Each year on the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade, Catholics gather on the National Mall to rally and march in protest of the decision that made abortion legal in the United States, uniting around a simple message: “All life is sacred.” But this is no ordinary march on Washington. While estimating crowds has become a controversial and somewhat unreliable task in recent years, it is clear that the number of protestors should be counted in the hundreds of thousands rather than tens of thousands. In this way, the March for Life is by far the most actively attended and supported advocacy initiative for the American Catholic Church.
And yet, it remains a highly contentious, dividing issue even within that same Church. For many theologians and writers within the Church, there is as much written about why one does/should not attend the March as there is material promoting it.Take the article by fellow Franciscan Fr. Dan Horan, ofm, “Why I Do Not Support the (so-called) March For Life.” Confessing wholeheartedly that his issue is with the March itself, not Catholic moral teaching about abortion, he writes:
Among the various reasons one might choose to omit him or herself from participation, I wish to highlight three: (a) the event’s moniker is incomplete at best and disingenuous at worst; (b) the mode of protest has proven ineffective; and, following the second point, (c) the ‘march’ and its related events are a self-serving exercise in self-righteousness, self-congratulatory grandstanding.
Admittedly, there is a lot of truth in this statement (and the article as a whole), and when I read it three years ago, it was very influential in my own opinion toward marching. The fact is, the name of the March is misleading; protestors do not gather each year to express anger towards war, gun violence, human trafficking, homelessness, ecological degradation, or any other “Life” issue as defined by the Church, they gather to repeal the legal status of abortion. The fact is, protests of this kind aren’t as effective as they once were; besides the fact that it is primarily a “wedge-issue” with little hope of ever changing legislation in either direction, protests that meet regularly become commonplace and lose their political effectiveness over the years (as seen with the “School of the Americas” march at Fort Benning, GA). The fact is, some do march for the wrong reasons; there are always opportunists, in both politics and Church, that use particular issues to solidify their own influence and to encourage their own agenda without having to do much in the process. It is because of these points that I found myself with many Catholics “protesting the protest” for many years.
And yet, yesterday I marched. Along with hundreds of thousands of Catholics from around the country, I stood on the National Mall and listened to political and ecclesial leaders rally people to the cause. I carried a Franciscan banner and walked down the crowded street for more than an hour. I engaged strangers with my faith and vocation, prayed in public, and even sang a song or two. Despite my strong reservations, I was there marching for life.
The thing is, my opinions have not drastically changed in regards to Fr. Dan’s article; the March, for me, is still a bit odd and I think it gives a disproportionate amount of energy to only one issue (albeit a good one.) What has changed is the recognition that this is where our Church is, this is where the flock is gathering, and as a minister in the Church, there is a lot of positive energy that needs to be supported and guided. Sure, I would personally wish that this much energy was directed towards the environment or ending wars, but how can I deny that hundreds of thousands of faithful Catholics were compelled to enter the streets and voice an aspect of their faith? This movement is big but it is more than just numbers: the movement has done something well enough to inspire enormous amounts of young people to become active despite dropping Church attendance among that generation (I met students that came all the way from Notre Dame, Auburn, and St. Bonaventure, NY, and there were thousands more.) Anyone who has ever tried to organize something and failed knows how difficult it can be to get a movement going, let along amass this much support. Something is going on here, and clearly the Spirit is working.
I’ve heard it said that real-life shepherds do not “lead” the sheep as much as they follow the flock and protect it from harm. As a Franciscan training for public ministry, I think that this is a great model for leadership: remain among the sheep, follow where the flock is going, and do my best to keep it from harm, whether that be self-inflicted or external. In the case of the “Pro-life” movement, there is little argument about the narrowness of its focus and that it would be better with a fuller understanding of the rich Catholic Tradition. But there is energy that needs to be followed and encouraged; to scoff at it or discourage involvement for the sake of other movements, for which there is little passion outside of its leader, would be inappropriate and ineffective. As a ministers, it is not our job to animate someone’s soul or to tell someone what to be passionate about. This is the job of the Spirt, and clearly the Spirit is working. As ministers, it is our duty to make sure that the faithful understand the stirring of the Spirit in them through the message of the Gospel and within the context of a Church of believers. Is there room for guidance and correction in this process? Absolutely. But as I have found through this experience, the guidance and correction go both ways: the sheep must be willing to expand or change their course at the direction of the shepherd, but the shepherd must also be willing to march with the sheep when they have their sights set on something that is good and true. This is why I chose to march yesterday, and I am glad that I did.