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Helping or Hurting?

October 10, 2019 (1,986 words)

Our youngest has just started his freshman year of college, and while visiting him last weekend I attended Mass at St. Joseph the Worker Parish, in Williamsport, PA.

The celebrant was a visiting Augustinian from Villanova, who also happens to be a member of the group Priests for Life, the largest ministry in the Catholic Church focused on ending abortion.

Like other Augustinians from Villanova I’ve crossed paths with in recent years, this gentleman presented very well. He was old enough to be proficient, and still young enough to get his point across with verve.

He was comfortable speaking extemporaneously, so his homily was off the cuff. No doubt it was based on many such homilies given to other congregations hearing him for the first time.

As engaging as Father was, he did ramble a bit. Actually the homily seemed to go interminably, and lasted far longer than it really needed to. He circled back on occasion and repeated a few things, and not just for emphasis. But the message was sound, and there was hardly anything for me to take issue with.

But I did find a thing or two.

Father started by praising the wisdom of our country’s founders. He specifically referenced that famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence, about how “we have been endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.” And then he invoked the familiar list of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Like many pro-lifers, Father cited that right to life in the context of the unborn. He then launched into an interesting riff about how we Americans have thoroughly misunderstood the notion of liberty, and how we have focused too exclusively on our own individual happiness.


Christianity stands in stark contrast to our national ethos…


At which point Father exclaimed: “That’s not Christianity.” He stressed how the Christian faith, in contrast to our national ethos of rugged individualism, is about community. It’s about coming together to care for others. He noted how the intimate connection between a mother and a father and a child mirrors the Holy Trinity.

While this is a beautiful analogy, Priests for Life may want to consider drilling down a bit deeper to better articulate the underlying problem here. Father’s riff got us to the doorstep, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to draw the obvious conclusion.

Yes, abortion is among the most common surgeries performed in America, and most people never see what it looks like.

The even bigger problem is that we are not a Christian nation. Nor were we founded as one, despite a few well-known and reassuring phrases thrown around by some of our founders. We are now being forced to deal with the fundamental discrepancies. We are learning first-hand just how difficult it is to reconcile a Christian worldview with a secular one.

So while I admire this Augustinian from Villanova who said Mass and gave a spirited (if overly long) homily last Sunday in Williamsport, PA, I don’t think he is operating at peak efficiency. In fact I think he is spinning his wheels, to a large extent.


pointing out flaws is a delicate matter…


Now I do realize how delicate a matter this is, pointing out the philosophical flaws in the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Federalist Papers. One doesn’t want to shock the complacent Catholic troops into a high anxiety. And one also doesn’t want to jeopardize one’s tax-exempt status, or bring down the wrath of the state in a way that might impede the belief and practice of the faithful.

But legal abortion is, after all, a natural by-product of our Enlightenment founding, not a betrayal of a Christian one. While the formulations contained in the little pamphlet distributed at the end of Sunday’s Mass – “You Can Save Someone’s Life Today” – have merit, it wouldn’t hurt for the pro-life movement to clearly identify the elephant in the room.

I would suggest Catholics have been confused on this point for quite some time. Ever since James Cardinal Gibbons effused over what a great country this is, and how Catholics have nothing to fear from a pluralist democracy. That was back in the latter half of the 19th Century.

Then, in the early 20th century, this same prelate (he had a long run) assured America Catholics they had an obligation to fight in WW I, should President Wilson decide to take the United States into that war.

Pope Leo XIII tried to warn Gibbons off the first point, and Pope Benedict XV tried to warn him off the second.

As we confront the reality of legalized abortion – 60 million unborn dead in the last 45 years – and as we realize this is the bitter fruit of a pluralist democracy intent on the pursuit of each individual’s personal happiness, it’s fair to say Cardinal Gibbons, for all his many fine qualities and noteworthy accomplishments, grossly underestimated what Catholics have to fear from a pluralist democracy.

Okay, you might ask, what does this historical overview have to do with right now, with today?

While it’s certainly true, and it certainly needs to be said, I don’t know if it really helps to keep pounding away on the fact that abortion is murder, and it’s a child not a choice. I honestly think most people get that, even women who are having abortions.

It’s the zeitgeist that’s the problem. Pregnant women who want out are often victims of the pursuit of individual happiness as it relates to casual sex. Father mentioned “pornography” only at the tail end of his long homily, and said “that doesn’t pertain to the point I’m making here today.”


misled by sexual liberation, and trapped by economic circumstance…


Oh, but Father, it most certainly does. (In his defense, I think he realizes this, he just squandered his time and didn’t frame his argument as cogently as he could have.)

Pregnant women who want out are often trapped by economic circumstances. The pro-life movement, and Priests for Life, does not currently include “endemic economic injustice” as one of the factors in the abortion epidemic.

Just as finding fault with our country’s founding is a delicate and sensitive matter to take up, so too is finding fault with a commendable organization like Priests for Life, or with the pro-life movement as a whole.

But Catholics have to be careful not to veer off into a kind of sanctimoniousness when considering those who support abortion, or the women who actually procure abortions. And having done my share of sidewalk demonstrating, I’ve concluded it does no good for young, virile men to pray outside abortion clinics.

It’s just way too easy for that witness to be misinterpreted as men telling women what they should and should not do. Especially considering it was a man who created their predicament in the first place.

Along the same lines, pro-life organizations should be wary of how their political advocacy is too simple-minded at times, and amounts to de-facto support (or outright shilling) for the Republican Party.

During last Sunday’s homily Father told us, “I hate to say it, but it’s the truth”… and then rattled off a few unsavory facts. Including, “there are twenty people running for President – on the other side – who support abortion on demand.”

As if that’s all there is too it. As if Republicans are Catholics’ saving grace. As if Democrats are patrolling the streets, kidnapping pregnant women and delivering them to Planned Parenthood against their will.


being told one must vote for an utterly appalling candidate…


As a case in point, many Catholic women were appalled at the personal antics of the Republican presidential nominee in the 2016 general election, and did not appreciate being told they had to vote for him, because he was “the pro-life candidate.”

This reminds me how observant Catholics who see ending abortion as their top priority tend to wave off the Republican agenda on economics. They are under the impression it has nothing whatsoever to do with morality. These folks need to wise up on this score, and realize economics has EVERYTHING to do with morality.

And speaking of economics, there are cynics who point to earnest pro-life leaders such as Father Frank Pavone, the National Director of Priests for Life since 1993, as careerists who have found a niche.

I try to avoid cynicism, as it clouds the mind. But I will say this: on the cover of that pamphlet we were handed as we left Sunday’s Mass there is a faded picture of Father Pavone and Mother Teresa (who died in 1997). The caption reads: “Fr. Frank Pavone discusses pro-life strategy with Mother Teresa in Calcutta.”

Ah yes, pro-life strategy…

The hand-out lists many edifying, heartfelt activities: joining a prayer campaign, partnering with the “Silent No More” campaign, reading and studying to “deepen your understanding of the pro-life movement.” At the risk of sounding like one of those cynics, how many people actually do any of this high-minded stuff?

One doesn’t have to be hard-hearted to reflect on how these devout proscriptions amount to little more than preaching to the choir, with the ever-present fund-raising envelope attached to the back of the hand-out.

Allow me to suggest the following as a dynamic new pro-life strategy: What if Catholics put their weight behind seeing to it the new 2019 theatrical release Unplanned is carried on all the popular streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and the rest?

Such lobbying might look like a variation of “Dougherty’s Movie Boycott” of the 1930s. For those who may be unfamiliar, I offer the following synopsis, quoted from the Historical Research Center of the Philadelphia Archdiocese:

On May 23, 1934, Cardinal Dougherty called on all Catholics living in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to boycott motion picture theaters. By so doing, Dougherty declared it sinful for any of the area’s 800,000 Catholics to enter a movie theater. In a letter to the priests of the Archdiocese, Dougherty called the motion picture theater “perhaps the greatest menace to faith and morals in America today.”

The effect of the boycott was immediate, with over 300,000 Catholics signing pledges to avoid the movies and ticket sales dropped around 20 percent. The decrease in revenue led to numerous theater owners and movie studious writing to Dougherty asking to end the boycott, however, he replied that he had “no intention to recede” from his stance.

Dougherty also received a wide range of letters from regular people from around the country. The response was largely supportive, with both Catholics and Protestants praising him for standing up to the immorality of Hollywood.

… While the boycott failed to have the staying power that Dougherty hoped for, it did have a large impact on the movie industry. In June 1934, the Motion Picture Association of America agreed to stronger self-censorship and created the Production Code Administration, headed by Catholic layman, Joseph Breen.

(Of course the mere mention of the word “censorship” sends chills down the spine of every red-blooded American today. But Mr. Breen’s efforts to rein in the movie industry’s most lascivious instincts helped shape what came to be known as The Golden Age of Hollywood. In appreciation, the moguls he ran herd over for two decades gave him an honorary Academy Award after his retirement in 1954.)

Could Catholics bring themselves to unite in a total boycott of their favorite streaming service, until that service agreed to offer the new theatrical release Unplanned?

While a prayer Novena is always good, hitting these politically-correct profit-seekers in their pocketbook would be even better.

As the pamphlet “You Can Save Someone’s Life Today” so eloquently states: “Although abortion is among the most common surgeries in America, most people never see what it looks like.”

Well then, let’s show them.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
October 10, 2019

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