Nobody Gets to Say Who Is and Who Is Not Catholic
My organization, Catholics for Choice was the subject of a bizarre attack from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) this week.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the director of media relations for the USCCB, took to her blog in a pathetic attempt to discredit CFC as a legitimate voice for Catholics in the United States. She expressed concern that “sleepy editors” or “inexperienced journalists” would be taken in by us, simply because we describe ourselves as Catholic. She said that we are not Catholics and we don’t know Catholicism. Walsh is sadly wrong on both counts. Any cursory visit to CFC’s website will give a reader the opportunity to learn more about Catholic teaching and church law about reproductive health than would a visit to many diocesan websites. And as to my Catholicism, perhaps I’ll send her copy of my baptismal certificate, though I doubt she’d be appeased.
But this is not just about CFC. It’s about Walsh presenting herself as the arbiter of who’s Catholic. It’s kind of like letting the Tea Party decide who’s American, isn’t it? Just like them, Walsh doesn’t let the facts get in the way of her message. With her ham-fisted blog, Walsh insults the hundreds of groups and millions of Catholics who choose to remain part of the church while raising legitimate voices of dissent.
Her appeal to guarding the “brand” of Catholicism is simply crass. The Catholic church is not Apple or Google, global corporations that zealously police the use of their brand, siccing corporate lawyers on anybody who dares use their name in vain. The church’s brand control over individuals ends the minute a person is baptized. From that point forward, we have the right—and the responsibility—to speak as Catholics on matters of social justice, including those that involve sex, sexuality and reproduction. Understandably, this makes Walsh and her bosses nervous because all too often, the bishops haven’t said or done the right thing on these issues.
We base our support for access to reproductive health services on the long-standing traditions within Catholicism. We are part of the great majority who believe that the teaching on the primacy of conscience means that every individual must follow his or her own conscience—and respect the rights of others to do the same. As Catholics we take seriously our obligations to know and thoughtfully consider Catholic teaching. And in coming to our positions on abortion, family planning and other issues we have done so, and continue to do so. We didn’t make this up. We’ve got saints, cardinals, theologians and millions of Catholics on our side.
As somebody intimately familiar with the ways of the church, Sister Mary Ann knows that nobody gets to say who is and who is not Catholic. Not the priests, not the bishops and not the pope. One is a Catholic after baptism. Period. She might have her own opinions about who is a good Catholic or a bad Catholic, but her claims that we aren’t Catholic needs some fact-checking.
The good sister may be jealous of the media attention we get. She may be upset at the quality of our arguments. She may find the statistics that we use disconcerting. I would, if I were her, as they show that the positions taken by the bishops have been resoundingly rejected by Catholics in the pews. But it’s interesting that she chose not to, or more likely couldn’t, address the basis of our arguments. So she resorts to demonizing us.
Sister Mary Ann’s rant was addressed to the new public editor at the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan. It seems that she thinks that a senior editor at the Times will be intimidated into ignoring the legitimate and widely supported arguments of those who are not granted the bishops’ blessing. We know that we speak for the majority in the church. And we are happy to continue to forge our path, knowing that it is one that will be well-traveled by our fellow Catholics for choice.
As to Ms. Sullivan, and her many fine colleagues in the Fourth Estate, I am pretty sure they know that if they want the US bishops’ opinion on something, they can give Sister Mary Ann a call. But when they want to know what Catholics think, they know to call somebody else. CFC will always be happy to take that call.
Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice, which is a co-convener of the Coalition for Liberty & Justice.
Read the November 2016 message from Jon O'Brien: Religious Freedom in the Crosshairs
Read the November 2016 message from Jon O'Brien: Pope Francis’ Announcement on Abortion Is About Bridging the Deep Chasm Between the Church Hierarchy and the Reality of Everyday Catholics
Read the August 2013 message from Jon O'Brien: The Bishops’ Failed Fortnight for Freedom
Read the December 2012 messge from Jon O'Brien: The Secret History of Sex, Choice and Catholics