Four ways to heal the divide between pro-life and social justice advocates

by Mike Jordan Laskey

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Nine years ago this Friday, I went to the March for Life for the first time during a study "abroad" college semester I spent in Washington, D.C. A few days later, I took the Metro down to the National Mall for another huge protest. This one was calling for an end to the Iraq War.

I remember looking around at the masses of people at the antiwar march and noticing that it was a very different crowd than the one that had filled Constitution Avenue the week before (fewer priests and nuns, more anti-Bush t-shirts.) I imagined a Venn diagram of these protesting groups: two completely separate circles, with me as the singular point of overlap. It felt lonely.

Weather permitting, I'll be back at the March for Life tomorrow, Jan. 22, the 43rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. I'll stick around in Washington through the weekend for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, which includes a lobby day on Capitol Hill to advocate for stronger international aid, criminal justice reform, and better protection for immigrants and refugees.

There will be more overlap between these two events than there was at the marches in 2007, but not all that much more. There is a real divide in the church, as there is in the country at large, between pro-life champions and social justice activists. This isn't news. But Catholics in particular do not have to give in to the status quo. Here are four small ways we can start to heal these divisions within the church.

Take pride in consistency.

What makes the Catholic commitment to protecting human life and dignity so compelling and unique in our time is its unwavering consistency. The church speaks out against abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, poverty, war, destruction of the environment, and so on -- anything that threatens the well-being of individuals and communities. We should celebrate the church's true "both/and" approach and offer it to the political conversation as a refreshing alternative to the usual "either/or" rhetoric.

Accept "political homelessness" and live in the tension.

John Carr, the former director of the U.S. bishops' justice and peace department, uses the phrase "politically homeless" to describe where Catholicism's consistent ethic of life leaves us. We might be "comfortable with neither Republican economic individualism, which measures everything by the market, nor with Democratic cultural individualism, which celebrates personal 'choice' above all else," he wrote in America. "Neither form of libertarianism leaves enough room for the weak and vulnerable or the common good."

Political homelessness is hard! I'd love to feel content with either major party, and contribute to and vote for their candidates without thinking too much about it. I want to buy a t-shirt and go to a rally. I'd like to be a fan of the only presidential candidate to prominently feature a quote on economic injustice from Pope Francis on his website -- Bernie Sanders -- but the candidate's perfect 100% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America breaks my heart.

Maybe this tension would be more manageable if we put less emphasis on the vote and instead spent more energy lobbying elected leaders on both sides of the aisle. Or, to borrow another favorite line of John Carr's, if politicians go wherever the wind blows, it's our job to change the wind.

Acknowledge that the state has valid roles to play in matters of both life and justice.

One point of debate I've noticed between pro-lifers and social justice advocates in the church mirrors the secular political debate about the size and scope of government. Many pro-life champions are politically conservative and favor limited governmental intervention -- except when it comes to highly regulating and eventually eliminating the practice of abortion. And some social justice activists, even those who are nominally pro-life, are all for robust social program spending and strict regulation but balk at the idea of legal efforts to restrict abortion or protect the rights of the unborn. The ethicist Charles Camosy calls this the "Costanza strategy," named for the Seinfeld character who spends a famous episode of the series "doing the opposite" of his usual instincts.

Catholic social teaching affirms that the state's job is to ensure all vulnerable people and groups are protected from various threats. In his encyclical Mater et Magistra, St. John XXIII brings together life and justice concerns in one beautiful passage. "As for the State, its whole raison d'être is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters," he writes. "It has also the duty to protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women and children."

Let's avoid the hypocrisy of the Costanza strategy. The important role of the state is an area where Catholic pro-life champions and social justice activists should be in full accord.

Break bread together.

In 2005, columnist Fr. Ronald Rolheiser observed that two of the year's biggest movies were Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" and Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." The two directors see the world about as differently as two people can, but both are Roman Catholics. "There is something significant (and wonderful) in the fact that both Gibson and Moore, seemingly at such extreme ends of the ideological and ecclesial universe, claim the same faith allegiance, derive their inspiration from the same source, and, in the end, worship in the same church," Rolheiser writes. "That's a stretch, but, that's the point, Catholicism is meant to be a stretch, a huge one, taking us where we would rather not go, beyond our comfort-zone, beyond our own kind, beyond the like-minded."

No matter our worldview, Catholics gather around the Eucharistic table and are transformed into the Body of Christ. In this spirit, what if each one of us were to intentionally seek out a fellow Catholic who sees things differently and sit down to listen to one another over coffee or lunch? This wouldn't fix everything, but surely the first step toward healing is to build relationships across the traditional divides. And during this contentious election year, some unexpected kinship might be just what we need most.

[Mike Jordan Laskey is the director of Life & Justice Ministries for the diocese of Camden, N.J. He blogs for the Camden diocese at]

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