News & Views from 465 California Street

The Big Pushback

Clint Reilly

Graduation day at most American universities usually isn’t the occasion for a debate about abortion.

But don’t tell that to the tiny minority of Catholic bishops who decried Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama to deliver the university’s commencement address last month.

In the end, their protests backfired.

Obama’s eloquent plea for common ground in the abortion debate drowned out the polarizing demonstrations against his appearance.

Echoing the words of Notre Dame’s president, Father John Jenkins, Obama asked:

“How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?”

President Obama appealed to our shared values, noting that while we might not agree on abortion, “we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually; it has both moral and spiritual dimensions.”

Most important, Obama outlined concrete steps for people on both sides of the issue to take together:

Reduce the number of women seeking abortions. Reduce unintended pregnancies. Make adoption more available. Provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Promote health care policies that respect science and the equality of women.

Of course, many pro-life advocates remain unconvinced. In the wake of Obama’s call for unity, they cling closer than ever to the venomous rhetoric that has been used to assail pro-choice Americans for 30 years.

Such polemics are the reason why pro-life activists have made almost no headway in changing public policy on abortion in more than three decades.

Catholics like myself are strongly pushing back against the hijacking of Catholic social teaching by pro-life advocates who self righteously assert that we can impose, by law, Catholic teaching on a society where at least 150 million educated, law abiding citizens have an alternative view in good conscience.

I am not alone.

Many esteemed lay leaders, theologians and even prominent bishops are finally standing up to the “baby killer” attacks.

A recent headline in the National Catholic Reporter read, “Bishops urged to restore civility in pro-life efforts.” In the article, Father John Langan, Professor of Catholic Social Thought and Rector of the Jesuit Community at Georgetown University, noted:

“The bishops are certainly right to warn against the moral evil of abortion…But if they think they make their witness more credible and more effective by developing a quasi-excommunication of the Democratic Party and by aligning themselves with politicians who think that combining pro-life slogans with American chauvinism and exercising American military power without regard to international criticism constitutes an adequate response to evil in the world, they are sadly mistaken.”

Father Langan’s critique was incisive and thorough. He cautioned bishops against being used by selfish and dishonest political interests in their “heroic resistance to absolute evil.”

Even more compelling was his warning against aligning with imprudent, unrealistic zealots, those “who show more passion than judgment when they stubbornly refuse to recognize the limits of what is politically possible in a pluralistic and individualistic society.”

Perhaps the pushback is finally being heard by the Church hierarchy.

Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington – obviously speaking for both the Vatican and the vast majority of American Catholic bishops – recently gave a very public interview announcing that he does not believe communion should be used as a political weapon. He said he would not bow to pressure to deny Speaker Nancy Pelosi communion because of her pro-choice position on abortion.

“We never – the Church just did not use communion this way. It wasn’t a part of the way we do things and it wasn’t a way we convinced Catholic politicians to appropriate the faith and live it and apply it. The challenge has always been to convince people.”

Thanks for the words of pastoral wisdom, Archbishop Wuerl.

Comments (20)

  • Folks, I believe that the real issue and challenges to the “ProChoice” people can be summarized in the following 2 questions:

    1. If human life does not begin at conception then when does it occur?
    2. When abortion is chosen as a solution to a problem is God allowed to participate in that decision?

    Answer these questions and then we can have an intelligent debate. /DaveB

    Posted by: David Brusiee | June 2nd, 2009 at 10:00 am

  • Yes, thanks Archibishop Wuerl and I hope your wise views spread rapidly within the Catholic heirarchy!

    Posted by: melinda maginn | June 2nd, 2009 at 11:15 am

  • I just read your commentary in the SJ Merc and appreciate the voice of reason. I’ve never read you before (busy mom), so it was a pleasant surprise to have your thoughts launch my day. Thanks for pushing back and sharing your wisdom.

    Posted by: Stephanie | June 2nd, 2009 at 11:36 am


    Posted by: J. Horton | June 2nd, 2009 at 11:37 am

  • Obama’s views on abortion are to the extreme left of the
    spectrum. As a state legislator he supported late term abortions
    including allowing a living fetus to die on an operating table. The
    Pope and the hierarchy are clear. Politicians such as Pelosi and
    Kennedy who claim to be Catholic but (through their powers as elected
    officials) perpetuate legal abortion in our country deserve to be
    called out for the hypocrites they are. I am a highly educated
    Catholic. Ever since I moved to the Bay Area in the 80s I have had to
    put up with “venomous” attacks by people against the Catholic Church
    as well as anyone who is pro-life. One can not just assail the
    “right” as if those on the left are not also guilty of the same
    venomous assaults. I know you will not change your opinion on this
    issue, nor will the majority of Americans. However, I just wanted to
    let you know that I disagree with your column as do many others. I
    applaud those who stood up to Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame.

    Posted by: Jim | June 2nd, 2009 at 1:24 pm

  • Some thirty years ago,, we had a child born prematurely. That child would have and/or could have been the subject of a late term abortion.
    (Gestation about 6 1/2 months.) He was delivered and lived to 2 and one half years. He was a life. He was a person. It is just illogical to say that his late term abortion would not have been murder given the fact that he was a viable person for 2 1/2 years. I too applaud those who stood up to oppose Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame.

    Posted by: Michael Farrah, Sr. | June 2nd, 2009 at 2:46 pm

  • I cound not agree with you more on the subject of the need for “pushback” in The Catholic Church. I think that it is naive, however, to think that it is going to happen as a grassroots movement in the near future. The basic problem is a leadership problem at the top. Imagine if George Bush had been “elected” our king for life? That is the way the Catholic Church is set up. The worse it gets the worse it gets. I point other readers to an article in the National Catholic Reporter By Richard McBrien (Created Jun 01, 2009) that talks about this leadership crisis.

    Posted by: George Fulmore | June 2nd, 2009 at 3:34 pm

  • Dear Clint,
    Aren’t you embarrassed to display your irrationality and ignorance in such a public manner? Every good teacher can use this article, and others, as wonderful examples of straw man arguments, non sequitur reasoning, and misrepresentation of one’s sources so as to support one’s point of view.
    1. 80 bishops publicly opposing Pres. Obama’s speaking at the Notre Dame commencement is not a “tiny minority”. There are 195 residential bishops heading up dioceses in the USA. More than 40% chose to speak out. Certainly many more supported those 80, but decided that it is the job of the local ordinary to handle the issue.
    2. Pres. Obama’s plea was not eloquent. It was insipid. Full of equally bogus straw man arguments, misuse of Scripture and false reasoning. He should fire his speech writer. The “doubt” that the President spoke of is not the “doubt” that Scripture refers to. Both Scripture and the Church speak very clearly the notion of killing life in the womb. There is no doubt about its moral depravity. Based on Pres. Obama’s logic as presented in the speech, there should be no reason to minimize the number of abortions. If he really believed that should be the case, he would make decisions toward that end. He has only made decisions that will increase the number of abortions. The fact that Catholics at Notre Dame cannot recognize the absurdity of Obama’s statements does not speak well of the President, it speaks ill of them, their knowledge of their faith and the depth of their thinking.
    3. A recent Gallup Poll finds that for the first time, the majority of Americans oppose abortion. Mr. Reilly’s false claim that 150 million Americans support abortion is absurd. He should speak factually, not with hyperbole.
    4. Someone’s values must be reflected in our country’s laws. For most of our country’s history, Protestant Christian values, including respect for other faiths, formed our laws. Furthermore, it is not only Catholic teaching that opposes abortion. Oddly, even Muslim faith opposes abortion. No Christian point of view can support the extent to which abortion is practiced in our country.
    5. How absurd for Mr. Reilly to quote a Catholic priest professor who decries abortion as a “moral evil” as a support for a point of view that supports abortion. That is part of his straw man argument that attempts to paint those who oppose abortion as some kind of extremists.
    6. Archbishop Wuerl’s statement that Communion should not be used as a political tool is not an example of a “pushback”. His position is simply a pastoral option that he chooses because he is in our nation’s capital. It makes sense for him to not make himself a pawn in a political game. On the other hand, I think the bishops who are responsible for Catholic politicians who support abortion, could rightfully make a decision about Communion for those politicians in their home dioceses, but that is their business.

    Mr. Reilly’s decision to leave the seminary was a god-send for the Church. What a horrible priest he would have made, trying to pastor a flock without even knowing his faith.

    Good luck, Mr. Reilly,

    Peter Jensen

    Posted by: Peter Jensen | June 2nd, 2009 at 9:27 pm

  • Peter J., well said. If Clint took the time to google the vaticans position he would find that it isn’t what he claims it to be.

    Posted by: Bob K | June 3rd, 2009 at 7:14 am

  • I agree with Mr. Reilly 100%. It’s important to look at the full spectrum of shared values, and to not demonize. Indeed, to act with hate against those who support a “women’s right to choose” runs contrary to sound Christian values. Don’t throw the baby out with bathwater! (pun intended). We need not follow all that comes from the Vatican, the Vatican changes its positions too, sometimes later, sometimes earlier than majority of followers they guide.

    Posted by: sophie calloway | June 3rd, 2009 at 4:36 pm

  • Sophie, I guess that you are Catholic, otherwise you wouldn’t refer to the Vatican. Sorry, though, there cannot be any change in the teaching on abortion. That’s right up there with the risen Jesus is the Son of God and other basic dogmas. There is no shared value that would cause a person who stands for the life of the unborn to say that it is OK to slaughter them as we have been doing. Who advocates acting with hate about a woman’s right to choose? You cannot say that people who stand for the right of life for the unborn have anything to do with the recent murder of the abortion doctor any more than you can say that all Muslims are evil because of the acts of those who attacked us on September 11. Furthermore, it is dishonest to say that a “woman’s right to choose” justifies the wholesale slaughter of more than 50 million unborn children. You have to admit that there is some other agenda at work here than to simply stand in favor of women’s rights. A reasonable person would say that women are being manipulated by people who want to control the population. The biggest provider of abortions is Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood was founded by a person who wanted to practice eugenics, which is a euphemism for controlling the population of African-Americans in the world. That explains why Planned Parenthood puts so many abortion centers in areas where African-Americans live. Americans are being hood winked by a racist organization that uses good-intentioned people to do their dirty work for them, all under the banner of women’s rights. Simple logic leads to a conclusion that people don’t like to admit. You can’t say that you agree with Mr. Reilly 100%, then say that you are a reasonable person, because his arguments are unreasonable and self-refuting. He either doesn’t know how to write, or he doesn’t know how to think. Think more highly of yourself, Sophie, than to buy into his poppycock before you sort out your own thinking. God bless.

    Posted by: Peter Jensen | June 3rd, 2009 at 9:49 pm

  • I read with interest your column today in the CC Times. I don’t
    think any pushing back of anything works very well until the leadership
    crisis is met head on.

    Posted by: George F. | June 5th, 2009 at 4:57 pm

  • How come you always agree with me?

    Posted by: John K. | June 5th, 2009 at 4:57 pm

  • Liked the column in the Times today, and good to see what Archbp. Wuerl said. One
    bishop who was “big” on denying communion was Burke of St Louis; he’s been kicked
    upstairs into a sinecure at the Vatican.

    Also, I had meant to express my appreciation for last week’s piece on David
    Roberti. He shouldn’t be forgotten for the good work he did in Sacramento all those
    years. Thanks for writing on him.

    Al A

    Posted by: Al A. | June 5th, 2009 at 4:58 pm

  • I often read your article on San Jose Mercury News Newspaper.
    I like your writing very much.

    Posted by: Anhthao | June 5th, 2009 at 4:58 pm

  • It seems that many of you have not read Mr. Obama’s 2002 speech to
    the Illinois State Senate. While many of us understood that Mr.
    Clinton was pro abortion, and we opposed him accordingly, Mr. Obama is
    proudly in favor of infanticide for the hapless child born of a failed
    abortion. He is the only American politician publicly ever to
    advocate infanticide. That was that ancient evil practiced by the
    Canaanites, and it surely led ultimately to their destruction. Any
    society that so chooses to destroy its young puts itself on a par with
    those cannibalistic groups that literally devoured their children in
    Chronos fashion. Probably, the legendary Anziques would have been
    fully accepting of Mr. Obama and his colleagues.

    Posted by: McInerny | June 5th, 2009 at 4:59 pm

  • Thank you for your excellently written column. I was at a Santa Clara graduation years ago and Justice Scalia (who supports the death penalty) was the graduation speaker. Where were the demonstrators and the Bishops speaking out? If we gave the Catholic litmus test to all speakers, I dare say the Catholic Universities would have none. It is time for those of us Catholics who are against abortion but believe that passing unenforceable laws is the solution to reducing abortion, to speak out.
    President Obama was right on with his speech (though I admit I think almost everything he says is great.) Perhaps we should all write to thank Archbishop Wuerl.
    Keep up the good work. Sally N

    Posted by: Sally N. | June 5th, 2009 at 5:00 pm

  • Clint, a situation related to the Catholic Church and other “extremists” on the “pro life” position who argue that life begins at conception needs to be resolved.
    Consider “tubal” pregnancies where the fertilized egg is implanted in a fallopian tube before reaching the uterus. This situation is very painful and life threatening to the women, and to my (limited) knowledge is only resolved by an “abortion”. What is the Catholic Church’s position on this situation? If life begins at conception (when the sperm fertilizes the egg), then aborting the tubular pregnancy is taking a human life. If life does not begin until the fertilized egg is implanted in the womb, this takes four to six days for the fertilized egg to travel up the fallopian tube to the uterus, so why do the “extremists” oppose the morning after pill. I
    have never seen or read a discussion of these issues. You might want to look into these issues and write about what you find. Daniel

    Posted by: Daniel | June 5th, 2009 at 5:02 pm

  • Another fine article.
    I too am a Catholic. I thought Obama’s speech was excellent in all
    respects and was pleased with actions of Notre Dame’s Pres. and their
    student body.

    John O’L

    Posted by: John O'L | June 5th, 2009 at 5:02 pm

  • Thank you so much for what you wrote about Catholic participation at
    the public level in the unfortunately bitter and hateful and emotionally
    charged polarity in our country between the “right-to-life” and the
    “freedom to choose” factions.

    I think we Christians, we Catholics, need to ask Our Lord for guidance
    and follow the Scriptures wisely, reflectively, before speaking out
    publically. I am so glad the Archbishop of Washington said communion
    mustn’t be used politically. Jesus said we need to go through the
    strait gate — doesn’t this mean, in part, taking great care in how we
    And in how we think, how unconditionally we love, and entrust all
    judgments to God.

    As for me, I’m sure glad my mom didn’t choose abortion when I was
    conceived, and I like to use this answer to people who bring up abortion. Beyond that, I agree very strongly with our President Obama, that the real nitty gritty of this is to lay a groundwork of good preventive measures against out of wedlock pregnancy, especially among teens, and at the same time, much better care of unwanted babies who need good adoption and of poor young single mothers who need all kinds of help to bring up the children they bring into this difficult world.

    In other words, Catholics need to put their money where their mouths

    God bless you,
    Suzy B

    Posted by: Suzy B. | June 5th, 2009 at 5:03 pm

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