An Exchange of Correspondence

This morning, I read a piece online that aggravated me, and in my daily email circular I said the following:

Fr. James Martin, SJ, editor of America magazine, completely flubbed what it means to be pro-life on national TV the other day. He hasn’t gotten the memo about the uniqueness and centrality of abortion as a social justice issue, and the way he speaks about pro-lifers makes me wonder what kind of pro-lifers he knows (“for a lot of people in the pro-life movement, life begins at conception, but seems to end there” — does this describe anyone any of us knows?). Perhaps he might find the time to re-read “Living the Gospel of Life” by the US Bishops, or visit the Sisters of Life to see what real pro-lifers are like. Or he might check into what Bishop Finn (you remember him, a strong critic of NDU) is up to — leading a prayer vigil as Missouri resumes executions.

I apologize to Fr. Martin for being so snarky in the email, which is a perfect illustration of one of my primary spiritual faults — lack of charity in thought and speech. Anyway, one of the people I sent this to was Mary DeTurris Poust, who posted about it on her blog on Our Sunday Visitor’s website, and gave credit to me for the tip.

This afternoon, I received an email from Fr. Martin, and I thought it would be interesting to share his email and my response:

Dear Mr. Mechmann,
Peace be with you! I had an email from a reader who said that Ms. Poust from OSV had linked to your blog in which you had concerns about some of my comments on CNN the other day.
By way of a friendly response, here is the response I sent to Ms. Poust. Feel free to post it, if you feel it would help.
Yours in Christ,
James Martin, SJ

Many thanks for your frank comments, which certainly calls for a friendly response. And I hope you don’t mind if I take a few paragraphs to do this. I think it’s always healthy when, to paraphrase St. Paul, we can call another Christian to give an explanation for himself and his faith, so that’s what I’ll do.

First of all, I am unabashedly pro-life. And in case people think I’m being artfully evasive I mean this: I believe in the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.

However, as you could see from the CNN show, I also believe that some in the pro-life movement (defined broadly) sometimes downplay the non-abortion parts of the pro-life tradition: that is, the death penalty, war, feeding the hungry, euthanasia, and so on. These are also important “life” issues. Moreover, I believe that you can be firmly pro-life, as I am, and not agree with the precise strategies, noble as they are, of every quarter of the pro-life movement in reaching our common goals.

That is, you don’t have to violently disagree with the Notre Dame decision in order to be pro-life. Nor do you have to speak the use the same language, pursue the same political goals or, in general, do the same things, in order to sincerely and ardently work for an end to abortion.

Overall, what I was trying to call for–and perhaps I could have done this more articulately–was what we called for in our America magazine editorial of a few weeks back, which was: charity towards not simply those who are not in the pro-life camp, but perhaps more importantly, charity and fellowship with our fellow pro-lifers who disagree on how to reach our common goal. Only in this way will we all reach that goal, with God’s help.

In any event, I hope you take this friendly comment as a sign of our common reverence for the sanctity of all life that God has created.

Please do keep me in your prayers.

Yours in Christ,

Fr. James Martin, SJ

Here is the rather lengthy email I sent back to him:

Dear Fr. Martin —

Thank you very much for your email, and your very generous comments. I certainly understand the points you are raising, and I agree with what you say. I have no doubt whatsoever that you are unabashedly pro-life. I also have no doubt that the pro-life movement should speak more about other important issues, such as torture and the ways in which the war is being conducted.

However, I have to say that several things you said in your comments on CNN were disturbing to me, and I wish you hadn’t said them.

I though that your comment that “for a lot of people in the pro-life movement, life begins at conception, but seems to end there” was unjust. I have been very active in the pro-life movement for many years, and I don’t believe that there is a single person — much less “a lot of people” — I know to whom that description would apply. I find it hard to believe that you know any person who fits that description. Even the most tiresome and offensive pro-lifers I have encountered would not fit that description. I thought that this comment was especially disappointing from a man of such obvious charity as yourself. You are certainly aware that pro-lifers are routinely denigrated in the popular media, and our arguments — and even our good faith — are not shown much respect. While I am absolutely certain that you do not share those views, I thought that comment was an unfair caricature of pro-life people, and I wish it hadn’t been said on national television.

I also think that you should recognize that there actually are some people who are “pro-abortion”, including public officials who consider abortion to be a specially-protected right that is to be defended and advanced at all costs. I am sure you are familiar with the parallels between the current situation and the debate between Lincoln and Douglass. I do not think — and Lincoln certainly did not think — that it is unfair in any way to say that Senator Douglass was functionally “pro-slavery” — he opposed all efforts to restrict it legally, he supported the Dred Scot decision, he supported the right of the people to expand slavery into new territories, and he favored the Fugitive Slave laws. How can it be said that a man with those positions was not in favor of the practice of slavery, at least as a matter of public policy? In the same way I think it is perfectly fair to say that people who unconditionally favor and promote the unlimited abortion license of Roe v. Wade, and wish to spread that regime to all countries are functionally “pro-abortion”. Honestly, you should read some of the President’s expansive statements on his commitment to “a woman’s right to choose”, or consider his comment that he would not want his daughter “punished” by an unwanted child. Whatever may be his private judgments about abortion, the reality is that functionally, as a matter of public policy, he is in favor of the unlimited right to abortion — he is “pro-abortion”. Or, if you prefer to take it out of the realm of politics, consider such people as the Episcopal clergywoman — and head of a seminary — who has called abortion a “blessing”. She’s “pro-abortion” not just as a matter of public policy — she believes it’s a positive good. It’s nice to believe that nobody is actually committed to such an evil as abortion, and it says a lot about your good will that you think so. But sadly, there are such people, and we do ourselves no favors by pretending that they do not favor what they manifestly do favor.

I also believe that the Notre Dame situation was not the time or the place or the context to talk about the seamless garment approach to issues. The President actually does very poorly on more strands of that garment than just abortion — he favors the death penalty; he favors cloning and destructive embryo research; he favors the targeted executions being conducted via unmanned drone, which cause considerable civilian casualties; he favors aggressive programs to encourage the use of contraceptives, including so-called “emergency contraception”, which can have an abortifacient effect; his anti-war positions have undergone considerable “evolution” since his election; his comments on health care make me very worried about where he will come out on rationing, which is the equivalent of passive euthanasia. Even if one were to concede that all his other policies are “pro-life” in a broader seamless garment sense, they cannot overcome the iniquity of his deplorable stance on abortion and other life issues. Surely you are familiar with the US Bishops’ document “Living the Gospel of Life”, which said “Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care… But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community.” Certainly Cardinal Bernadin would have agreed with that, but I think your comments failed to present it clearly enough.

On a personal note, Father, I hope that you do not take my disagreement with your comments in any way other than as a fraternal disagreement over tactics and modes of presentation. I also hope that I have expressed myself in a way that does not offend against charity. I am very, very loathe to publicly criticize a priest, especially one whom I hold in great respect, as I do hold you.

I think your suggestion to post these emails is a good idea, and I’ll do that this afternoon.

Please be assured that you are in my prayers, as I hope to be in yours.

Here’s his reply back to me:

Dear Mr. Mechmann,

Many thanks for your very kind response, and I do hope you are able to post my note to you. Also, I have to apologize for a shorter response, but, believe it or not, I have carpal tunnel syndrome so may not be able to respond as fully as I would like.

First, yes, you are probably right about my offhand remark. If I had to say it over again, I wouldn’t have characterized the people in the pro-life movement as such. Perhaps it would be better to say that sometimes the views of my friends in the pro-life movement seem solely focused on abortion to the exclusion of other life issues, which can, unfortunately, give the impression of a “one issue” church. And I also think that while abortion is the pre-eminent life issue of our day, it is not the only one. But, if I had had the opportunity, I would also have said that some in the social justice arena, are insufficiently vocal about abortion. So it is not just the failure of one side or another. But one rarely has that much time on television.

Secondly, that’s a very helpful insight you made about someone being “pro abortion.” I suppose you’re right that someone could be in favor of extending so-called “abortion rights” laws, and so therefore they could be said to be “pro abortion” What I meant was that I don’t think there is anyone who would say, “Yes, I think it is a good thing for a woman to have an abortion.” But maybe I’m just naive about that. In general, though, when Obama says that he wants to “reduce abortions” I think it’s good for the church to take him at his word. At least this is a place of common ground–the desire to reduce abortions. It’s a start for both sides to come together to work towards the reduction of abortions.

Finally, though, I have to politely disagree about the “consistent ethic” issue being not timely at Notre Dame. Actually, I think that the heatedness of the controversy and the focus, from many quarters, on abortion, could in fact give non-Catholics the impression that we are a “one issue” church. Also, it baffled me that many were talking about not giving an honorary degree to someone who doesn’t agree with Catholic teaching, when we frequently do so to those who aren’t even Catholics: that is, Protestants who don’t accept the papacy, Jews who don’t accept Christ. Recall the honor that Pope John Paul II gave to his Jewish friend, the conductor Gilbert Levine, a member of the Order of St. Gregory. Mr. Levine of course doesn’t agree with something like the Resurrection and yet was honored. In any event, I think, personally, that those kinds of restrictions (on honors) should be focused on Catholics, rather than non-Catholics. Our recent editorial in America made something of the same point in a more articulate fashion.

Let me end once again by saying that one can be pro-life and not agree with others in the pro-life community about how to go about achieving those goals.

Anyway, please do feel free to post any and all of these emails.

It’s best for all of us in the church to dialogue with one another–and not simply with those outside the church!

Yours in Christ,

James Martin, SJ

I take two things away from this. One is that this kind of fraternal debate is very important and valuable, because it helps us refine out positions and forge a better sense of unity. The second, though, is that we need more unity. The culture will always seek to pit us against each other, regardless of whether there are any significant differences between us. Our Lord prayed that we will all be one, and we all need to take that more seriously, and work to avoid anything that would prevent that from happening.

Comments are closed.