Catholicism, Choice and Anarchism

Yesterday a handful of organizers in Pittsburgh raised concerns online about a group called Rehumanize International being listed as a co-sponsor for the Pittsburgh March Against War, an anti-war march organized by the Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative, Thomas Merton Center, and Veterans for Peace. I had never heard of Rehumanize International (and I imagine many others hadn’t heard of them either) so I didn’t immediately understand why a group with such an innocuous name would be cause for concern.

It turns out that Rehumanize International is a national anti-abortion non-profit headquartered in Pittsburgh that engages in and advocates for some pretty abhorrent activity. This includes approaching women outside of Planned Parenthood clinics with their “Sidewalk Sidekick” program and directing women to “Pregnancy Crisis Centers” that work to guilt and shame women out of choosing to have an abortion.

Rehumanize International organizes around what they call the “consistent ethic of life,” a concept that was popularized by Cardinal Bernadin in the 1980’s. In an early speech on the topic he told students at Fordham University that “The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill.”

In articulating the consistent ethic of life frame, Cardinal Bernadin created an intellectual framework that pulled together some traditionally progressive positions — opposition to war and the death penalty — and some traditionally conservative positions — opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research. Since the 1980’s the consistent ethic of life has become a hallmark of the Catholic Church’s social teaching. It has also been a relatively successful counterweight to the traditional conservative approach to abortion that places a huge interest in the life of a fetus but maintains a callous disregard for humans once they are born.

It’s worth noting that Rehumanize International is an explicitly non-partisan and non-sectarian organization. Nevertheless, this debate has given me a chance to reflect on my faith, my politics, and my political development.

I grew up in an Irish Catholic family. We went to mass every Sunday. I sang in the church choir, attended Sunday School, and was an altar boy until I went to college.

When I went to college the war in Afghanistan was going on and the war in Iraq was just starting. I was getting involved in progressive organizing on campus and had stopped going to church altogether. Like just about everyone with progressive politics at the time, I jumped into the anti-war movement.

During my sophomore year, I went to a lecture by Father Dan Berrigan, a peace activist who was famous for, along with his brother Philip and seven other Catholic protesters, using homemade napalm to destroy draft records during the Vietnam war. In the 1980’s Berrigan and seven others (including Molly Rush, one of the founders of the Thomas Merton Center — a lead sponsors of the Pittsburgh March Against War) was arrested again for breaking onto a nuclear missile facility, pouring blood on documents and files and pounding on a MK12A nuclear warhead nose cone. The group was known as the Plowshares Eight, drawing motivation from a passage from the book of Isaiah:

“And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

At Berrigan’s lecture, I met a beautiful group of people from the Ithaca Catholic Worker community. At the time four of them were facing federal felony charges for pouring their own blood inside a military recruiting station in protest of the Iraq war. They were organizing for a political trial, hoping to use their own federal criminal trial as a forum to put the war on trial.

I was incredibly inspired by these folks and I started going to their meetings. That’s where I learned about anarchism, the simple idea that we can take care of each other without the oppressive force of the state and capitalist system violently forcing us in line. And I saw anarchism in practice in the way that they took care of each other, supported the local community kitchen and, at great personal risk, advocated for a just peace. I doubt that they will ever understand what a profound impact their simply loving presence had on me.

I started going back to church. I worked with one of the lay-ministers to start a Catholic non-violence reading and discussion group. When I read the New Testament, I started to imagine the Church as a radical underground social movement rather than a massive institution. By then, the idea that we should be ruled by an oppressive and violent (if nominally representational) state became completely inconsistent with accepting God, the Creator, who loved and sacrificed for us, as our higher power.

There are certainly many contradictions between the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and an anti-authoritarian political analysis. But there are also plenty of contradictions within anarchism. Part of being an anarchist in a capitalist society is being comfortable with contradictions.

My politics have changed and evolved over time. I don’t fetishize non-violence the way that I once did and I have expanded and deepened my anarchist analysis. I don’t go to church anymore, but that’s more because I haven’t found a faith community in Pittsburgh that I relate to the way I related to the Catholic Workers in Ithaca.

I don’t know how the people from the Ithaca Catholic Worker community feel about abortion. We never talked about it. If they were against abortion they clearly were more concerned about creating a fair and just world where concerns about poverty, racism, access to healthcare, and domestic violence no longer impact women’s decisions about whether or not to have a child.

There is also a fundamental difference between having moral objections with abortion and trying to limit a woman’s ability to choose whether or not to carry a child for nine months and bring a life into the world.

From what I’m reading and hearing, most of the people from Rehumanize International seem like caring and loving people. I do believe that they genuinely intend to be loving and compassionate in their work. They’ve gone to great lengths to separate themselves from the hateful and aggressive anti-abortion advocates that have been so persistent for decades and train volunteers on what they believe is a compassionate approach.

But I cannot imagine a scenario where approaching patients outside of a healthcare facility is anything but harassment. More importantly, I cannot imagine any scenario where advocating for the government to dictate what women do with their bodies for a full nine-month period is anything but violent.

Deciding whether or not to have an abortion is a challenging moral and ethical question for many people. I imagine that grappling with that question can be more challenging and painful than I could ever understand. There are a lot of thoughtful people who oppose abortion for religious or ethical reasons. Those people shouldn’t have abortions. But attempting to take that agency away from women by using the oppressive force of the state or by guilting or shaming women who are navigating that difficult decision is fundamentally oppressive.

In the end the coalition organizing the march examined the situation and decided to remove Rehumanize Pittsburgh as a co-sponsor of the event. I’m incredibly impressed with responsiveness, maturity, thoughtfulness and swift pace with which the organizers — particularly the Thomas Merton Center — navigated through this challenging situation. This week the Thomas Merton Center certainly lived up to the thoughtful and loving legacy of its namesake.

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