Abortion Politics: Tale of Two Parishes

PLYMOUTH, Mich. — When protesters picketed Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, Mich., to challenge the pro-abortion views of Jennifer Granholm, a parishioner who is the Democratic candidate for governor, Joanne McKay kept hoping one of the priests would seize the opportunity to affirm Church teaching on human life.

Associate pastor Father Doc Ortman finally broke the silence with a column in the parish bulletin on Aug. 4, but he didn't say what McKay had hoped. Instead, Father Ortman penned a paean on Granholm's “pro-choice” position, saying it was not the same as being “pro-abortion.”

“To say that one is pro-choice,” he wrote, “is, for the Christian community, an admission that we are created in freedom. … Make no mistake, Christians are pro-choice in the purest understanding of the term. We are free to choose between the Lord and the evil one. … The freedom to choose is a gift in which to revel.” He later had to aplogize for the statement.

Meanwhile, across the country at Holy Trinity Parish in Westminster, Colo., another priest, Father John Hilton, was telling parishioners not to leave their Catholic conscience at the door of the voting booth in the Aug. 13 primary election. He provided voter guides with the positions of several candidates — including parishioner Ann Ragsdale — on abortion, partial-birth abortion, physician-assisted suicide and human cloning.

Ragsdale supporters responded by accusing Father Hilton of a politically motivated personal attack on the pro-abortion state representative, saying he had violated the tax code prohibiting endorsements of candidates by churches. They threatened to mount an attack on the church's tax-exempt status and put a sign outside the house facing the parish's adoration chapel that said, “Leave the church out of politics.”

Earlier, Ragsdale had complained about fetal-development posters posted at the parish's Fun Fest.

This “tale of two parishes” illustrates the difficulties faithful Catholics have when they support Church teaching on human life even as some priests and lay people — especially those in the political arena — openly dissent or remain silent.

Despite the clarity of such documents as the U.S. bishops' 1998 statement “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” some Catholics insist their religious beliefs should not inform their political views.

However, the 1998 statement says the Gospel of Life is not to be practiced only as “a private piety.” It states: “American Catholics must live it vigorously and publicly, as a matter of national leadership and witness, or we will not live it at all.”

Lay Voices

Teresa Klatka, chairman of the Respect Life Committee at Holy Trinity and one of many parishioners who rallied around Father Hilton after he was criticized by Ragsdale's supporters, said the idea of Catholics bringing Christ to their decision making has nothing to do with partisan politics.

“It has to do with faith, and it's unfortunate that a lot don't see that,” she said.

Joanne McKay, a nurse consultant and mother of four, agreed. For her, being pro-life is simply part of being Catholic.

“Period. End of story. It's an oxy-moron to say you're Catholic and pro-choice,” she said.

Klatka said she thinks Catholics need to be better informed about what their Church teaches.

“It's why we're trying to focus on education in our parish,” she said. “So many people don't know. They haven't read the documents.” She said she would like to invite Ragsdale to learn more about Church teaching.

Ragsdale, who defeated her opponent in the Democratic primary and will run unopposed for a third term in November, could not be reached by the Register. The Rocky Mountain News has reported that she supports second- and third-trimester abortions, the use of aborted fetal tissue and has voted against legislation that would limit access to abortions.

Asked whether Granholm, who emerged from the Aug. 13 primary as Michigan's Democratic candidate for governor, had read the U.S. bishops' 1998 “Living the Gospel of Life” statement, spokesman Chris DeWitt said he did not know.

Granholm, who is a lector at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, has been endorsed by Emily's List, which supports pro-abortion Democratic women candidates. Right to Life of Michigan's “granholmgarble” Web site quotes her as telling Gongwer News Service: “There are a number of folks in the Catholic Church who believe life begins at conception, but it is a matter of faith and we should not impose faith on others. Government has no role, and I'm pro-choice.”

Mistaken Views

The bishops' 1998 statement says Catholic elected officials are seriously mistaken when they claim that, though they personally oppose such evils as abortion, they cannot force their religious views on others.

“Most Americans would recognize the contradiction in the statement, ‘While I am personally opposed to slavery or racism or sexism, I cannot force my personal view on the rest of society,’” the statement notes.

It continues: “We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well-being as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin. We call on them to reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public roles and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with Church teaching.”

When Granholm's spokesman was asked to respond to the bishops' statement, he said, “Obviously, there are some disagreements, but she holds to what she believes.” DeWitt said the candidate's schedule would not permit her to talk to the Register.

The Archdiocese of Detroit issued a statement Aug. 14 regarding Father Ortman's comments. “The opinions expressed in Father Ortman's column on the Michigan gubernatorial candidates are solely his own,” the statement said. “To those who have reacted to the column, Cardinal [Adam] Maida's office has informed them that this matter will be addressed directly with Father Ortman. Throughout his tenure as Detroit's archbishop, Cardinal Maida has consistently promoted the Gospel of Life. Both in public and private, he has called all Catholics and people of good will to affirm the value of life. These efforts will continue in the future.”

At the request of Cardinal Maida, Father Ortman issued a formal statement of apology in the Aug. 25 parish bulletin, asking “forgiveness and reconciliation” for the hurt caused by his earlier comments.

“My column of Aug. 3–4 was ambiguous and led some to believe that I am not dedicated to life. I am sorry for that misunderstanding,” he wrote. “I reverence God's gift of life from its beginning, at conception, until its natural end. … This means I am necessarily against the sin of taking life by acts of abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment.”

Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the U.S. Bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, said he couldn't imagine any context in which it would be appropriate for a priest to defend the pro-abortion position.

“That is simply not the Church's position,” Doerflinger said. “What excerpts I've seen [from Father Ortman's letter] seem to contain a very elementary fallacy, confusing a pro-choice position on abortion with the simple affirmation of freedom of the will. Yes, we are all free to choose, we are capable of choosing both good and evil. That doesn't mean evil is just as good as good is. God gave us free will in order to have us choose the good freely.

“So to say ‘yes we have to celebrate choice’ is quite irrelevant to the abortion controversy. We don't celebrate choices to violate other people's rights; that's what abortion is.”

Become Informed

Doerflinger said priests should feel free to urge people to vote and to become informed on the moral implications of their choices in the voting booth. The Pro-Life Secretariat provides guidelines for doing so on the bishops' Web site.

“Certainly, the priest can inform parishioners of Church teaching on life,” he said. “If he informs them on one particular issue in an election year where candidates differ on that issue, he is at risk of having his comments taken as an endorsement of that candidate. That's why the guidelines urge giving positions on a range of issues of interest to the Church.”

Added Doerflinger: “Obviously the Church should be informing people of the Church's view on issues all the time. If they only begin to do so in an election year, it looks like an effort to influence an election, which underscores the importance of educating parishioners in season and out of season, not starting when it's election time.”

Charles Rice, professor emeritus of law at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Winning Side: Questions on Living the Culture of Life, said there is no legal restriction to parishes informing people about voting records and telling them they should vote pro-life.

“Diocesan attorneys freak out over this,” he said. “It's always safe for a lawyer to advise a bishop to do nothing. … There is no legal impediment to giving objective information and telling people you should not vote for a candidate who favors abortion.”

Rice said Holy Trinity's Father Hilton was absolutely correct in his approach.

“We should have been doing this for the past 30 years,” he said. “The priest up in Plymouth should sit down and read some papal documents and pray.”

The failure to discuss life issues is widespread in American parishes, Wall Street Journal chief editorial writer William McGurn commented last year.

“My non-Catholic friends seem to labor under the impression that Catholics spend their Sundays enduring thundering homilies on abortion and the pill,” McGurn said. “But in four decades of fairly regular church attendance … I can count on one hand the sermons I've heard on abortion. About contraception, in-vitro fertilization and stem-cell research, barely a peep, much less anything suggesting the linkage they all have to a culture of life.”

For his part, Father Hilton, who has been a priest for 20 years, said he plans to continue preaching the pro-life message.

“It's absolutely critical that I do — every priest needs to do this,” he said. “The reality is when we do it, we receive tremendous support from our people.”

Judy Roberts writes from Millbury, Ohio.