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Pro-choice Catholics fight to seize the narrative from the religious right: The Guardian

July 6, 2023

CFC President Jamie Manson was interviewed by The Guardian on July 3, 2023 about President Biden’s comments framing his support for abortion rights as in conflict with his Catholic faith. In response, Jamie highlighted the mission of Catholics for Choice to educate, encounter, and embolden the majority of pro-choice Catholics in the United States. Click here to read this profile on The Guardian.

Pro-choice Catholics fight to seize the narrative from the religious right

by Maya Yang

Since the supreme court overturned Roe v. Wade a year ago, reproductive rights have become an even more contentious issue in an already polarized landscape. With more than 1,500 politicians – mostly men – helping ban abortions since Roe fell, Catholic and pro-choice organizations are increasingly trying to carve out space for themselves in the nationwide dialogue to center their own messaging: that being Catholic and pro-choice are not mutually exclusive.

One organization trying to dismantle religious stigma surrounding abortions is Catholics For Choice, a Washington-DC based Catholic abortion rights advocacy group. For CFC, the belief in individual reproductive rights comes as a result of the Catholic faith, not in spite of.

Speaking to the Guardian shortly after president Joe Biden – a Catholic – said at a recent fundraiser in Maryland that although he is “not big on abortion, he believes that Roe v Wade “got it right”, CFC president Jamie Manson said that despite Biden’s “good model of not imposing one’s religious beliefs on civil law”, his message echoed rightwing sentiments.

“President Biden is playing into a narrative that says, in spite of my faith, I support this. It’s a rightwing narrative that we should not give any energy to. It also creates shame and stigma around abortion,” said Manson.

In the US, 63% of Catholic adults say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a 2022 survey conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Additionally, 68% say that Roe v Wade should have been left as is. In a separate survey conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, 24% of abortion patients identified as Catholic.

“Catholics overwhelmingly support abortion is because their faith taught them the values of social justice, of the power of individual conscience and of religious freedom… Catholic women who participate richly in the life of the church are having abortions and they have to hear from an all-male hierarchy that when they choose abortion, they’re participating in homicide,” said Manson.

Catholics overwhelmingly support abortion is because their faith taught them the values of social justice … and of religious freedom

“That message is profoundly spiritually violent,” she said, adding, “This is a real pastoral crisis in the church that Catholics don’t want to look at. Every time a high-profile Catholic says, ‘Even though in spite of my faith I support abortion,’ it reinforces that stigma… We need to dismantle this narrative.”

To Manson, there are three important ideas deeply embedded in the Catholic tradition which help fuel her organization’s pro-choice beliefs.

“The first one is this notion of individual conscience. The catechism says explicitly in all that we say and do, our individual conscience is what tells us what is just and right, not the church. So even if what our conscience tells us to be just and right conflicts with church teaching, we have to go with our conscience,” she said.

The next idea is the tradition of social justice, said Manson, which contradicts with the profoundly negative impacts that abortion bans have on already marginalized communities.

“Abortion bans and restrictions disproportionately harm people who are already suffering injustices like racism, poverty, immigration laws and domestic violence. The very people that we as Catholics are supposed to prioritize – the marginalized – are the ones who have their suffering exacerbated by abortion bans and restrictions. So there is a deep conflict with our social justice tradition,” Manson said.

The third and perhaps the most oft-repeated idea to Manson and other pro-choice faith leaders is religious pluralism.

“Catholic teaching supports and respects religious pluralism. And what rightwing Catholics are trying to do is have their theological ideas codified into civil law. By doing that, they’re infringing on the religious freedom of everyone else. Our religious freedom guarantees not only our right to practice our beliefs, but our right to be free of the beliefs of others and so abortion bans and restrictions take away religious freedom,” she said.

With far-right Catholic lawmakers continuing to double down on their anti-abortion stances and conservative Christian legal nonprofits funding anti-abortion organizations, the communities that CFC tries to focus on are those that are silent about their support for abortion.

“We focus on that population because the majority already are there with us. They’re just afraid to speak about it publicly and that’s because again, of the shame, stigma and punishment that comes from the church when you dare to question this teaching,” Manson explained.

“We prefer to cater to that population and we give them information that they need to strengthen their own arguments from a place of faith,” she added.

The other focus group of CFC is what Manson calls the “movable middle”, which consists of people who do not know how they feel about abortion and do not feel welcome in the two polarized populations within the abortion debate.

“There’s a lot of disinformation that the right wing has put out about abortion over the last 50 years and so we provide them with actual facts. We give them a space to discern how they feel about abortion and make a safe place for people for whom it is a complex issue,” Manson said.

We really need to counter religious narratives and people who can do that best are religious people.

Another challenge for organizations like CFC is dismantling certain narratives that automatically enmesh the Catholic faith with anti-abortion stances.

“We have to have progressive pro-choice, faithful voices speaking back and centered in the movement now… We really need to counter religious narratives and people who can do that best are religious people. People have to bear in mind the five justices that struck down Roe last year were all Catholic,” said Manson. “We really are fighting a religious force so we have to center religious voices…and take back the narrative that we’ve ceded to this Christian right wing and say, ‘No, because of my faith, I support abortion’ and welcome people who feel conflicted about it rather than making them feel like they’re creating stigma.”

Manson added that she doesn’t think the pro-choice movement has done this well “and really needs to if we’re going to transform hearts and minds around this issue”.

“I think that they have to center faith voices [because] right now, faith voices are marginalized,” she said. “We need to widen our circle in the pro-choice movement and not create these absolutes and gate-keep each other on messaging.”