FLORIDA, August 23, 2012 — For Roman Catholics, few issues are so divisive as reproductive rights.
Over the last several decades, as countries the world over have legalized contraceptives and abortion procedures, attitudes have changed considerably. Today, many Catholics believe that modern technology should be used to allow women to avoid pregnancy.
Despite this, the Church hierarchy remains staunchly opposed to not only abortion, but contraceptives and prophylactics. This has created a very tenuous situation, one in which interpretations of ancient doctrines are rivaled by scientific progress. How might Catholics find common ground?
Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice, which is a leading advocacy group for promoting reproductive rights within the Church community. In a detailed discussion with me, he explains how Catholic tradition is more inclusive than some might think, why hardliners stand to harm their religion more than help it, and much more.
Joseph F. Cotto: Your organization holds that Catholic tradition supports a woman’s right to determine the course of her own life, including her reproductive choices. Many hardline Catholics would beg to differ. How did your organization arrive at its conclusion?
Jon O’Brien: It’s not about hardline or soft-line, progressive or conservative. And Catholics who support reproductive choice are not “cafeteria Catholics.” Rather, it is ultra-conservatives want to pick and choose what elements of the faith they want to lift up. A great thinker in our faith said that Catholicism is defined by unity in diversity. Therefore, when I look around me at church on Sunday, I welcome the guy from Opus Dei; the LGBT couple; the antiwar, social justice campaigner; the businessman and the Latin Mass lover. I welcome everybody, because that’s what the Catholic family is really about.
Unfortunately, the Catholic hierarchy and a minority of Catholics have decided to concentrate on a very narrow, specific interpretation of issues concerning sex and reproduction. Others of us, who embrace the fullness of the Catholic tradition, recognize a number of key truths that very often the Catholic hierarchy does not lift up, but more often than not the Catholic people do adhere to in practice as well as in belief.
The Vatican’s 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion says that the Vatican does not know when personhood begins. This is a critical truth within our church. So when you hear a priest, bishop or TV commentator give his opinion on that issue, it’s very much a personal opinion.
The teachings on contraception and abortion are not infallible, and Catholics have the right to dissent from non-infallible teachings. And we do—millions of people every day from Poland to Portugal to Peru to the Philippines to Pittsburgh, USA dissent from the hierarchy’s teachings because they just don’t make sense for the lives of ordinary people. At the end of the day, Catholics are required to follow their God-given consciences, and this is what we do.
Those of us who are concerned with making ends meet, educating our children, providing healthcare for our families, and putting food on the table—we’re the real traditionalists. We believe in the totality of the thinking within our church, especially freedom of conscience, and therefore we recognize that you can be a good Catholic and make responsible reproductive health decisions.
Cotto: Some hardline Catholics perceive your organization as heretical, or even worse. How do you deal with this level of derision?
O’Brien: The church is like a family. In even the closest families it sometimes happens that when everyone gathers on Thanksgiving, Hanukkah or Christmas not everyone is talking to one another. Sometimes these situations will endure for days or years. But the truth is, we are still family. What matters is that Catholicism is a family, and in that family people should be able to find spiritual connectedness that is different than the divisions we find in other areas of our lives, such as politics.
Church is where we are supposed to greet one another with the hope that we can worship together. Who receives communion or not should be not an issue, even though some have tried to make it political to hurt candidates who stand up for women’s healthcare choices. We should welcome everybody to the table.
What saddens me that there are some folks out there who, rather than going to church with humility and a modicum of thoughtfulness, see religion as a Donald Trump-type situation, where they can say, “You’re fired.” The truth is, that corporate outlook is not at all in line with the Catholic faith or tradition. The Catholic church is not a building; it’s not the hierarchy. It is all of the people together, regardless of how we feel about one another. That’s the strength of Catholicism. That’s what I focus on rather than on those who want to make my church smaller and meaner to shore up their own insecurities.
Cotto: One of the gravest problems in our world is the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. While the Church hierarchy staunchly opposes practical remedies to this, such as prophylactics, Catholics for Choice does not. What motivates your organization to follow modern science as opposed to ancient dogma?
O’Brien: One of the most marvelous things that has happened in the church recently is that my pope, Pope Benedict, gave an interview in 2010 to journalist Peter Seewald in which he said that condom use to prevent the transmission of HIV is “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more humane sexuality.”
These are the pope’s words, in spite of the fact that conservatives have tried to pedal backwards and say that the pope didn’t say what he said. His spokesperson subsequently clarified that Benedict did indeed support condom use in some circumstances. This was a game-changer. This statement means that the pope says that condoms can help prevent the spread of HIV.
A couple years back, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo said on BBC, totally unscientifically, that HIV could pass through an intact condom. This means that more Catholic leaders are finally stepping up and getting the idea that condoms can help prevent the spread of HIV. Right now, many thousands of Catholic health workers in the field, the ones on the front lines of the fight against HIV & AIDS, have one arm tied behind their back because of the intransigent hierarchy who won’t accept that they got it wrong on condoms.
Maybe, if we fight hard enough for the pope’s words informing practice, those workers will be able to practice what Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenberg, South Africa, has been saying. Give someone the condoms they need to protect themselves—this speaks to the heart of Catholic social justice.
We would like to see the pope go further in the promotion of condoms. And we hope and pray that he will. But for the moment, the pope has made a first step in the journey towards more realism in relationship to HIV & AIDS. We shouldn’t let those who want to deny reality to let us forget that the Catholic church is moving in the right direction on this issue.
Cotto: In the past, excommunication orders have been issued for members of Catholics for Choice. Why, in your opinion, have such drastic measures been taken? Isn’t room allowed for differing viewpoints?
O’Brien: The hierarchy tends to react drastically when it comes to sex. Its longstanding preoccupation with sex means that occasionally its sights have landed on Catholics for Choice, which stands at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of a Catholic view of sexual and reproductive rights. The bishops know that the official narrow, often negative, view of sex and sexuality is rejected by the majority of the Catholic faithful. And it makes them nervous. They fear that if they admit that they are wrong about anything—abortion, contraception, LGBT rights, sex outside of marriage—their legitimacy and control over everything will disappear.
So, the hierarchy has sought to legislate Catholics into submission. We saw this clearly during the healthcare debate, when the bishops indicated that, if the choice were theirs, they would sacrifice the chance to improve the healthcare of more than 30 million un- and underinsured Americans if they couldn’t tighten restrictions on one, and only one, safe and legal medical procedure: abortion.
Most Catholics have left the official teachings behind in their beliefs and actions regarding sex, so differing viewpoints are already a fact of life within the Catholic church. Nevertheless, the bishops’ willingness to thrust their narrow view of sex into nearly every policy debate from the local to the international level shows a startling inability to listen.
Cotto: The exodus from the Roman Catholic Church in America over the last several years has been staggering. A major result of this has been that, as many moderates have left, hardliners now wield unprecedented influence. Do you think that this will impact the effectiveness of Catholic for Choice in the future?
O’Brien: There’s an ebb and flow between people being active in the church, with people sometimes finding small communities of prayer to be helpful as well as well as going to Mass. In some parts of the world, the Catholic church is growing rapidly; in other areas, people disillusioned and hurt by the mismanagement and cover up from the clergy sex abuse scandal don’t feel like going to Mass on Sunday.
Catholics will continue to find relevance in the Church, the church being the community of the faithful. When I look around Mass on Sunday, I think people go to church despite the hierarchy, not because of it. There is a togetherness about the kids we send to Catholic school together; our great outreach program to the homeless; helping people in South America; assisting those less well off; and the prayers we say together. That’s what is keeping the Catholic church alive. It’s only when people believe in a church that it can ever mean anything.
Is the President’s contraceptive mandate for health insurers really as bad for Catholic institutions as many claim?
An analysis of voting data from this year’s Ohio Republican presidential primary indicated that older Catholics supported Mitt Romney, while younger ones went for Rick Santorum. Why did the latter’s religious fundamentalism, which is strongly opposed to most reproductive rights, apparently have more appeal for young Catholics? Could this be a sign that the hardliners are gaining long term power?
Regardless of one’s religious background, the legality of abortion is a tremendously controversial subject. As a Catholic, why does Mr. O’Brien support a woman’s right to decide the outcome of her pregnancy? Despite what the Church hierarchy says, or what many in the next generation of American Catholics might believe, do more Catholics support women’s reproductive rights than we know?
In the second and final part of our discussion, O’Brien explains about all of this, as well as his life and career.
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