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Jon O'Brien, President, Catholics for Choice.
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When people ask me why Catholics for Choice decided to make a movie, my answer usually starts with a story about a long train ride in the company of a prominent theologian a few years ago.
I knew that this gentleman felt uncomfortable with many of the positions taken by Catholics for Choice, and so we both decided to make cordial conversation rather than address the elephant in the room. It was such a long journey, however, that we eventually got to the elephant: “Why do you do the work that you do?” he asked me.
I told him that my work in support of reproductive rights was not despite my Catholic faith, but because of it. Our social justice tradition wouldn’t let me turn my back on people in need; nor would it allow me to ignore the importance of conscience in moral decision making. Both issues relate directly to reproductive health: women are in the best place to make the decisions that affect their health, and deserve all the support necessary when life’s challenges threaten their well-being, their health or even their very lives. Those who are rich will always have the means to bypass the obstacles in their way, legal or otherwise, whereas the poor and needy are always the ones who suffer.
Not one to miss an opportunity, I asked my traveling companion something I had always wondered about: “Why do you deny the truth about all the affirming messages in Catholic theology about women, choice and sexuality in general?”
Interestingly, his response took no issue with my theological argument, but merely its temperature. “Those issues are too hot to handle.”
When pressed, his understanding and interpretation of core Catholic teachings was little different from that of the many other theologians I know. So why are these other wonderful Catholic thinkers banished from of the circle of trust in the institutional church? Why are they slighted and attacked for raising legitimate points of view about church teaching?
My traveling partner told me that he, too, would have been denied mainstream acceptance and positions if he’d tackled issues like reproductive rights. Rather than pick that fight, he had chosen, as many others do, to keep his head down. There is a reason why people like Bishop Kevin Dowling, who tells the truth about Catholics and condoms in the shanty towns of South Africa, do not attain the trappings of power, position and influence that have been lavished upon so many ultraconservative American clergymen of late.
I thought then, as I do now, that telling the truth about Catholic theology really matters. It matters for reasons of self-respect, and it matters for so many who think they have to choose between their faith and how they live their lives. For me, working with theologians and so many marvelous thinkers in the church who are not afraid to stand up and speak out has been an amazing experience. It is truly liberating when you see that it is possible to be both true to yourself and authentically Catholic at the same time.
So, more than a year ago, I sat down with a filmmaker friend and asked him, “How can I get the voices of the unsung visionaries within the church to be heard by a wider audience?” “The Secret History of Sex, Choice and Catholics” was born.
Politicians often come to CFC when they are being pressured by their local bishop. They want to know if they’re getting the full story in the one supplied by the institutional church. As can be seen in the movie, the answer is a resounding “No.” The “secret” is that there is more than one magisterium—in addition to the hierarchy, there is also the magisterium of the theologians and that of the people. This means that any of us can be called to teach, and for many this can mean doing what the theologians and thinkers in the film—Rosemary Radford Ruether, Dan Maguire, Mary Hunt, Anthony Padovano, Sheila Briggs, Daniel Dombrowski and Kate Ott—have done: bravely speak out.
They, like the prophets in the Old Testament, do not always take the easy road. Their paths often lead straight into confrontation with established authority. Nevertheless, I consider them to be the real traditionalists in the church—in the same vein that I consider Catholics for Choice to be a traditionalist organization. We do pay attention to what church teachings say and are not swayed by the relatively recent conservative interpretations of Catholic tradition and teaching.
The first day we released the movie, thousands of people worldwide—from the Philippines to South Africa, from the US to Eastern Europe—watched the film online. There is clearly a genuine hunger for this message. So many Catholics have told us that instinctively, they knew they were doing the right thing, and that it was so invigorating to learn from the movie that their actions are within a tradition of being good Catholics who follow their consciences.
Some of the most interesting reactions have come from non-Catholics—people from other faith traditions and from no faith tradition. They learned not only what the majority of Catholics actually believe, but also why we stay in a church whose leaders have so often slapped us in the face.
The story told by “The Secret History” isn’t just for Catholics. It gets to the heart of how we all make moral decisions and seek compassionate answers. Ultimately, the film is not just about history, but about how we live our faith today and where we want our church to go. More than that, it’s a vibrant declaration that we are not afraid.
Watch clips or the entire film here.
Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice, which is a co-convener of the Coalition for Liberty & Justice.
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