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MSW on the Left and Abortion

February 9, 2014

Recently I wrote a critique of the Pro-Life movement, suggesting that it was in the grips of a totalizing ideology.   Several commentators responded by arguing that this sort of attack was a reflection of partisanship, that it did nothing for the Pro-Life movement, and that I was turning a blind-eye to similar faults among progressive Catholics.   This was not my intent, but I think these were substantive comments and worthy of further consideration.  What kinds of criticism of the Pro-Life movement are acceptable and which are not?  Must every criticism be accompanied by a moment of breast beating, so as to forestall suggestions that we are ignoring the Gospel injunction “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Mt 7:3).

Shortly after this I published this post I stumbled on an NCR column by Michael Sean Winters from December that encapsulates these questions quite clearly.  He uses the statement by Bishop Tobin criticizing the late Nelson Mandela for his stance on abortion—a statement that many people found discordant given the near universal encomiums given after his death—to both criticize the Pro-Life movement and to reflect on the failure of the Catholic Left (MSW’s terminology) to grapple with abortion.  His takes his fellow progressives to task, and it is worth quoting him at length:

[W]e mostly talk about other things and, when the issue of abortion is unavoidable, we make excuses for the pro-choice stance of those allied with us on other issues, or we shrug, or we rail against the bishops for the failure to protect born children from rape, in any event, we denude the issue. This must stop….The Catholic Left must re-engage the issue of abortion with all the seriousness it deserves….It is difficult. Let’s be honest. We don’t want to alienate our friends and, in certain social circles, abortion is not something anyone wants to discuss. Nor is it always appropriate to bring it up as, for example, when a deeply loved person has just died. But, do we on the Catholic Left look for opportunities to raise the issue, sympathetically and seriously, or do we look for strategies to avoid it?

So far, so good:  these are points more conservative Catholics routinely make against progressives.  I agree with him and perhaps I should be stronger in making these points myself.  Unfortunately, to set the ground for his critique he frames the issue in an “Us versus Them” way which blunts his remarks.  He begins with this transition:

Most disturbingly, however, Bishop Tobin’s comments harm the pro-life movement because they make that cause appear to be the sole provenance of wingnuts.

He later concludes with this language, writing,

If we on the Catholic Left who care, and care deeply, about the tragedy of abortion, if we do not stand up with greater vigor and frequency, we will abandon the issue to the wingnuts.

In between these bookends, and before turning his focus to progressive Catholics, MSW raises some important points where he has significant differences with the Pro-Life movement:  in particular, I agree with him when he says that

Bishop Tobin and other pro-lifers do their cause no good when they isolate the issue of abortion from all other human concerns.

However, I think he is doing his own argument no good by referring  pointedly to “their cause.”  He later argues that he and other progressive Catholics care “about the tragedy of abortion” so why can’t he say “our cause”?   It is not certain, but this seems to suggest he cannot envision himself in alliance with Bishop Tobin and the other “wingnuts” in the Pro-Life movement.  And the result is that his positive points come off as overly defensive.

It is at this point that I begin to part ways with MSW.   I admit that I am often driven to distraction by the Pro-Life movement and often distance myself from them by flying the flag of the seamless garment ethic,  identifying myself as pro-life by supporting groups such as Feminists for Life or Consistent Life.   As the old cliche goes, I can fight my enemies but God save me from my friends.   But therein is an important point:  I am willing to admit that the Pro-Life movement and I are allies, or at least share the central goal of reducing and ultimately eliminating abortion, even while I criticize their strategy and tactics.  While there might be individuals in the Pro-Life movement whom I might deride as being wingnuts or at least strongly criticize for saying really stupid things (certain politicians and their comments about rape and abortion come to mind), I do not think that the movement as a whole or even in the main is dominated by wingnuts.

Some readers might object that my comments about a totalizing ideology are simply a more sophisticated way of the saying the same thing, but I disagree.  The insidious power of any ideology is that it traps people within its confines and shapes and controls their response to reality in ways that can be counter-productive at best.  Bishop Tobin is a case in point:  in the grips of the Pro-Life ideology, he reacted to the death of Nelson Mandela without ever considering whether his remarks were helping or hurting the cause.  This is not a blanket defense:  “My ideology made me do it” explains but it does not excuse.   But I hope that it suggests that I am approaching this matter with more nuance and less disdain.  (And in this regard it is worth seeing my post praising Bishop Tobin for a previous statement that was widely criticized.)  And I think my pointed criticism of its ideological underpinnings is necessary if the Pro-Life movement is going to expand beyond its current base and make further progress.   But its critics, myself and MSW included, can probably do a better job making sure our criticisms are founded on our basic agreement on the evil of abortion.

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48 Comments
  1. February 9, 2014 3:34 pm

    One approach too little urged would not rely on criminal law as the approach, but social justice. Abortion studies I’ve read allusions to, indicate the primary motive for abortion is fear, fear of poverty or worse poverty, fear of loss of work or of educational opportunity. In other words fear of serious adverse consequences of having a child motivate abortion. These are problems which society can address, and can address without Roe v Wade being an obstacle. These are steps society could have taken a week after Roe became law, possibly saving millions of lives in the years since.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      February 9, 2014 7:08 pm

      This is certainly a conclusion that can be drawn from, say, Guttmacher Institute survey data. I also remember hearing this lead to a scrap between two members of my fraternity about whether advocating this approach was truly a pro-life position.

    • Cojuanco permalink
      February 11, 2014 6:00 pm

      On the ground, this (or a two-pronged approach of both criminal restrictions and social justice initiatives) seems to be gaining increasing currency among the actual activists, the ones behind the crisis pregnancy centers. As far as I cal see the split is between the theoreticians and those actually working in the trenches. Among clergy discussing tactics, in my personal experience religious order priests seem to be less theoretical than the secular clergy.

  2. Kurt permalink
    February 9, 2014 5:17 pm

    I am willing to admit that the Pro-Life movement and I are allies, or at least share the central goal of reducing and ultimately eliminating abortion, even while I criticize their strategy and tactics.

    For me, I am not. They are not my friends nor my allies. I find they have not shown themselves to share my central goal of reducing and ultimately eliminating abortion. They work to advance the right wing, not the cause of protecting the unborn.

    I would have no problem with an organization or movement singularly dedicated to protecting the unborn. As I’ve noted, Bishop Tobin is not someone who employs the questionable tactic of criticizing the recently deceased for their past promotion of abortion. He does that selectively – in order to damn those with the left wing positions on apartheid and economic justice while leaving unsoiled the union busting economic royalists like Baroness Thatcher.

    The NRTLC has proclaimed a seamless garment of pro-life issues that includes opposition to campaign finance reform and universal health care. They and the more extreme groups used every opportunity to attack Obamacare, falsely asserting it funded abortion, even though almost every objection they raised were actions they found unobjectionable when done by white Republican presidents.

    The Trotskyites in the 1940s debated if the Soviet Union under Stalin had become simply a degenerate workers’ state or if it had become a new form of social oppression like capitalism. The RTL establishment is not a degenerate pro-life organization, it is a new form of right wing oppression.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      February 9, 2014 7:10 pm

      I won’t paint with so broad a brush, if only because on a local level I fully support several crisis pregnancy centers which are very much part of the mainstream pro-life movement.

      • Kurt permalink
        February 9, 2014 8:23 pm

        David, I accept the correction on your part, or maybe it is a clarification on my part. I am referring to the movement to change public polcy. The individual and personal efforts to assist women considering abortion is a different matter than the pro-life political movement. God bless you in your initiatives.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
        February 9, 2014 9:01 pm

        Kurt, whichever it is, these are important distinctions: we must resist the temptation to paint everyone in the pro-life movement with the same brush. Just as not all leftists are “communists” (or whatever), not all members of the pro-life movement are right wingers. A lot are, to be sure, but there are shades of gray.

        • Kurt permalink
          February 10, 2014 12:14 pm

          Yes, among individuals there are shades of gray. But considered as a unit, the actually existing pro-life political/public policy movement is a tool of the right wing. There are dissenting elements but there is not a dissenting effective element.

  3. Jordan permalink
    February 9, 2014 6:01 pm

    Pope Francis has brought about many changes, and one of them is a more challenging view of pro-life witness. When Pope Francis talks about the evil of abortion, he never faills to connect it to social welfare and the renovation of state and commonweal in the light of Christian justice. Pope Francis’s new engagement with the evil of abortion partially counters the logic of an episcopal union with conservative political parties (and not only in the USA), but also the notion that all rhetorical roads end with abortion. As Pope Francis has demonstrated, abortion is part of an interlocked suite of evil, and not the only card in the hand.

    Bishop Tobin’s admonition to progressives to not become weary and permissive about the pro-choice views of colleagues implies that a multifaceted Franciscan pro-life approach must remember to place the criminalization of abortion in a prominent place. Bishop Tobin’s statement suggest to me that even if abortion is viewed as one facet of evil, this does not permit a slackening of personal involvement in two respects. A faithful Catholic must hold both the legal repeal of abortion-on-demand in the long view and a committment ot ameliorating abortion’s societal devastation in the short view. Bp. Tobin has a duty and right to point this out, even if progressive Catholics sometimes tune out bishops who don’t “see” the other facets of Consistent Life. Bp. Tobin appears to understand the Consistent Life concerns, but must tell his flock that abortion is the foremost, but certainly not the only, societal evil.

    • Kurt permalink
      February 9, 2014 8:25 pm

      Bp. Tobin appears to understand that serving as a lacky for the rich and powerful is more important than protecting the unborn.

  4. February 10, 2014 12:44 am

    I appreciate the spirit of this and your replies to me in the thread below. I write now to clarify my own thoughts and feelings on this, not to continue confrontation, and I apologize for some of the shrillness in the thread below..

    I will also state that I have in general find MSW as someone who has been largely successful in supporting progressive causes without compromising his defense of the unborn,

    1. I’ve been increasingly coming to the conclusion that these differences are ones of visceral response, which are not necessarily under the command of our reason or amenable to persuasion, making many of these discussions, including many I have regretfully taken part in, less than fruitful. Different issues hit people in different ways, as well as the the people who support those issues. We should examine and develop our consciences to hear the cries of all of the oppressed, but I’m not sure there’s a correct relative sensitivity to these various cries. Indeed, I believe God has given us each some particular sensitivities so that we can serve different people. It is tempting to imagine what we could accomplish if we were all rowing in the same direction (indeed our preferred direction), but I’m not sure that’s what God’s plan is for us.

    2. Why are we (particularly those who do not live in his diocese) so interested in what the Bishop of Providence has to say about the death of Neslon Mandela? My impression is that it is only of interest to those wishing to justify their pre-existing antipathy to the hierarchy or those favoring more legal restrictions on abortion. Now, perhaps there are some who weary of having to defend or talk around statements like that. But it seems the attention given to this statement is somewhat strategic.

    3. The statement of Bp. Tobin begins with praise of his record (and, contrary to MSW, I doubt that being more specific in that regard would have added much value), and concluded with, ” we can only regret that his noble defense of human dignity did not include the youngest members of our human family, unborn children.” And this launches a rant about how Bp. Tobin isolates abortion??

    It seems to me that Bp. Tobin was attempting (perhaps clumsily) to link Mandela’s opposition to apartheid to opposition to abortion.

    The Seamless Garment is seamless in both directions. Yes, pro-lifers need to acknowledge that other injustices feed abortion. But progressives also need to acknowledge that a culture that embraces abortion is fertile ground for other injustices.

    4. The complaints about unholy alliances the pro-life movement engages in are difficult to take from people who in their next breath propose alliances with politicians who support maintaining and extending the abortion license and organizations like Planned Parenthood that don’t just differ on the best means of reducing abortions, actually perform hundreds of thousands of abortions a year.

    As I said above, I think these are matter of visceral response more than intellectual will, but I hope it’s not too difficult to understand why some people may roll their eyes at those willing to work with Planned Parenthood, but not with someone who would utter a discouraging word after the passing of Nelson Mandela.

    5. We are currently witnessing in our culture a moment where support for same sex marriage seems to be the single indicator of one’s personal decency, to the point where gay rights are the subtext of almost every story about the Olympics. I am certain that as world leaders die off, regardless of their other accomplishments, their obituaries will include evaluations and laments of their actions and stances with regard to gay rights, Yet, this singular focus is called in to criticism a fraction of the times people’s focus on the legalized killing of hundreds of thousands of unborn children annually is.

    6. I think part of what set me off in the post below was its timing as the only post on this Catholic blog during the week of the Right To Life March. Perhaps that is similar to those who question whether the week of Mandela’s passing was the right time for Bp. Tobin to make his point.

    For myself, I find my own energies being more drawn to my own family and parish than either the cause of the unborn or other causes. I’m not certain this is to my credit, but I think Pope Francis is calling us to realize that a fully evangelized culture can transform all these things. The answer is Jesus.

    As such, I will continue to pray and support all those with different calls, and do what I can to bring us to greater unity.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      February 10, 2014 12:24 pm

      Thanks John. You have raised a lot of good points and I don’t have time at the moment to respond to them all.

      One point I do want to make is that your reference to visceral reactions is one reason I am so intrigued by Zizek’s work on political ideology. Unlike standard liberal or conservative political philosophy, which tends to ground it in rationalism, Zizek uses Lacanian psychoanalysis because it makes the role of visceral reactions (or as he puts it, libidinal attachments) central to understanding the power and reach of a political ideology. In his later work he takes this to the extreme of saying that no meaningful discussion can be held between people with differing ideological frameworks: each believes passionately (i.e., with emotional investment) in his/her “universal partisan truth” and will not give any credence to opposing views. I don’t believe this, but as I have seen in this and other posts navigating through these waters is tricky.

    • Kurt permalink
      February 10, 2014 1:51 pm

      The Seamless Garment is seamless in both directions. Yes, pro-lifers need to acknowledge that other injustices feed abortion. But progressives also need to acknowledge that a culture that embraces abortion is fertile ground for other injustices.

      I totally agree. So why do us who practice a both ways seamless garment get the cold shoulder from the right-to-life establishment (if not worse)?

      4. The complaints about unholy alliances the pro-life movement engages in are difficult to take from people who in their next breath propose alliances with politicians who support maintaining and extending the abortion license and organizations like Planned Parenthood that don’t just differ on the best means of reducing abortions, actually perform hundreds of thousands of abortions a year.

      Don’t play games, John. When working on protecting the unborn, standing with immigrants or the poor, or whatever just cause, one works with those elected and appointed officials who are in a position to advance such public policies. I expect the right-to-life movement to work with elected officials who share their views. Immigration reform advocates the same.

      Working with any willing elected official on the piece of legislation of the moment is different from putting your movement at the service of unrelated right wing issues such as opposition to campaign finance reform or attacking universal health care.

      Yet, this singular focus is called in to criticism a fraction of the times people’s focus on the legalized killing of hundreds of thousands of unborn children annually is.

      Not for me. If Bishop Tobin wanted to with a singular focus go after Mandela and Thatcher at the time of their demise, I would limit my criticism to a tactical error. But the facts are is that he did not have a singular focus on the unborn. He was quite selective.

    • February 10, 2014 3:13 pm

      On an odd, note, I got an email from Planned Parenthood in a city on the other side of the country with details about how to move forward with my job application there.

      Obviously meant to be addressed to someone else, but I struggle with whether I should correct the error, and if so, should I do so in such a way that makes it clear that I would never consider working there.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
        February 10, 2014 3:38 pm

        I am not sure if this helps, but my wife and I get solicitations for money from Planned Parenthood, NARAL, etc. I usually send them a note (in their prepaid reply envelope) telling them we are making a donation in their name to a crisis pregnancy center.

        • February 11, 2014 12:10 pm

          I like that, but I just sent them a brief note that I am confident that it was sent to me in error, and received a polite thank you in response.

  5. Ronald King permalink
    February 10, 2014 9:25 am

    A critical point to highlight is the usage of the term “evil of abortion”. Who is this being directed to and what is the purpose of using this language? First, we must learn how human beings develop their identities which are composed of family, social and genetic dispositions which are influenced by a history of violence. We are instinctively predisposed to be more sensitive to dangerous and hurtful experiences and to remember their consequences more easily than positive experiences. As a result our identities are constructed on a fear based foundation regardless of our political ideology. When using a phrase such as “evil of abortion” to identify the crisis of a woman at one of her most vulnerable life events is an act of violence against her. The person who uses this terminology exhibits no compassion towards the one who brings life into this world.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      February 10, 2014 12:19 pm

      Ron,

      the procuring or performance of an abortion is (with some possible exceptions such as ectopic pregnancy, discussed elsewhere and a bagatelle for this conversation) a moral evil. This is Catholic teaching. In this context I wrote “evil” instead of the softer “tragedy” for rhetorical effect: to emphasize that progressive Catholics are (or should be) on the same page with the Pro-Life movement on this. I am not, except by implication, addressing this to any particular person. And in particular, I am not speaking either personally or pastorally to women who have had or are considering having an abortion. Since I am speaking in general, abstract terms, I have no qualms about using this expression. Were I preaching, I might still use it, but would consider carefully my audience and how what I want to say might be received. Were I engaged in pastoral counseling (unlikely but possible) I would choose my words even more carefully. I would not necessarily shy away from the word, but would frame it in terms of God’s grace and forgiveness.

      Or, to put it more simply: I reject the characterization of any use of this term as being an act of violence against a woman or women in general, and that its use reflects a complete lack of compassion towards women in these circumstances. At this point I would refer back to the list of things that MSW claimed distinguished Pro-Life progressive Catholics from the mainstream Pro-Life movement: many of these are based on wanting to worry about the woman involved. I think it is possible to worry about these while still not dancing around the moral category that abortion fits into.

  6. Ronald King permalink
    February 10, 2014 1:29 pm

    David, What was your emotional response to my comment? This is pertinent to understanding how to approach the crisis of abortion.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      February 10, 2014 3:42 pm

      Mild annoyance with a touch of exasperation.

      • Ronald King permalink
        February 11, 2014 4:18 pm

        David as you stated you did not address any particular person just as I did not directly address you except through implication. However, you felt “Mild annoyance with a touch of exasperation”. Now consider how distressing it is to use the term “intrinsically evil” in association with a woman in crisis who is considering an abortion or has had one. Their pain becomes more isolating and destructive as a result of this “evil” label. I know this for a fact. We must speak the language of those who need healing and not the language which only seems to justify our sense of being right.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          February 11, 2014 8:22 pm

          RK, it seemed pretty clear that you were addressing me directly.

    • February 11, 2014 12:19 pm

      I would echo David;’s.

      Your response is insulting. You write as if you are the only one who has ever considered the possibility that many women choose abortion out of desperate circumstances caused by other societal evils that demand our attention.

      Almost all of us understand this.

      But we also understand that does not remove a woman’s agency. And that 2014 America may be a difficult environment to raise a child in, but it is by no means the historical nadir that the current abortion rate is a natural consequence regardless of the laws and culture. And we understand that other crimes, including the violent ones you demand to be addressed, are also carried out by people in desperate circumstances. And that, just maybe, the abortion license is part of the violent culture that leads to these other violent ills.

      In short, I find this as making excuses to do nothing — confident that you are so much more compassionate and empathetic than the rest of us. You thank God that you are not like us.

      There are a million children being killed each year, but that doesn’t upset you; what upsets you is that David used the word “evil” to describe it. That’s not moral sophistication. That’s not compassion. That’s willful blindness.

      • Ronald King permalink
        February 12, 2014 12:36 am

        John, Gees, you couldn’t be more wrong. Tell me what you know about a woman’s agency. I think you have assumptions and prejudices but little knowledge. Please read what I have written again. I believe that you have made yourself angry with your wrong interpretation of my comment and your false beliefs about me. What upsets me is that it is easy to use evil to describe an act but it is infinitely more difficult to engage the person committing the act with compassion. If you have not been in that situation then you will not understand what I have written. John, I think it is around10 million children being killed each year.

        David, when I wrote my first comment I was not referring to you. I was thinking of what was written in the catechism. I knew you were using the language of the Church theologians and my comment was aimed at them. If I hurt you I am sorry. Helping with healing has been the vocation of my life. Engaging someone in pain five days a week for 30 years has taught me how vulnerable people are.

        • February 12, 2014 7:53 am

          He was right, though, that your comment came across as insulting and arrogant; and, I would note, your follow-ups simply doubles down on the same features: instead of doing anything that could be read as engaging with the people involved, or their reasons, you explicitly make it all about diagnosing their emotional state, which you quite simply don’t have enough information to determine properly, and at the same time, rather than using your experience to clarify the argument, you use it to attribute to yourself a position of superior understanding and knowledge, in comparison with which someone else would “have assumptions and prejudices but little knowledge” — as if you had sufficient knowledge of their experiences to assess that on such a sweeping scale. It’s utterly baffling why you would choose this response to the particular criticism made, when it merely reiterates exactly what you were criticized for.

        • Ronald King permalink
          February 12, 2014 1:45 pm

          Brandon, “He was right, though, that your comment came across as insulting and arrogant”. That is your belief.
          Brandon, “…instead of doing anything that could be read as engaging with the people involved, or their reasons, you explicitly make it all about diagnosing their emotional state…”
          I think you should have written this to John. He was reacting to what I had written to David. Your interpretation is also wrong. It is your belief that I put myself in a superior position based on what I have written. That is your belief and your reality.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          February 13, 2014 7:37 am

          Okay everyone: it is clear that there are some different reactions to what was said. I don’t want this to blow up.

          Let’s try to move back to one of the questions at hand, which in this case whether calling abortion”evil” constitutes violence against women. Or even further back, to the points in the original post.

  7. Brian Martin permalink
    February 10, 2014 1:37 pm

    “but must tell his flock that abortion is the foremost, but certainly not the only, societal evil.”
    Perhaps abortion is not the foremost societal evil…but rather one of the foremost symptoms of greater evil. That to me is the beauty of what Pope Francis is saying. He is saying that we cannot focus simply on ending abortion, he is saying that we are called to something more, to a radical challenge to society to view each other through different eyes. John Paul II’s comments about the “culture of death” referred to much more than abortion.

    • Ronald King permalink
      February 11, 2014 3:41 pm

      Brian you have made the most important point from which to begin a dialogue for the correct psychological and spiritual understanding of abortion. You stated above, “Perhaps abortion is not the foremost societal evil…but rather one of the foremost symptoms of greater evil.”

  8. Paul Connors permalink
    February 10, 2014 2:42 pm

    David Cruz-Uribe: “Bishop Tobin is a case in point: in the grips of the Pro-Life ideology, he reacted to the death of Nelson Mandela without ever considering whether his remarks were helping or hurting the cause.”

    You use the words “the cause” as though it were obvious exactly what they referred to. Perhaps Bishop Tobin has a differently-founded understanding of what his cause is? Possibly he simply observed that there was a lot of unmixed admiration for Mandela, and pointed out what should also be taken into account — that a life spent contributing to both great good and great evil is ultimately ambiguous. Possibly Bishop Tobin doesn’t think he hurt his cause in the slightest.

    Cardinal Dolan’s statement after Mandela’s death also contains elements that refer to this mixed quality, though Dolan is more careful in what he says. For example: “Nelson Mandela was a hero to the world”. That can be taken in different ways. And Dolan quotes some approval from JP2, but carefully notes the date of approval as 1995. When I saw that I looked up what happened in 1996.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      February 10, 2014 3:41 pm

      Maybe. But it is pretty clear to me in his statement that he wants to say something about abortion and criticize Mandela’s stance on it. This would seem to me to be making a point in furtherance of the Pro-Life cause. Otherwise, why bring it up?

      I haven’t read Dolan’s statement, but I find it hard to read “Nelson Mandela was a hero to the world” ambiguously.

      • Paul Connors permalink
        February 10, 2014 5:34 pm

        “Otherwise, why bring it up?”

        The central goal of Bishop Tobin’s statement was to correct people’s views of the net worth of Mandela’s accomplishments. The secular view was overwhelmingly unmixedly positive.

        I’m not at all clear what you think Bishop Tobin’s error actually was. He shouldn’t have said it at all? He should have said it at a different time?

        “I haven’t read Dolan’s statement, but I find it hard to read ‘Nelson Mandela was a hero to the world’ ambiguously.”

        The New Testament is filled with uses of the word ‘world’ to refer to something which is negative — with incorrect thought, needing rescue, or rejecting of Jesus. Examples (among many): “My kingship is not of this world”, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world”, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world”, “We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one”. Etc, etc.

        Dolan is hardly unfamiliar with those passages. Hence “…a hero to the world” is ambiguous.

        • Kurt permalink
          February 11, 2014 10:01 am

          I’m not at all clear what you think Bishop Tobin’s error actually was. He shouldn’t have said it at all? He should have said it at a different time?

          How about he should have been consistent with Mandela and Thatcher rather than shill for the union busters of the right wing?

        • February 11, 2014 12:20 pm

          I would say his error was one of prudence in thinking that the week after the death of an almost universally beloved world figure was a “teachable moment” on an issue he was incorrect about.

        • Paul Connors permalink
          February 11, 2014 4:22 pm

          “How about he should have been consistent with Mandela and Thatcher rather than shill for the union busters of the right wing?”

          But exactly what kind of consistency did you have in mind? For example, was it the case that there was an unmixed adulation of Thatcher’s achievements in the secular press when she died? Hardly!

          So, I still can’t quite make out exactly what Bishop Tobin’s error was. David Cruz-Uribe pointed at a column by Michael Sean Winters, who suggests firstly that: “…it violates the time honored moral rule de mortuis nil nisi bonum.” But there is no such moral rule — it is ludicrous to suppose that the death of a public figure is an inappropriate time to consider their overall public achievements. And secondly Winters says: “while it is generic in its praise of Mandela’s accomplishments, it is specific in its condemnation of his stance on abortion”. However, Bishop Tobin was speaking in a context where it was incredibly easy to find details of all Mandela’s genuinely good achievements — what rule of justice specifies that all the good achievements have to be listed all over again if a bad achievement is mentioned?

          So what is Bishop Tobin’s error?

        • Paul Connors permalink
          February 12, 2014 1:43 am

          “I would say his [Bishop Tobin’s] error was one of prudence in thinking that the week after the death of an almost universally beloved world figure was a ‘teachable moment’ on an issue he was incorrect about.”

          I would think it quite reasonable to hold that it was a mistake in timing. But it would also be quite reasonable to think it was indeed an appropriate time. I don’t think prudence dictates a single answer here. Bishop Tobin’s statement was certainly discordant — but why does that mean it is an error? The Gospel can be preached as a sign of contradiction.

        • Kurt permalink
          February 12, 2014 12:09 pm

          But exactly what kind of consistency did you have in mind?

          Rather than give public witness to a thinking of “I need to bring this kaffer down a notch but not upset the 1% by saying a negative word against the Baroness” — a witness that does not advance protection of the unborn but of a different agenda — he should have decided that either he was going to follow the principle of de mortuis nil nisi bonum or he was going to on a consistent basis speak about the record of major public figures on abortion rights.

          But I assume what he did is what is in his heart, a heart that offers only selective compassion for the unborn, when they are not in the way of other priorities of the Bishop.

  9. Roger permalink
    February 11, 2014 11:13 am

    “Bishop Tobin and other pro-lifers do their cause no good when they isolate the issue of abortion from all other human concerns.”

    There is no other cause as vital as this one. Sorry folks, but there are no human rights until one has the right to life. Every other issue comes AFTER the issue of life.

    Perhaps the reason why some pro-life liberal Catholics (“pro-life Catholics” should be deemed a redundancy) shy away from the abortion issue is that they’re afraid of being labeled a right-wing kook which is what happens when a courageous Bishop or politician speaks out on the issue.

    God bless bishop Tobin!

  10. Stuart permalink
    February 11, 2014 1:26 pm

    “Every other issue comes AFTER the issue of life.”

    True. Abortion isn’t the sole way people die. Children die from hunger. Pregnant women die from lack of health care. Unborn children die from drones dropping bombs on them. Pro-life means wanting to stop ALL the sinful, evil ways people die. Bishops like Tobin seem to forget that there are many ways innocent people are murdered. Some of us want to work for the rights of unborn children who are murdered in ways outside of abortion.

    Or isn’t dropping a bomb on a pregnant woman murder?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      February 11, 2014 8:20 pm

      Thank you. I was trying to find the words to say this.

  11. Mike McG... permalink
    February 11, 2014 1:55 pm

    In an essay entitled The Greatest Divide, Martin Marty opined as follows: “In one survey, we read, ‘Overwhelmingly, people said the people they met in church were extremely homogeneous with them politically.’… Members of religious bodies can lean back and enjoy their own kind, protected from the voice of ‘the other’ and, perhaps, from the word of judgment or mercy that they associate with the word of God.” (Sightings: The Martin Marty Center, August 2, 2004).

    If we substitute ‘people they encountered on blogs’ for ‘people they met in church,’ how would we fare? Not always well, I fear. But I’m feeling more hopeful after reading the conversations David hosted in this post and its predecessor.

    While I was impressed with the honest, vigorous exchange in David’s original post, I felt that the comments privileged the rational dimension over the emotional. This thread is a perfect follow-up. We don’t engage these issues as pure intellects. We engage as conflicted people with deep loyalties and, sometimes, deep wounds from standing up for principles others disparage.

    I appreciate the instances when blog participants stretch beyond an intellectual understanding of others’ views into a space in which they imagine what it might be like to affirm positions that others denigrate. And that’s what I see taking place in this exchange.

  12. Kurt permalink
    February 11, 2014 3:50 pm

    No, Roger. Rights are rights. The denial of one human right does not negate the legitimacy of another human right.

    As for Bishop Tobin’s cowardliness on Thatcher, you will have to explain that to me. Or was he given 30 pieces of silver to keep silent?

  13. Stuart permalink
    February 11, 2014 11:16 pm

    Regardless of its actual intent, the perceived intent of the conservative pro-life movement is not to save the unborn as much as it is to punish uppity women for having sex outside of marriage. The lack of concern for the many ways unborn children are also killed tends to lead to this conclusion. If the vocally pro-life movement felt as strongly that strong, white, straight men dropping bombs on pregnant women were murderers just as much as confused, teenage, unwed mothers are murderers, the pro-life movement might have more credibility.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      February 12, 2014 6:50 am

      Stuart, I think this is an important point: whatever we are trying to say (and I think this applies to the Church in general) we have to be sensitive to how we are being perceived.

  14. February 12, 2014 8:09 am

    I think one difficulty is that it isn’t easy distinguishing what people are trying to do with what we think the actual consequences are. I thought the comment in MSW’s column that was most telling in this respect was the last one you quoted, for a different reason:

    Bishop Tobin and other pro-lifers do their cause no good when they isolate the issue of abortion from all other human concerns.

    But, of course, it’s very doubtful that Bishop Tobin and those like him see themselves as isolating the issue of abortion from all other human concerns; isolation is Winters’s diagnosis of why their strategy won’t work, not an assessment of what they are actually doing or trying to do. I think the same ends up being true from the other direction as well: criticisms based on what one thinks the consequences actually are or will be get taken as criticisms of what people are intending to do.

  15. February 12, 2014 7:31 pm

    I’ll point out what seems to be an obvious point for the outside observer; when a white bishop criticizes Nelson Mandela about abortion, it suggests to black people that he cares more about potential humans than humans who are actually living, breathing, and suffering under the yoke of oppression. The problem extends further than this particular incident with Bishop Tobin. I’ve read Catholic bloggers (mostly of the conservative or traditionalist persuasion) complain about black parishes that hold MLK masses and have pictures of black Jesus or about predominantly black Catholic school that hold up Rosa Parks as a heroine. I suppose the notion of black Jesus is still shocking to many white Christians, but if you can’t figure out why a black church of any denomination is honoring MLK, you’re being stupid on purpose.

    To be a black Catholic in America is to have a “double consciousness,” to borrow a phrase from W.E.B. Dubois, because St. Martin De Porres is never going to be able to compete with MLK or Malcolm X, especially since the former represents a rather servile response to racial injustice; after reading the story of how De Porres offered to sell himself to get his convent out of debt, it became hard for me not to see him as Uncle Tom in a Dominican habit. If the Catholic Church had used just a fraction of the resources it now uses to fight abortion to fight slavery or work for racial justice during the Civil Rights Movement, American history could have been much different and perhaps I could believe that it really cared about black people. But the tepid response of the hierarchy and the parishioners suggests that the only things that the Church believes are always wrong in all times and places time are abortion, contraception, and homosexuality, whereas slavery and racism are okay as long as Catholics of European origin aren’t affected.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      February 13, 2014 7:30 am

      I don’t consider myself an expert on these matters but I think you are tarring the hierarchy over the Civil Rights Movement with too big a brush. The archbishop of New Orleans comes to mind: he excommunicated folks for objecting to black priests.

      • February 13, 2014 4:00 pm

        The fact that one archbishop was a bit sympathetic to civil rights doesn’t negate my argument that the Church as a whole was apathetic to issues of racial justice. One could ask why none of the previous archbishops of New Orleans tried to end segregation or stop the placage system (i.e, the institutionalized concubinage system of free women of color). During the 1950s and 60s, the idea of civil rights for blacks was considered “communistic” by mainstream America. That alone was enough to convince many white Catholics not to support the Civil Rights Movement. Since Catholicism was still regarded with suspicion by most Protestants, it didn’t behoove the Church to support the political aspirations of a minority group that was even more unpopular. Going back further in American history, you see instances where convents, religious orders, and individual priests owned slaves. Catholics, by and large, were not to be found in the abolitionist movement. Catholic countries like Cuba and Brazil were importing Africans for slave labor well into the 1880s. Progress for black people has occurred in spite of, not because of, the Church. So when people like Bishop Tobin complain about Nelson Mandela, my response is, “And what have you done for us lately?”

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