of that war by the current president. Only abortion—the single life issue on whose basis Pavone urges us to vote.

The timing of these demonstrations—these prayer chains and public rosaries—is interesting. I don’t recall any of these events during the Bush presidency, when the president repeatedly refused to cash in his promises to Catholics to end abortion. Nor do I recall such public Catholic demonstrations to protest Reagan’s or George H. Bush’s failure to fulfill that same promise to Catholics. It is interesting that the stepped-up activity of the religious right in the heartland and the Southeast appears to coincide with the attempt of a Democratic administration to enact health-care reform.

Clearly, Pavone is correct: the election of a Democratic president is re-energizing the religious right base, and its “pro-life” foot soldiers are now marching in protest of a Democratic White House and Congress, while carrying signs calling for an end to abortion. And they’re protesting the implementation of a national health care plan that will, it is hoped, at least take a stab at providing access to health care for all citizens, including those on the margins who most need access to ongoing basic health care.

These foot soldiers of the Lord are trying to block a health care plan consistent with longstanding Catholic teaching that health care is a human right and that every society has a moral obligation to respect that right. For political reasons, they are seeking to disrupt the implementation of a health care plan that, if it works, will provide other choices for poor women with few resources as they think about terminating a pregnancy they cannot afford to continue.

The all-white Catholic protesters I saw last Sunday were lining the streets of an overwhelmingly white, affluent, heavily Republican suburb to consolidate the public’s image that the Catholic church is now a Republican church, and that Catholics who vote Democratic are defectively Catholic. They were waving signs protesting abortion and promising that Jesus will heal and forgive, but what they were actually proclaiming was that faithful Catholics stand against health care reform, when it is offered by a Democratic president. (And, let’s face it, it wasn’t even on the table when their “pro-life” president, Mr. Bush, was in the White House—and there was not a peep of protest on the part of these faithful Catholics then.)

The Catholic demonstration I witnessed in my city last weekend was not religious. It was not pro-life. It was a political statement that militated against core Catholic pro-life values. As is Fr. Pavone’s “pro-life” ministry, it was an embarrassment to the traditional Catholic pro-life teaching, an embarrassing political statement that misrepresents Catholic pro-life teaching in the public square.

The demonstration would have served authentic Catholic pro-life teaching far better if it had taken its cue not from Pavone but from the Catholic bishop of Arkansas, Bishop Anthony B. Taylor, who made the following statement when Fr. Pavone was in town:

But what about the other pro-life issues? You can be sure that if you teach what the Church teaches regarding any pro-life issue other than abortion, you will be subjected to a good deal of unpleasantness coming even from fellow Catholics, who—again, for their own reasons—reject Church teaching regarding the immorality of in vitro fertilization, embryonic stem-cell research, artificial contraception, sterilization, sexual morality, universal access to health care, economic justice, access to education, help for the poor and needy, euthanasia, and issues related to war, the rights of immigrants and capital punishment. These form a consistent ethic of life—break one thread and the protection for the sanctity of all life is diminished and soon the whole garment comes unraveled, including—as we know all too well—protection even for the child in the womb.

“Break one thread and the protection for the sanctity of all life is diminished and soon the whole garment comes unraveled”: the insight lying behind that observation is absolutely essential, if Catholic pro-life teaching is to make any difference to the culture at large. One cannot convincingly argue against abortion while one ignores capital punishment, poverty, and lack of access to health care as pro-life issues.

For Catholics of the left as for a significant number of those in the public square in general, the link between a universal ethic of life and opposition to same-sex marriage or artificial contraception is less self-evident. In our view, those issues must remain open to discussion, and the burden of proof is on those who claim that closing them and issuing a magisterial fiat about them serves the consistent ethic of life. In our view, in fact, an authentic pro-life approach would come to different conclusions about the morality of same-sex relationships and artificial contraception than the magisterium now reaches, and it would do so precisely for pro-life reasons.

But for many members of the public and for progressive Catholics, the link between issues like capital punishment, war, or health care and a consistent ethic of life is patently obvious. And the failure of our single-issue, one-political option brothers and sisters to recognize that link, their willingness to work against health care reform, their tacit (or sometimes vocal) support for capital punishment and for war, completely undermines their attempt to convince us that they are really pro-life, even if they do wave signs denouncing abortion.