The Pope Visits and We Practice Being Allies in our Interfaith Work
Not surprisingly, there has been a great deal of conversation among my Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleagues ‒ and other non-Catholic clergy and lay leaders ‒ about Pope Francis’s visit to the United States last week. How his beliefs and positions sit or don’t sit with our espoused positions and overall world view.
No question that this pope, who passes up pomp and politics for cafeteria style meals with homeless people, and who has expressed over and over his policy preferences on behalf of the poor, has captured the hearts and interfaith imagination of many progressive people. Yet, an editorial in the weekly Jewish newspaper The Forward has cautioned that, with the exception of the Pope’s theological insistence on forgiveness in the form of accepted confession by women who have chosen to terminate a pregnancy, and some talk about dialing down the machismo in the world in general and perhaps the Catholic Church in particular, there is “no change in the church’s position against abortion, contraception, women’s rights and marriage equality ‒ at least not in the foreseeable future.”
For me, this much heralded and much covered trip across the waters by the head of a religious body of 1.2 billion people worldwide provides a lesson in what it means to be a faith ally. What is appropriate for me (and, representing the UU Women’s Federation, for us) to do that is respectful to a tradition I am not part of, while realizing its power and recognizing the imperative to act for justice and equity on behalf of women and girls?
Working toward this delicate balance, I turn to our relationship with the national organization, Catholics for Choice, whose mission is to “strive to be an expression of Catholicism, as it is lived by ordinary people.” For this group, that means they are part of what they call the “great majority of the faithful in the Catholic church who disagree with the dictates of the Vatican on matters related to sex, marriage, family life and motherhood. Who affirm that individual Catholics have the right of conscience in making moral decisions about their lives, including their reproductive lives.”
The UUWF was a founding member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), in which Catholics for Choice plays a prime leadership role, actively lobbying on Capitol Hill to protect and expand policies grounded in sexual and reproductive ethics based on justice. Catholics for Choice most recently worked to craft and disseminate a letter to Congress in defense of Planned Parenthood, which was not an official RCRC activity but one supported by many of its groups.
So I looked in recent days to Catholics for Choice president Jon O’Brian for his understanding of and guidance in framing a response to the Pope and the current mandates of the Church. In the week before the visit, O’Brian released statements from his organization challenging some of the statements made by Pope Francis. When the pope announced this past month that priests now have the discretion to formally forgive abortions and seek absolution, O’Brian lauded him for his pastoral, rather than political, leanings in this regard. O’Brian went on to say that, despite this professed new bridge to the masses of U.S. Catholic women who use birth control and have the same rate of abortion as those of other faiths or no faith, he does not believe that Catholic women “will be queuing up” for this new chance at a pardon for their decisions.
Another recent strategic press release from Catholics for Choice expressed messages of good will, not condemnation, to women’s clinics and their workers for the important work they do. The statement asserted that most individual Catholics support Planned Parenthood and the services it provides.
In another public statement, O’Brian cautioned against using Pope Francis’s unprecedented address to Congress as a time to score political points, either on the right or left. The Pope’s primary agenda for this trip is not to give instructions on public policy, he observed, but a pastoral visit with and on behalf of his millions of American parishioners.
In the Pope’s address to Congress he alluded briefly to the Golden Rule and reminded us of our responsibility “to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” We allies are compelled to follow the lead of those forward-thinking Catholics who urge us to take a time out from our reactivity. In Jon O’Brian’s words to, “embrace one another with pastoral hug” and begin our coalition work anew to secure the same reproductive justice for all women.
For more information on Catholics for Choice, go to www.catholicsforchoice.com.