As I write this article, I am contemplating a journey that I will soon make to Washington, DC. It is a journey that I have made every year save one since 1991. Over the years I have gone with seminarians as a seminarian, with parishioners as a parish priest, with college students as a Newman chaplain, and now with high school students as a principal. The journey to which I refer is to the Right-to-Life Mass and Rally held in the nation's capital every year on January 21 and 22, to protest the most tragic of all Supreme Court decisions ever rendered, Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion in our nation.
Each year the trip is a unique experience. As I have frequently emphasized with all participants, it is a pilgrimage, a journey of prayer and penance, whose ultimate purpose is to invoke the power of God to remove the scourge of legalized abortion from our land. This year the trip is especially unique because it literally comes on the heels of one of the most historically symbolic events our nation has witnessed, the inauguration of the first African-American as president of the United States of America.
And thus it is that I contemplate these two phenomena, as indeed others have, some of whose reflections have previously appeared in this newspaper. My reflections come from the perspective of an African American priest who has spent the last seventeen years working to bring African-Americans into the pro-life movement with a firm conviction that the Black community, with its unique history in America and its traditional value system, has the potential to turn the pro-abortion tide and to make America a truly pro-life country. However, the road to that particular destination is still a long and difficult one and achieving that goal will only come with perseverance, prayer, and spiritual reparation.
Why is that? To answer this question, I will attempt to express what my experience has led me to see as being the great divide, some might say chasm, that exists between the pro-life and the African American communities. The division is not based on a fundamental disagreement about the immorality and tragedy of abortion-I say this based on the responses of hundreds of African Americans who have attended pro-life conferences that my religious community has sponsored-no, the divide is at another level, a much deeper and more complex level. To this day, there is a fundamental inability for these two groups to communicate effectively with each other due to an inability to understand different sets of assumptions. Thus there exists lasting misunderstanding, frustration, and sadly mistrust.
Can the divide be overcome? I truly believe that it can, and have worked with many of both races who are committed to accomplishing this task. I believe that the key to building a bridge between the two groups lies in a mutual attempt to understand each other, to enter into the other's experience as deeply as possible, and to discover a basis for mutual respect and common ground. I would now like to offer a few examples to illustrate my point.
The election of Barack Obama has become a touchstone in reference to this problem and I think using it as an example can help us move forward. What to one group is seen as the God-given answer to prayers of many generations is seen by the other as apocalyptic disaster. Can there be a meeting of the minds between such diverse and opposite positions? It can be done, but only by genuinely entering into the other's experience.
Consider this. Lately, local public television in my home town has been running several shows about New Orleans, "the way it was." For many, these are great opportunities for nostalgia and pining for the "good ol' days!" But does everyone experience those days in the same manner? For example, I was born in 1967. I went to integrated public schools and then to the Josephite-run St. Augustine High School. I chose to go to St. Aug because I wanted to attend the best high school in New Orleans, not because it was the only option I had as an African-American male! I had opportunities in New Orleans that my parents, and certainly my grandparents, never had. I remember them describing how different and difficult things were back in "the good ol' days," and honestly, I didn't fully understand or appreciate their experiences until I grew up.
So, imagine me now watching some of these programs; seeing some of the local celebrities who remained in the media after integration, but seeing them for the first time in their original environments. Imagine, for the first time seeing the commercials and those to whom they were directed. My, how "white" New Orleans was on television at least! How excluded from public society were my people. Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" immediately comes to mind. I began to understand more why our most celebrated native son, Louis Armstrong, never wanted to come back to his home town after he returned to reign as King Zulu. All around the world, he was the "Ambassador of Goodwill," but when he returned to New Orleans, he was just another ! It is ironic-in a good sense-that we have named our airport and that wonderfully historic park after him! Psychologically, these nostalgia shows have hit me like a ton of bricks, because though I didn't grow up during these times, I now see in a far more tangible way, what my parents and grandparents attempted to convey to me as a child.
Coming from this background-and this example only barely scratches the surface of the collective experiences of African Americans-the overwhelming symbolism and the experience of triumph in the election of Barack Obama, or of any African-American, to the presidency cannot be dismissed or ignored, and its legitimacy should not be rejected or denigrated. America has taken a huge step forward in moving beyond a painful past of racial inequity. A collective "alleluia" has indeed been shouted because of this! Just as Italian Americans continue to celebrate Christopher Columbus, despite the fact that according to some, there were terrible consequences for the native peoples of the Americas as a result of their encounter with Europeans, African-Americans have every right to celebrate this event which for many of them was unthinkable for the first half, third, or quarter of their lives.
Can a pro-life person acknowledge this symbolism and the legitimacy of this response and remain true to his or her commitment to the protection and defense of life from conception until natural death? The answer is yes, in my opinion, because this is only one part of the story.
Now to the other part. Countries are not governed by symbols, they are governed by people-politicians, to be exact, and our country and this election are no exception. Having acknowledged the monumental symbolism of this election-which affects all races and ethnicities, not just Blacks and Whites-it is equally the responsibility of all citizens-especially citizens of faith-to look at the specific positions of the person chosen to govern and to examine those positions in the light of faith and sound human reasoning. At this point, the best principle to be invoked is that provided by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., namely that we are to judge a man not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. Note the key word here is "judge." For what can be legitimately judged in another person is the moral character of his or her actions. So if, indeed, I have asked the pro-life community to step out of itself and to attempt to "see" the African American perspective on this election, I must now ask the African American community to step out of itself to "see" the pro-life perspective regarding the contemporary state of abortion in America.
Some have suggested that the Church has been particularly harsh with President-Elect Obama, after all, he is not the first "pro-choice" politician, or president. Some have even implied that there may be racial undertones to the bishops' approach. I heartily disagree with these suggestions for the reasons below.
First, the Church has been teaching and speaking out publicly on this issue since 1973. The public battles over who can or cannot receive Holy Communion did not begin with the 2008 election cycle, they were just as heated in previous presidential elections when there was no African American candidate. Our current Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, have made the topic of abortion and the promotion of a Culture of Life central in their visits and messages to the people of the United States.
There is, however, a new development which must also be added to this discussion. Until recently, the pro-life/pro-choice battles have centered around Supreme Court Cases such as Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, and their relationship to various state initiatives to place some restrictions on access to abortion, particularly in reference to parental consent for minors and late-term or "partial birth" abortion. The new element introduced is the Freedom of Choice Act (S. 1173/H.R. 1964). As U.S. Senator from Illinois, President-Elect Obama was a sponsor of this bill. As a candidate, he made a promise to the vigorously "pro-choice" Planned Parenthood that he would make the signing of FOCA a top and early priority of his administration.
Hear Candidate Obama make the promise himself.
As a federal law, FOCA would immediately strike down all state laws restricting access to abortion immediately. FOCA is to Roe v. Wade and Casey what the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voter Rights Act are to Brown v. The Board of Education! As federal legislation, this would now shift responsibility for the manner in which abortion is regulated and the degree to which it is allowed from the judiciary to the legislature, which means both our representatives and we, the people who elect them, become more directly responsible, morally complicit and thus culpable.
In his commitment to FOCA, Candidate Obama took one of the most aggressive positions of abortion advocacy ever taken by an American presidential contender. On his official transition website, Change.gov, under the agenda category "Women," Mr. Obama commits his administration to continued support for Roe vs. Wade, to embryonic stem cell research, and to "end[ing] insurance discrimination against contraception [emphasis added]." This latter implies a willingness to coerce health and insurance institutions (including Catholic health care providers) to provide services they judge to be immoral.
In his selection of Roman Catholics for key positions in his administration, especially his Vice-President and Secretary of Health and Human Services, he has made these persons responsible for executing and administering this legislation should it pass. The Catholic Bishops of the United States have a moral responsibility to respond and so do all Catholics and persons of good will. Why? Because abortion is the fundamental, inalienable human right, upon which all others rest. This point was made very clear in a recent intervention by an African-American Bishop. In a November 4 letter addressed to then Senator, now Vice-President-Elect, Joseph Biden regarding his assistance at Mass in the diocese, Bishop John Ricard, SSJ, of Pensacola-Tallahassee stated,
While grateful for the effective collaboration you and your office have offered on so many worthy projects and concerns, I also observe, by your support for laws that fail to protect the unborn, a profound disconnection from your human and personal obligation to protect the weakest and most innocent among us: the child in the womb.
The Church's consistent ethic of life does not mean that abortion is simply one issue among a smorgasbord of other moral/ethical issues from which one may choose a pet project. The Church's ethic of life embraces the continuum of life from conception to natural death, hence it recognizes that all other moral/ethical issues pertaining to justice and equity all presuppose the fundamental right to live, to exist, to be! They are related to the fundamental right to life as in a tree leaves are to branches, branches to trunk, trunk to root-the right to life is the root!
Aborted babies don't vote, can't get a good education, have no access to decent housing, can't earn a just wage, do not benefit from a clean and green environment, cannot emigrate legally or illegally, and have already received the death penalty and been executed by the state before they were even capable of committing a crime. They cannot support or protest any policy, practice, or person whom they feel to be guilty of an infringement upon their rights. They simply die. There only hope is the Infinite Mercy of our Eternal Father and, thank God, that is a blessed hope! But His mercy does not remove our responsibility to make sure that each of them has their God-given right to live protected by our government and our laws.
Here it is that these two groups can possibly find common ground. Both groups can agree, and I believe that they both do agree that abortion is an evil that displeases God. As indeed previous generations eventually came to agree (after a terrible war) that slavery was an evil that displeased God, and later generations agreed (after a courageous movement) that segregation was an evil that displeased God, agreement can now be reached regarding abortion. Furthermore, these two groups may even find that their coming together is mutually beneficial. Being pro-life must not remain primarily a one-party political issue and advocacy for the rights of the unborn ought to supersede all other political/social positions which are genuinely subjects of debate and disagreement, important as these issues may be.
For instance, a pro-life America would bring about a wonderful and absolutely necessary change for the African American community. Currently the African American community comprises 13% of America's population, yet according to the Guttmacher Institute, 37% of the abortions in the US take place in the Black community ("Facts on Induced Abortions"). According to the US Centers for Disease Control, 425,000 African Americans die annually from heart disease, hypertension, kidney disease, AIDS, and violence, and the infant mortality rate for African Americans is twice as high as the national average. 447,700 African American babies are aborted every year ("Highlights in Minority Health").
Can anyone remain indifferent to these horrifying statistics? Yet statistics represent individual human lives. Given our particular history in this country of being excluded, unprotected, constitutionally de-personalized, and de-humanized, can we as African Americans remain silent while close to 450,000 of our little African American brothers and sisters and 1.2 million little American boys and girls of every race, color, and creed are slaughtered annually, and legally? Can any Christian prepare to stand before God and render an answer for remaining silent in the face of this assault on God's gift of life at its very heart and core?
Another African American Catholic Bishop has also made a poignant plea to the African American community to play an active role in ending the scourge of legalized abortion in the United States. Bishop Martin Holley, Auxiliary Bishop of Washington, DC writes:
As an African American, I am saddened by evidence that Black women continue to be targeted by the abortion industry. The loss of any child from abortion is a tragedy, but we must ask: Why are minority children being aborted at such disproportionate rates... We must demand an end to the victimizing of African American children, women, families and communities by Planned Parenthood and others in the abortion industry. Over 80 percent of Planned Parenthood clinics are located in minority neighborhoods. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, began the "Negro Project" to reduce the Black population. We should be shocked and heartbroken by the findings of a recent phone investigation, that recorded a fundraiser at an Iowa Planned Parenthood clinic saying she was "very excited" about a donation specifically for aborting Black babies. (Holley)
Addressing the Catholic bishops of the United States, Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago and President of the USCCB set an important tone for the engagement of Catholics with the incoming presidential administration. Cardinal George acknowledges the symbolic importance and triumph of his historic election, but he also reminds us that as Catholics we must actively fight to defend the most defenseless among us. Acknowledging this moment in history, he writes:
The Bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States welcome this moment of historic transition and look forward to working with President-elect Obama and the members of the new Congress for the common good of all. Because of the Church's history and the scope of her ministries in this country, we want to continue our work for economic justice and opportunity for all; our efforts to reform laws around immigration and the situation of the undocumented; our provision of better education and adequate health care for all, especially for women and children; our desire to safeguard religious freedom and foster peace at home and abroad. The Church is intent on doing good and will continue to cooperate gladly with the government and all others working for these goods. (George)
Acknowledging the unique moral and political challenges of our times he has this to say:
The fundamental good is life itself, a gift from God and our parents. A good state protects the lives of all. Legal protection for those members of the human family waiting to be born in this country was removed when the Supreme Court decided Roe vs. Wade in 1973. This was bad law. The danger the Bishops see at this moment is that a bad court decision will be enshrined in bad legislation that is more radical than the 1973 Supreme Court decision itself FOCA would have an equally destructive effect on the freedom of conscience of doctors, nurses and health care workers whose personal convictions do not permit them to cooperate in the private killing of unborn children. It would threaten Catholic health care institutions and Catholic Charities. It would be an evil law that would further divide our country, and the Church should be intent on opposing evil. (George)
Protecting life is a fundamental responsibility of every human being. Protecting life also means nurturing and sustaining the lives of all after conception and birth. Building a Culture of Life means that our responsibility does not end at birth, but it must include the defense of life from its very origin. Would to God that on all sides of the political aisles, and in legislatures at every level of government there were advocates for the unborn-Independents, Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and anyone else, all recognizing that where the unborn are now, we all once were! What a boon that would be to a pro-life movement that was not confined to or identified with a single political party, but was as American as apple pie! What a blessing to the communities whose little ones would no longer be slaughtered, sacrificed to the gods of convenience and debased ideology.
I truly believe we can all come together in mutual respect, even while other differences remain, to change the way our country thinks on this issue. Dr. King appealed to the goodness that he believed lay in the hearts of each human person, made in the image and likeness of God. He believed that even his staunchest opponent and his most violent enemy was capable of change. That same spirit is needed today.
It is needed for these two communities to come together to work for a common goal. It is needed for our new president and the new Congress to see the truth of legalized abortion for heinous crime against humanity that it is and to reject it wholeheartedly. It is needed to understand that campaign rhetoric and governance are often radically different, thus there is hope that with hard work, commitment, and sacrifice-not empty platitudes and pietistic wishes-disparate groups with disparate backgrounds and perspectives on many other important issues can come together as one in churches, in schools, in legislative assemblies, at abortion clinics, in conferences, and wherever else pro-life people of every stripe can gather to make these United States a land of life and opportunity for all.
There is great and powerful symbolism in this recent election, but there is even greater need to make that symbolism meaningful for everyone, most especially, the unborn!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Feb. 2007. Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities. "Highlights in Minority Health and Health Disparities." 3 Jan. 2009.
Change.gov. The Office of the President Elect. 3 Jan. 2009.
George, Francis. Statement of the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 12 Nov. 2008. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 6 Jan. 2008.
Guttmacher Institute. Jul. 2008. In Brief. "Facts on Induced Abortions in the United States." 3 Jan. 2009.
Holley, Martin. Bishop Holley Calls on Black Community To Overcome Abortion. 15 Oct. 2008. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 6 Jan. 2009.
Ricard, John. A Letter From Bishop John Ricard to Senator Joseph Biden. 4 Nov. 2008. Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. 6 Jan 2009.
Fr. Raphael is the principal of St. Augustine High School (Josephite) in New Orleans, LA.