Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston is the new chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities.
In 2012, Cardinal O’Malley helped to lead a successful campaign to defeat physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts, a key pro-life victory.
During a Dec. 22 interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Cardinal O’Malley recalls his own early efforts to respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade, assesses the tactics of abortion-rights activists during the 2012 campaign season and outlines some of his plans for 2013.
Where were you when the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Roe v. Wade?
I was a young priest working with Hispanic immigrants in Washington, D.C. Later on, after the ruling, I heard that Nellie Gray wanted to start the March for Life, and I contacted her and worked with her.
She was a real prophet: The Church was stunned, and people didn’t know how to react. But she knew immediately that we needed to mobilize and use the anniversary of that terrible decision as a way to rally people.
I was determined to get people from my Hispanic parish to the first march [in 1974] and gave impassioned sermons on the pro-life issue, reminding them that the anniversary was coming soon, and they promised to come.
The morning of the march, there was a line of rented buses at the church, but no people. In my naive youthfulness, I did not realize that "Si, padre" did not mean "Yes." The following week, I told the people how disappointed I was.
After Mass, they told me, "You know we are undocumented. And in our own countries, whenever there is a demonstration, the army comes out and arrests and shoots people. We are here to send money home to our families who live in Nicaragua and El Salvador, where civil wars are raging. We cannot afford to do this."
I told them that the army would not shoot at them and that the march would be a peaceful demonstration. That is what we do in a democracy where we need to witness to certain values.
A majority of Americans now identify themselves as pro-life. Yet several explosive controversies that erupted over the past year, beginning with the Susan B. Komen Foundation’s decision to end its grants to Planned Parenthood — a decision the foundation subsequently retracted — seemed to contradict that view. What’s going on?
The abortion proponents are getting worried and have a lot of resources. But I am convinced that Americans are becoming more pro-life.
Robert Putnam’s book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, a sociological study of religion in America, shows that younger Americans are increasingly pro-life. And in CCD classes, there used to be more pushback, but today there is more acceptance of Church teaching and a recognition of abortion’s destructive impact.
But if most Americans embrace pro-life values, why didn’t we do a better job of countering the aggressive partisan attacks against the Komen Foundation? What don’t we effectively resist attacks against pro-life political candidates?
Intimidation of pro-life efforts still happens. However, I am encouraged by what the Catholic Voices initiative is doing to help train Catholics to explain the Church’s thinking on difficult issues and break through the political correctness that often prevents productive conservations on life issues or the marriage debate.
Intimidation works when people don’t have the tools to have a rational conversation. You object to "gay marriage" — and you are demonized as homophobic and intent on persecuting [people with same-sex attraction]. Catholic Voices is trying to prepare ordinary people to be spokespersons around these issues and to do it in such a way that you draw an audience.
As the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, what are your goals for 2013?
The conscience issues that involve pro-life values are very important.
There is so much religious illiteracy. We need to help people understand Church teaching and the difference between defending human life and imposing our religion on the rest of the country.
Many Americans say that the Church must stay out of politics. We need to help our people to distinguish between our theological position and natural law [precepts] that redound to the common good and apply to everyone, regardless of whether they are religious or not. That is the educational challenge before us.
We continue to look for opportunities to advance restrictions on abortion. Very few states ban gender selection as a reason for abortion. We need to work on that: Just as partial-birth abortion invites people to deal with the full reality of abortion, raising concerns about gender-selection abortions can help break through public denial.
College pro-life groups generally do not go beyond life issues to address the debate on legalizing same-sex "marriage." Short term, perhaps that strategy makes sense, as like-minded students might be turned off by opposition to "marriage equality." But shouldn’t we help the young move toward a more integrated vision of human flourishing?
The marriage issue is much more difficult, and it is very worrisome. Every year I read the "State of Our Unions" from Rutgers’ National Marriage Project.
Today, people see nothing wrong with cohabitation. The majority of high-school seniors said they wouldn’t think of marrying someone who would not agree to cohabitate first.
Last year, more Americans said they would find (more) satisfaction in not having children then in having them.
While the American Grace study offers a hopeful portrait of young people’s views on life issues, their attitude toward marriage is moving farther away from the Church’s position.
The bishops’ conference is trying to deal with this, and, at our last meeting, Archbishop [Salvatore] Cordileone [of San Francisco, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and the Defense of Marriage] showed us a video prepared in Spanish that used a telenovela format to teach people about marriage. The other side is telling stories, and we are issuing documents that no one is reading. We need to communicate the faith in a way that will reach people.
At some point, our teachings on marriage have to be integrated into the pro-life message. Marriage is the sanctuary of life, and if we don’t have marriage, then abortion and other related moral problems will be exaggerated.
As I said before, our catechists need to present the truth about marriage in a way that is not belligerent or bombastic.
To help thoughtful people reconsider their views, we need to show that the Catholic position on a variety of topics, including contraception, is not stupid.
We have to bring a prayerful dimension to everything we do, realizing that it’s not about crushing the enemy, but reaching out to people and inviting them to become a part of our family.
I think of Dr. [Bernard] Nathanson, who once presided over the largest abortion clinic in the nation, and his very dramatic conversion. He became an important exponent of the gospel of life. Somewhere along the line, believers reached out to him and gave him an opening to change.
Sometimes we push people farther into their position by our harshness and anger. I understand the anger over the injustice. But it’s love that is going to help convert hearts. We need to change the laws, but if we change the laws without changing hearts, the laws will change back very quickly.
2012 has been a tough year for Catholic pro-lifers, who witnessed the defeat of some pro-life candidates and now fear that the Affordable Care Act will be used to require taxpayer-funded elective abortions. What gives you hope?
There are signs of hope, and I see it in our young people and in the clear teaching of the Holy Father.
World Youth Day is a great way for young people to connect deeply with the Church, as is the March for Life, where thousands of young people, perhaps for the first time in their lives, feel that they are a part of something bigger than themselves and see that they have a mission to witness to Gospel values.
We have a lot to learn and a lot to do.
At the "Ecclesia in America" meeting in Rome this December, I proposed that we try to work with other countries in the hemisphere and reach out to Catholics in political life and also encourage Catholics to go into political life with a sense of mission. I think of New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith. He is an apostle of life, and we need more leaders like him.