Ecumenism Takes Root in the Trenches

The common goal of fighting abortion after the Supreme Court's tragic 1973 decisions on abortions produced an unexpected fruit—cooperation between people of different faiths

One of the greatest triumphs of the pro-life movement was unplanned—the fruit of an accidental union that pro-lifers embraced and brought to birth. Fighting abortion gave a new unity to Christians. Pro-lifers did not talk about ecumenism so much as practice it.

During the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church affirmed the ecumenical movement, and gave new impetus to the effort to heal ancient divisions. In the 35 years since that Council, diocesan offices throughout the world have worked on various cooperative projects bringing together, if not uniting, Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants.

Commissions have explored the Apostles' Creed, the Filioque fight, the faith vs. works controversy. There have been pulpit exchanges between Churches. Perhaps the laity had a more effective approach, though: Catholics and Protestants worked together to protect pre-born babies, prayed together, and went to jail together.

In 1973, when the Supreme Court issued two abortion decisions that struck down laws protecting children in 50 states, most of the people who were already organized and ready to fight were Catholics. Catholics had a national structure that made it possible to start organizing, and many were veterans of battles regarding contraception in the 1960s. They also knew well that if the movement was labeled “Catholic,” it would face a much tougher battle—and babies would pay the price. Protestants were welcome.

Catholics had a history of activism in the labor movement and the civil rights movement, and they had been disproportionately represented in the peace movement. Those movements were not labeled Catholic; opponents did not score points by linking Rev. Martin Luther King to the Vatican.

In the fight against contraception, though, a major tactic of the population control crowd was whipping up anti-Catholic sentiment. If the same thing happened in the abortion fight, the results could be equally disastrous. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a pro-abortion strategist in the 1960s later turned pro-life, has described at length how he and his allies decided to go after the Catholic Church, focusing on the hierarchy.

So Catholics were pleased when Protestants organized to save lives. The Christian Action Council (CAC) was a major Protestant initiative, and early supporters included Rev. Billy Graham. In the 1970s, CAC worked closely with the National Right to Life Committee and other pro-life groups on education, legislation and politics. Catholics and Protestants could cooperate in this as well as in any public endeavor.

In 1980, Francis Schaeffer and Dr. C. Everett Koop, prominent evangelical Protestant leaders, galvanized Churches with a pro-life book and film entitled Whatever Happened to the Human Race? Millions of people came into the pro-life movement, bringing new ideas and great determination. On the streets in front of abortion clinics, thousands of people had a new experience of the unity of Christianity. Catholics came and prayed the rosary; evangelicals came and read Scripture. Often, they knew different songs, so they would stay apart. In fact, they were increasingly conscious of each other's deep commitment to the Lord and to his children.

During confrontations at abortion clinics, the issues are clear and success is easy to measure. Pro-lifers have succeeded when a child lives and there is peace between the mother and the child. There have been many thousands of successes. There have also been millions of failures, though, and failure to save a life, however common, never gets easy. Heartbreak is a daily event.

As a result, the activists watching other Christians were deeply edified again and again by the serious, long-lasting commitment of people of other faiths. The work of the Holy Spirit was not a distant idea; it could be observed. People kept working and saved lives, or they burned out and went home. It was not possible to overlook God's action in people's lives.

On the streets, music plays an important role, helping pro-lifers to stay focused in prayer and also helping to calm emotions for everyone. After a person has prayed and sung with another in the presence of death, there is no way to go back to being strangers. You may not understand the other's faith completely, and may be ready and willing to argue about many important things, but you have seen and can testify to their deep love for the Lord. You have an undeniable shared experience.

When Catholics and evangelicals were arrested and went to jail together, they prayed together, and lived with one other under tough conditions for extended periods of time. There were differences: evangelicals would take the initiative to open conversations about the Lord and to preach the Gospel, while Catholics were more likely to let their actions speak for themselves.

The Catholics in jail knew Scripture, but not as well as the evangelicals. Many Catholics learned from their companions to love Scripture even more. On the other hand, many evangelicals noted that the Catholics came to all the Protestant Bible studies and times of prayer and praise, and then continued with their own devotions. The Catholics prayed more. They saw each other's strengths in ways that were impossible to ignore.

One couple that met during the long series of rescues in Atlanta struggled with the rosary. They wanted to pray together, but the Catholic woman wanted to pray the rosary and the Protestant man did not. They found a compromise: He said the scriptural part, up to the name “Jesus” in the Hail Mary. She said the rest.

The ecumenical movement at the official level concerns doctrine, and generally brings Catholics together with people from the Churches that have a hierarchy, including the Anglican and Lutheran Churches. The ecumenism of the pro-life movement concerns active love, and the links forged in suffering are between Catholics and the other people on the streets, evangelical Protestants. It wasn't planned, but it is a nation-wide work of the Lord, healing deep divisions. In the midst of the bloodshed, Christians learned to love each other.

John Cavanaugh-O'Keefe, a veteran pro-life researcher, author, and lecturer, is director of public policy for American Life League.