Recently while having a conversation with a friend over dinner – where I had asked my friend what the topic of discussion was at a cocktail party he had recently attended – we both began to bemoan the perfunctory “first question” that gets thrown at everyone once initial introductions are through: the ubiquitous “What do you DO”…my friend went on to detail that he found such talk both uninteresting and honestly invasive; while I, on the other hand, find these questions challenging and difficult to answer. You would too if your official job title was both as expansive and non-descript as “Justice and Peace Coordinator”, and – upon giving your answer – you often find yourself met with either quizzical gazes or looks of complete non-comprehension! I have learned over the years that rather than go through an exhaustive recitation of my job description only to watch my conversation partner’s eyes gloss over and approach a R.E.M. stage of consciousness, I concentrate instead on talking about one or several particular “hats” that I wear as part on my job responsibilities. In an effort to retain the listeners’ interest – and not bore them completely out of their skulls – I often begin with one of what could arguably be called the “cooler” (“cool” as in “neato,” not in temperature!) aspects of my job, that of Producer of Msgr. Kevin Sullivan’s satellite radio showJustLove on the social mission of the Church, which airs weekly on Saturdays at 10:00 a.m. Eastern standard time on Sirius/ XM’s “The Catholic Channel” 129. Because we record the show live at the Sirius/XM studios in midtown Manhattan, during our comings and goings – in the elevators, lobbies and hallways – we frequently have official and would-be “celebrity sightings”: a “who’s who “of musicians, singers, television, radio and motion picture personalities – a veritable smorgasbord of the famous, and in some cases infamous, which makes great fodder for cocktail party talk – certainly more conventionally interesting then some of the teaching, convening and public policy aspects of my job might be for many.
This “celebrity-centric” wrinkle in my week is entirely by happen-stance and due primarily to the function of the famous real-estate mantra “location, location, location”; it has little to do with the actual work that I do, and the two experiences seldom intersect…..however, when they do – it makes for some fascinating encounters (at least to me!). Recently in fact, while I was leaving the studio to accompany a guest downstairs, I had a particularly interesting run-in that I would like to share with you readers. As I walked down the corridor towards the lobby to meet the guest for that particular show (in the interest of honesty, I was actually coming from the restroom), I came upon our guest engaged in deep conversation with a woman whom I would describe as well- if provocatively – dressed, but for the fact that she was standing in the public area of the studio in her stocking feet. As I approached our guest and his conversation partner, it occurred to me that I had seen this particular woman before – never in person mind you, but many, many times on the television. I approached our guest and stood beside him, entering into the general sphere of their conversation – certainly close enough to hear. Prior to my approach, our guest had been discussing his appearance on the show with the woman; he explained – at her request – that he had been on the air speaking about the response that the local Catholic Charities agency in the Bridgeport Diocese had made to the families of the children whose lives were taken in that horrific episode of gun violence that had only taken place weeks earlier up in Newtown, Connecticut. Our guest’s famous conversation partner shook her head upon hearing upon this, and asked then what show and station he had been speaking on; when our guest announced “The Catholic Channel” the woman looked hard at him, leaned in close, and whispered into his ear in a manner which I was unable to hear. When she straitened up again, our guest then answered her that he personally believed that “human life began at conception”, and thought that while he could understand the concerns of a woman facing a crisis pregnancy, he himself felt that the prevalence of legalized abortion in our society was a terrible tragedy just the same. The woman then pondered a moment, and said that she felt very much the same way; she then stated that – although not Catholic – prior to her current career in entertainment she had been a registered nurse, and it was this experience in the medical field that had helped her to form her positions on the morality of abortion. It was at this point that I suppose she became aware of my presence, for she quickly turned to face me and asked quite curtly “who” I was; I answered that I was the producer of the show that our guest had appeared on. At this point, she then addressed both our guest and myself, and asked us to please not share her identity or opinion on abortion publically, lest it effect her popularity – that her agent, label and publicity managers would scream at her if they ever found out; we both in response stated that we would respect her request. It was then that her entourage – coat and boots and bags in hand – quickly whisk her out of the studio and onto a waiting elevator, which our guest and I also entered. On the ride down to the lobby – while our famous fellow elevator passenger was busy putting on her coat and boots with the assistance of three of her handlers – I undertook a quiet conversation with our guest about his performance during the show. Immediately, our famous friend turned and loudly inquired in an angry tone whether we were “talking about her”, to which our guest replied with a smile, “No – but we will later”….the tension was then only broken when he and I began to laugh in a mischievous way, and she – relieved – laughed too.
This certainly was one of the more unusual “celebrity close encounters” I have ever had over at the studio – as much for the seriousness of the conversation as for the intimacy of the encounter. But what stayed with me the most I think from the discussion was both this woman’s fear – paranoia almost – of disclosure of her opinion regarding abortion. In reflection, I suppose that the fact that her work is now located within the entertainment industry, any disclosure of an opinion that may be out of line with what could arguably be called the “liberal” cannon – legal abortion without restriction included – might indeed be met with severe repercussions which could affect her career and lifestyle. I guess there really in something to that saying “location, location, location”…in a similar way, later that day, another insight struck me in contemplation of the topic of the day’s radio program: efforts at addressing the epidemic of gun violence in our country. During the show, while recounting some of the week’s “Catholic news”, I had reported that Bishop Stephen Blaire – Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development had signed onto a letter – with almost 50 other religious leaders from both Catholic, and other Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist faith traditions – asking that Congress take action against the sale and use of assault weapons through such measures as mandating criminal background checks prior to gun purchases and making gun trafficking a Federal crime; measures which – according to most opinion polls – the public supports, and to which the National Rifle Association – a gun-rights organization considered by many to be the most powerful lobbying group in the country – had just that week given testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee opposing. Because of the NRA’s perceived power – as well as the its famous ability to deliver single-issue anti-gun control voters in an election – many legislators are fearful to speak up in favor of gun-control legislation even if they may personally support such measures out of a concern that disclosing an opinion which might be out of line with what could arguably be called the “conservative cannon” could have severe consequences for their careers, and the lifestyles that it affords.
There are two things that I find particularly interesting about all of this – the first is that – despite the fact that each of the positions described above seem to originate at diametrically opposite ends of the political/ cultural spectrum -there are, to my mind, several fascinating parallels between the gun rights lobby and the supporters of legalized abortion – and I am not the only one to notice this. Both groups are organized to support the individual rights upheld by the United States Supreme Court – the freedom to own a gun, and the freedom to have an abortion. Both are concerned that the Supreme Court rulings that underlie their positions – the Heller decision for gun rights advocates, and for abortion supporters Roe v Wade –though expansive are inadequate to protect their positions, and both will brook no dissent to their maximalist approach to gun rights or abortion: to the NRA, any ban on a certain type of gun immediately translates to Federal forces coming to your home to confiscate your guns, to abortion supporters – despite the once stated goal of making abortion safe, legal and rare – any restriction on abortion is seen as an “evisceration”. Even more so, what is needed is an expansion of abortion rights; this in a state where almost four out of every ten pregnancies ends in abortion.
The other thing that I find particularly interesting – although I am certainly not surprised by it – is the Church’s response to both guns and abortion. Instead of concentrating primarily on the “individual rights” involved in either owning a gun or obtaining an abortion, Catholic social teaching starts off instead by asking what kind of a society we want to live in and create: one in which autonomous individuals – often out of fright or perceived lack of alternatives – use their “rights” to protect their lives – as they see it – against “strangers” whom they perceived as potential threats, or instead one where such fear is met with alternatives – a net of social support which seeks to ratchet down potential violence before it erupts. In Catholic social teaching, such an approach – one where both the “lives” that people live, as well as human “life” itself matter immeasurably – is called pursuing a “Culture of Life”, and it is what we as Catholics are called to do.
Now, of course, according to classical moral analysis in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, support for gun-rights– even the right to own an assault weapon – must be looked at very differently from obtaining an abortion: abortion in Catholic teaching is the intentional taking of an innocent human life and therefore always intrinsically evil, whereas simple gun ownership is not. As it is often said: guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But this statement – while true – ignores the fact that with gun violence, people can’t kill people with guns unless they can get them. Will measures like these prevent every incidence of gun violence? The answer to this is of course no, but even if such measures prevent a few deaths like the ones experienced in the terrible tragedies this year in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown , Connecticut, they will be well worth the effort of pursuing…and while the numbers killed in gun violence – over 31,000 in America in 2010 – does pale in comparison to the 55 million lost to abortion since 1973, it is clear – at least to this Christian conscience – that something can and must be done to address both of these tragic figures.
It has been said that “politics makes strange bedfellows”…it’s my hope that in the pursuit of an authentic “culture of life”, we as a nation can begin to address every threat to human life and dignity across the board, and make such a stance not that strange after all.