Use your inside voice: Why media shouting is bad for the pro-life cause

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Article Ethic of Life Politics
The high pitch of pro-life advocacy could heed some old-fashioned parental guidance.

I normally wouldn't pass as an applause line, but Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, New Mexico gets a standing-O from me for it anyway. His church-shaking profession of faith, voiced in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, came on the heels of yet another showdown in the perpetual series of run-ins between Catholic political figures and a boisterous group of Catholic bishops and laypeople, some of whom, I am convinced, don't think anyone who ever pulled a ballot for a Democrat should go to Communion, even in danger of death.

The contretemps in this case was whether the late Senator Edward Kennedy, a Catholic, pro-choice (and pro-poor, pro-affirmative action, pro-health care, pro-environment) Democrat, should receive a public Catholic funeral, and, if so, whether Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley should participate in it.

O'Malley, himself no liberal, gave a blunt answer to those who criticized his appearance along with President Obama: "At times, even in the church, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another. These attitudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the church." Yes, he said irreparable.

It's become obvious that certain voices in the U.S. Catholic Church, including a minority of our bishops, have so narrowed the definition of the word Catholic that many believers are starting to doubt their place among the People of God. The desire of some to deny a dead man a Catholic funeral is a sign of how serious that vocal minority is about a leaner, meaner, "purer" church.

That's not news, though. The headline here is that finally-finally-moderate voices among the bishops are speaking up and acknowledging the obvious: "Hysterical activity doesn't bear fruit, and there's been some hysteria in these areas," said Sheehan, speaking of the pro-life cause. "We'd be like the Amish, you know, kind of isolated from society, if we kept pulling back because of a single issue."

Sheehan had a perfect example of a successful engagement with opponents: "We've gotten more done on the pro-life issue in New Mexico by talking to people that don't agree with us on everything. We got Governor [Bill] Richardson to sign off on the abolition of the death penalty for New Mexico," noting that the governor, a Democrat and a Catholic, had been a death penalty supporter.

As my mother says to me (often), "It's not what you say. It's how you say it."

Catholics in the United States and some of our bishops have mastered the art of diatribe against "the culture of death." But what we are doing less well is acknowledging what is quite frankly laudable about our society: its free marketplace of ideas and debate; its commitment (though incomplete) to human rights; its ideals of democracy, equality and justice. Even more, we have failed to admit the good faith of those whose views differ and, worse, even begun to reject our communion with fellow Catholics with whom we disagree.

There is another way. We can admit, even celebrate, our shared achievements, only then pointing out our shared failures: our preference for the beautiful, wealthy, and famous; our neglect of the poor, the disabled, the unborn, and the old; our willingness to allow "justice" to mean little more than revenge. But rather than condemn, we can cajole; rather than denounce, we can encourage. To borrow again from Sheehan, we ought to be "building bridges, not burning them."

Perhaps we can take our cue from the words of Pope John XXIII as he opened the Second Vatican Council: "In the daily exercise of our pastoral ministry-and much to our sorrow-we must sometimes listen to those who, consumed with zeal, have scant judgment or balance. To such ones the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruin. . . .

"We feel bound to disagree with these prophets of doom who are forever forecasting calamity-as though the world's end were imminent. Today, rather, Providence is guiding us toward a new order of human relationships, which, thanks to human effort and yet far surpassing human hopes, will bring us to the realization of still higher and undreamed of expectations."

Mom was right: It is about how you say it.

This article appeared in the November 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 11, page 8).