Yesterday's Pro Choice Planning day afforded me the honour of meeting many speakers and activists. I was able to put faces to Twitter handles and meet in person people I already considered friends. Geraldine Kennedy was kind enough to say she enjoys my blog. I remain starstruck. Still, of all the people I spoke to that day the one who's been most in my thoughts is Brigid.
It's not her real name. I recall our longest conversation: she took me aside and with near painful shyness said she'd rather not have her picture taken, "in case people back home found out". Before that I'd offered her a newspaper. She seemed to have arrived alone and made quickly for the rear row of seats. I read her as nervous; a woman of my parent's generation in a room that at the time leaned heavily towards those in their twenties. She seemed determined to do something but worried of ramifications. We'd been briefed of potential anti abortion disruptions.
She sat quietly through the initial presentation. Then came questions and answers, with her hesitantly raising her hand and then thinking the better of it. A few questions from others saw her resolve returned and she asked for the microphone. Finding her voice she told us she is a mass-going Catholic, how she is pro choice, and how hard it can be for her believing abortion to be a matter of personal conscience in a setting so hostile to the expression of such views. The Irish Pro Choice movement does not do free buses; Brigid had travelled considerable distance at her own expense to be able to freely state her position.
64% of the population want legislation on X, and 84% of the population consider themselves Catholic. One does not need a degree in statistical analysis to discover that the majority of those opposed to Youth Defence et al's resistance to legislation are Catholic, and it's a fact I'm afraid we often forget. There is justifiable anger at Catholic bishops and the wider hierarchy, but too often it is overlooked that ordinary Catholics who make up the body of the Church share these feelings.
There is an opinion promulgated by Youth Defence et al that to be a true Catholic one must accept with joy the edicts of the hierarchy. But is this the case?
The association of Catholic Priests funded the following excellent survey of Irish Catholics. Contraception and abortion were not covered directly, but we can judge general compliance with the hierarchy's rulings from other areas:
- Only 12% of laypeople believe their views are sought by the hierarchy on important issues in their diocese
- 87% believe priests should be allowed marry
- 77% support the ordination of women
- 72% believe married men should be eligible for ordination
- 75% feel the Church's teachings on sexuality are irrelevant
- Only 18% agree with the hierarchy on homosexuality
- 87% believe that divorcees should be allowed receive communion
Suffice it to say accusations of sheeplike following of orders seem unfounded.
I am grateful to the Association of Catholic Priests for funding this survey. They are a fascinating group. While I feel I would always have found myself an atheist, had their voice been heard during my childhood I imagine leaving faith would have been a much slower process. Who are they? Representing over a thousand of Ireland's roughly 4,500 priests, they are a significant and energetic minority, and, to my mind, a great voice for liberal Catholics.
I do not wish to misrepresent them, and will not try to misconstrue their words to imply they are as a block pro choice. I'm sure a great many of them would describe themselves as pro life and my selection of articles is not designed to represent all views in what is a diverse organisation welcoming of discussion. Rather I seek to showcase some of their arguments for freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of choice.
Liberal Catholics Expect Freedom of Speech and Conscience
Father Kevin Hegarty is an excellent writer. I enjoy his Mayo News column, where he writes eloquently and with prodigious knowledge on history, politics and Theology. It's beyond my powers to adequately summarise his excellent article on free speech and conscience but I hope these short paragraphs from it will whet your appetite to read further:
"Last year [Pope Benedict] sent a team of apostolic visitors to examine the Irish church in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals. In the summary of their report issued recently, the visitors have a cut at liberal Catholics. They noted that a significant number of Irish Catholics held views at variance with “the teaching of the magisterium”.
They should be accorded full marks for their powers of observation. The many liberal Catholics in Ireland hope for a church that is open to married and women priests, a rethink on the issue of contraception as exhorted by Humanae Vitae, and a reversal of the harsh insensitivity of the teaching on homosexuality.
We have come to these positions as a result of honest and honourable reflection. We are not seeking change for the sake of change. We believe that such reforms would aid the emergence of a church that is more humane, relevant and inspiring, a church released from the clammy grip of clericalism.
Nor are these sincerely held views at variance with the fundamental doctrines of the church as the visitors claimed in their report. These doctrines relate, for example, to the humanity and divinity of Christ, the resurrection and the sacraments.
I am not aware of any priest in Ireland who publicly dissents from these beliefs."
Have We The Right To Insist No Woman Can Ever Have An Abortion In Ireland?
Those new to the work of the Association of Catholic Priests will be struck at first by the fact that this article is written by a woman. Jo, the author, has two sons and looks back on her life, deciding that she could never have considered abortion for herself. But then she lists and is thankful for all the benefits and good fortune she has enjoyed - a loving partner, good health, a strong support network and comfortable income. When contrasted against all that could go wrong in life, could she deny this choice to others?
Again, I encourage you to read the entire article. And do consider leaving a supportive comment.But what of those who are not so blessed in the circumstances in which they become pregnant? What about the woman who is raped; the stressed out mother who’s already at her wit’s end looking after young children, who’s partner has left and who has no support system to fall back on? What about the victim of incest? What about the teenager who’s terrified about what’s happening to her body?...Is it truly right and morally justified to demand that such women carry a burden (literally!) that they find unbearable? If every moment of every day is spent in horror and anguish that the ‘growth’ inside them is something they cannot bear and that will have consequences for the rest of their lives, have I the right to say “You must do so”? ...What I'm feeling quite strongly right now is that, while I don’t think I could ever have an abortion myself (it’s irrelevant at this stage of life anyway!) I haven’t the right to insist that the society I live in demands that no woman should have access to abortion within its boundaries even if her conscience is quite clear about the morality of so doing.
Abortion: Is Rational Debate Possible?
I mentioned that it would not be possible to represent fully the entire spectrum of views held by the ACP's diverse members. Here I'll present some quotes from a member who opposes legislation on X. While naturally I disagree, there is much to like in this article and I feel the author is someone open to hearing the views of others. Do read it in full.
She starts with a discussion of the Catholic Hierarchy's response:
The leaflet “Day for Life” earlier this year by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference states:Later, her reasons for opposing legislation are discussed. But crucially she recognises that it is the will of the Irish people and must be respected:
“Our public representatives now face a critical decision. They can preserve current medical practice …or they can choose to introduce abortion to Ireland for the first time”.
This seems to ignore the following:• There has always been abortion in Ireland. Women have been known to drink gin and get into a steaming hot bath when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. I am old enough to remember when a body was found in Hume St., Dublin. She died due to undergoing an illegal abortion.• We also have abortion under another guise, the “morning after pill”.• Many Irish women go to England for abortions.
I agree with the view of the Catholic Bishops that once abortion is introduced, “even for apparently very restricted or limited situations, it becomes more widespread than was first intended.” Be that as it may, I believe that a woman is entitled to choose termination when the foetus has no chance of surviving outside the womb.
Others argue that it should be more widely available and the court ruling in the X case included the risk of the mother dying by suicide. I am wary of legislating for abortion in such cases because I believe that the threat of suicide can be used as emotional blackmail...
I am not at all sure that we can dismiss the judgement of the Supreme Court as “deeply flawed”, just because we disagree with it. I would much prefer if the judgement had not included suicide but, as a citizen of a Republic, I have to accept it.
That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church
Matthew 16:18, for those unfamiliar. The verse is said to describe the appointing of the first Pope. It's a delightful pun: Peter is derived from the Greek Petros, meaning rock. I'm not a Christian but I've spent a considerable amount of time trying to better understand the faith. Competing religions two millennia ago were often exclusive - designed for the rich, for men, or for those of defined heritage. Christianity differed in that it embraced the poor, women, slaves and those of low status. Jesus is said to have spent his time with lepers and the disabled in a time when disease and disability was considered a punishment for sin. His last meal is described as including a group that would become scared and confused following the crucifixion. At the table Judas was included. As was Peter of course, a man who would deny Jesus three times. A man who misconstrued Jesus's intentions in the Garden of Gethsemane, removing the ear of a guard which Jesus patiently reattached while chiding Peter. A flawed human, a sinner, one who misses the mark and needs correction from others.
To me this is the model the Catholic hierarchy should take. I think they should listen more to the body of the church. But I digress; I suspect I am low on their list of authoritative sources of hermeneutics.
If you are pro choice and Catholic, do consider dialogue with the Association of Catholic Priests. You may find yourself discussing with someone that disagrees, but you will be having a discussion.