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Conscience Magazine

Why Faith Matters: Part 1

By Glenn Northern December 12, 2019

Faith by its nature concerns itself with humanity’s deep, abiding and meaningful questions. It is a search for, and embodiment of truth, meaning, a well-lived life and similar earnest endeavors. As we live in times of political tumult and uncertainty, when reproductive rights have never been under fiercer attack by those who would impose their beliefs on everyone, the urgent necessity of keeping faith in the dialogue about abortion and reproductive health cannot be overestimated.

Being compassionate, to me, means being prochoice.

Faith is for many, myself included, a critical guidepost. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the issue of abortion. Abortion is inseparable from profound questions about life and its meaning, autonomy, agency, compassion, justice and fairness. That is one reason why it continues to be such a provocative modern issue and one on which faith communities must weigh in and be counted. For me, as a black man, a feminist and Catholic, faith matters in conversations about sexual and reproductive health because, personally, it outlines answers to critical life questions and enumerates the values that animate me; in this case, to be unapologetically prochoice. Faith has had a similar effect on the prochoice community. We do ourselves no favors when we sterilize the values, emotion and women out of the conversation. People understand these are complex issues and spot “spin” from leagues away, but the language of faith tends to land sincerely. In fact, one of the most encouraging, and frankly, successful shifts I have seen in our movement for broader access to reproductive health is the move towards values-based language. Catholics for Choice and other faith groups have spoken this way about abortion for decades.

Foremost among my personal guiding values is compassion. It is my North Star. I try to evaluate all that I do through that filter. For me, it means that we must feel with others through love and tenderness. When we talk about complex and deeply personal decisions like abortion and pregnancy, it is not our place to judge or condemn; it is our responsibility to trust, support and love. This is what my faith calls me to do. In a practical sense, my faith calls me to support public funding for abortion because it is wrong and callous that one’s income should determine whether or not one can obtain an abortion. Being compassionate, to me, means being prochoice.

Foremost among my personal guiding values is compassion. It is my North Star. I try to evaluate all that I do through that filter. For me, it means that we must feel with others through love and tenderness. 

As a Catholic, I also revere conscience. I remember being taught from an early age to examine and question authority in service of my conscience, even the church hierarchy’s. I was taught the powerful obligation and responsibility to follow my conscience as my “most secret core and … sanctuary.” I came to trust in my heart “the law inscribed by God.”[1] No one and nothing could supplant the process of discerning that God-given wisdom. In fact, my siblings and I grew up hearing the story of my mother facing down one of the philosopher priests at her Catholic university, who attempted to require her to write something she did not believe to pass an exam. She refused. I learned the meaning of courage early, as well as the limits of the hierarchy’s ability to coerce someone’s conscience and the wrongness of trying.

This rootedness in my faith, my Catholicism, is always close at hand; it is part and parcel of who I am. It is present in the work I choose to do, lifting up and representing the voices of prochoice Catholics and attempting to treat the people around me. Like others, I am prochoice because of my faith. I am far from alone; in fact, the majority of America’s 70 million Catholics are prochoice. Faith is integral to many people’s existence and drives their action, participation and engagement in civil society. For the more than 75 percent of Americans who consider faith to be an important or somewhat important part of their life, faith is an essential part of their identity.[2] This is just as true for the physicians and clinicians and finance officers who help provide abortions as it is for advocates like me, as it is for the many people of faith who come walking through the clinic doors seeking an abortion. Our movement ignores this fact at its own peril. Positive policy change and culture shift around support for reproductive health, rights and justice will not come without the voices of people of faith, nor will it come if we cede the morally and values-rich language that these issues, especially abortion, inherently demand. Forced pregnancy is immoral, and people of faith are uniquely qualified to deliver that message masterfully. That the bishops and others who oppose abortion and justify it with religion seem to monopolize the discourse when the vast majority of Catholics and other people of faith support the moral agency and autonomy of women to make these decisions vivifies the importance of faith and the need to amplify prochoice Catholic and other faith voices. I am proud that my faith calls me to be one of those voices.

Glenn Northern
Glenn Northern

is the domestic program senior associate for Catholics for Choice.