My Choice to March

The "Pro Life March" is by far the most actively attended and supported advocacy initiative for the American Catholic Church

The “March for Life” is by far the most actively attended and supported advocacy initiative for the American Catholic Church

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.

10931365_10204928458843997_2601931720192534161_nAnd 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.

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9 Comments on “My Choice to March

  1. Life and the right to it are basic elements of the Gospel. But why do Christians put so much emphasis on the life of the unborn and so comparatively little emphasis on poverty and the lives of unaborted children who have horrible parents, no food to eat, no hope of escaping the misery into which they are born? Were there a march to end the lack of concern by the Church – the Christian Chirch, not just the RC Church – for the poor, the sick, the immigrants, the people on death row, the mothers who have not a penny to their names. . . if there were such a march, I’d be there and I’d remember at THAT march the mothers and unborn babies who are the victims of abortion. Thank God for Pope Francis and his love of the poor.

  2. As a woman, personally I’m not in favour of making abortions illegal – they’ll only go underground and become much more dangerous. If they’re legal, at least they should take place in registered clinics with trained staff. Many women who undergo an abortion often have had a distressing time in coming to that decision and need careful support.

    Also, being pro-choice does not make a person anti-life. As edhawkins says, we need to care for the people who are suffering here on earth just as much as we do those who haven’t yet been born.

    I think this song illustrates perfectly how tough life can be for people even in the developed countries like the UK and the USA. (Don’t get me started on how bad it is that our politicians think it’s OK for people to have to rely on foodbanks and free school meals for their children to be fed.)

  3. I do not know if things have changed. Before I was a friar, my secular Franciscan fraternity and I chose to march one year with a Franciscans for Peace banner. We received an incredible amount of abuse from other marchers because we were not as focused as other marchers on one, single issue. I had the feeling that many of the other marchers supported things like the death penalty and didn’t want us disturbing their fixation on this one particular life issue.

    The other thing that struck me — and the reason that I’ve never gone back — were the incredibly large number of disgusting photos of dead fetuses being carried on signs. I don’t need to see a photo of a bloody body to be against murder. I don’t need to see a mangled young body to be against child abuse. I know that they are trying to say that fetuses are human beings, but there must be a better way to do it than to disgust people.

  4. I’m glad you got to attend the March for Life, Casey, and experience first-hand the energy that’s coming from your generation regarding the legality of abortion. I’m sorry our paths didn’t cross while in D.C, but I’m not surprised! You are right, the sheep do need their shepherds and I am so thankful to the many shepherds I saw at the March for Life.

    Abortion is the killing of a child in it’s mother’s womb. Making it legal in 1973 under the premise of making it “safe and rare” was disingenuous. I wouldn’t call 55,000,000 abortions in 42 years “rare”. A relative of mine said it should remain legal because if it’s not, women will be butchered again in back alley clinics. Does she not realize that every baby is butchered when they are aborted – whether it’s legal or not? Why only make it safe for the mother?

    As for the photos of dead fetuses – I agree, they are disgusting. As I March for Life each year, I choose not to look at them because I have seen them and they are horrifying. However, jimcintosh, there are many who go on the march for the first time who have never seen these images. Too many young people believe the lie that “it’s not a baby” until it’s born; or that’s it’s just a “blob of tissue”. Young people have become numb to the violence that goes on around them and too many in this generation are being taught that abortion is acceptable. These photos, just like those in the holocaust museum, are proof that these are little human beings who have been senselessly killed. It is because of these babies, over 300,000 a day, that I will continue to march. There are hundreds of thousands of uplifting signs along the way that the pro-lifers carry – and they’re the pictures we want to look at – but then again, those are pictures of the babies that made it.

    • Thank you for your post, Ms. McCafferty. I don’t believe that debates on forums like this one change anything, so I almost never engage in them. In this instance, though, I believe it is useful to emphasize a point that seems minor in your post but that, in my opinion, is huge: “Young people have become numb to the violence that goes on around them. . .” Rather than engage in a march that is at its root political (it’s trying to change the policy of the country), it seems to me the more effective “pro-life” activity for the Churches would be to re-sensitize all ages to the horror of violence that is practiced constantly everywhere. Violence needs to be seen where and for what it is, and are young people need to be taught to see it with the eyes of Jesus. Thanks be to God that I haven’t had to deal with abortion directly in my lifetime. For me it is something that is sad and certainly preventable but not something that is in my world. What IS in my world, in the poor area of my town in which I live, are healthy young people on drugs, young women in prostitution, teenage women having and trying to raise children in a West Virginia that is poor to begin with. Also in this world of mine are young men who go to prison by the busloads, prisons that are crowded and have little in the way of rehabilitative education or training. For me, these all are instances of violence. They are things that we do to one another that diminish and destroy lives, just as a fetus’s life is destroyed by abortion. Being “pro-life” for the people who march SEEMS to be (I’m not saying IS) a concern solely for the life of the unborn. Jesus, I believe, weeps with us over abortion. He didn’t teach us directly about it, however. He did, though. teach us directly about concern for life. For example, Matt 25/35-36: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” When we sensitize our kids and ourselves to this violence – to hunger, lack of decent clothes and housing, mistreatment of and prejudice toward immigrants, sick people without insurance who get no health care – we will have made a huge step forward in achieving a more “pro-life” Church and country. In the Holy Name of Jesus, Amen.

      • Thank you Ed Hawkins for your comments. I agree with your thoughts. What I meant when I said that young people have become numb is that they are watching all kinds of violence on television and don’t seem to be affected by it. However, the young people at the March went to conferences the day before and the day after the March (organized by a group called FOCUS, which stands for Fellowship of Catholic University Students) which were meant to inspire them to stand up for all life throughout their life. They were encouraged not to just stand for the unborn on this particular day but to go home and make a difference in the lives of others, the poor, the marginalized, etc. I do believe that the March for Life is a great starting point for this future generation because many of their own parents are not teaching them to stand up for Life and serve others. If you haven’t been to the March in years, I encourage you to learn what groups like FOCUS are doing there. Have a blessed day.

  5. Brother,
    Thank you for sharing what you did. If you recall, I was one of the St. Bonaventure students you met the morning of the March – and I would be in full agreement with you. Admittedly, I have not explored this issue as much as I should have in the past, but one of my partial reasons for going to the March was to step into a world larger than myself, and with many other brothers and sisters, stand up for a cause.

    The night before the March, I came across Fr. James Martin’s comments that marching for life should also include the poor, the marginalized, the elderly and downtrodden by society. I very much agree. Although the abortion issue is extremely important, to “March for Life” is a bit of a misnomer, as it is seemingly directed at only one stage of life, albeit a very important one.

    That said, I actually came across your blog the other day by chance, so I plan on going through the next few weeks and spending some time reading all of your blog entries from the past few years. As I continue my discernment process while looking into religious life, this is the sort of reading I have been looking for. So thank you for providing this wonderful outlet.

    Pax et bonum,
    Troy Hillman

    • Hey Troy,

      It was great meeting you last week! Glad to hear the blog has been helpful in your discernment. Please feel free to ask any questions you may have, and know that you will be in my prayers.

      Peace,

      Casey

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