As a parish catechist, I am extremely indebted to Bishop Robert Barron. For years, not a week has gone by when I have not used several resources from his Word on Fire apostolate. Recently, in addition to his catechetical and educational resources, he’s been speaking out more frequently on issues that divide US culture. For example, last week Bishop Barron took to the opinion page of the New York Post to express his frustration with calls for dialogue between the bishops and Catholic politicians who support legal abortion, when such figures often refuse to consider any restrictions to abortion at all.
Barron’s article is entitled, “Bishop: Will Catholic Dems support protections for babies who survive abortion?” In it he considers, based on his experience, what US bishops and Catholic pro-choice politician might possibly have to say to each other at this point. He asks, “What precisely is there to dialogue about?”
He recounts his experience of giving a speech two years ago at the Library of Congress. The audience included many senators, representatives, and staffers. He asked the pro-choice people present whether there would accept any restrictions at all to legal abortion. They expressed their refusal to consider a single legal restriction to abortion: not on a third-trimester abortion ban, nor restrictions on partial-birth abortion, and not even legislation that would protect babies born alive after attempted abortions.
“If protecting the life of a baby struggling to breathe, after surviving a brutal attack on his life, is a bridge too far for pro-abortion-rights politicians,” Bishop Barron asked, “what are we dialoguing about?” He ends his article with a test of legislators’ good faith regarding the possibility of dialogue with the Church by issuing a challenge: “If you’re truly interested in dialoguing with the Church on this crucial matter, show a little profile in courage and support born-alive legislation.”
I share Bishop Barron’s frustration. Like him, I was raised by a Catholic Democrat. I also agree with him that the contemporary Democratic Party has taken an extremist position on abortion. Pro-life Democrats today must fight tooth and nail to even be noticed by the party, and the party’s position is hostile to any policy that restricts access to abortion, let alone restricting abortion itself. It is impossible to understate the abortion dogmatism of the Democratic Party today.
Given this impasse that Bishop Barron describes, it seems unlikely that anyone will take him up on his challenge. However, I also do not think his approach is going to change anyone’s mind.
If we decide that there’s nothing more to say when we hit this wall, dismissing the possibility of further dialogue until those with whom we disagree show signs of budging on abortion, we are washing our hands of our responsibility to work for a resolution and simply add to the already crippling polarization in our culture. If we conclude that those we disagree with about abortion are simply unreasonable, then how will we be able to advance any anti-abortion policies except through coercion? Lasting change is impossible if we, the Church, are unable to find common ground and work from there.
Addressing the seemingly hopeless situation Bishop Barron described in his article, I would like to respectfully suggest a change in approach. In his article, it seemed that the type of dialogue Barron envisioned was limited to negotiating policy compromises (which isn’t even the responsibility of bishops). In fact, this approach seems different from the kind of dialogue that the bishops were tasked with.
More than a month before the USCCB’s June meeting, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent a letter to the US bishops asking them to enter into dialogue—both with each other and with Catholic politicians—about the grave moral issues being debated in our country. The cardinal instructed the bishops to “reach out to and engage in dialogue with Catholic politicians within their jurisdiction who adopt a pro-choice position regarding abortion legislation, euthanasia, or other moral evils, as a means of understanding the nature of their positions and their comprehension of Catholic teaching” (emphasis mine).
That last line gets to the heart of the nature and purpose of dialogue. In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis defined dialogue as “Approaching, speaking, listening, looking at, coming to know and understand one another, and to find common ground” (FT 198).
Authentic dialogue presumes that “Each of us can learn something from others” (FT 215), and seeks to “grasp the significance of what others say and do, even if we cannot accept it as our own conviction” (FT 203).
This is not a concession to a kind of moral relativism. The pope is clear that there are “non-negotiable” truths that can be “attained by the use of reason and accepted in conscience” (FT 207). However, it is through dialogue—not coercion or cleverness—that, “in a pluralistic society,” people can realize and actualize these truths in a deeper way than mere “ephemeral consensus” (FT 211).
The pope’s confidence in the fruitfulness of dialogue is rooted in hope—specifically hope “in the reserves of goodness present in human hearts” (FT 196). This is radically different from a pessimistic view that ideological opponents are unreasonable and lack good will. Even concerning an issue as grave and morally pressing as abortion, such hope is necessary if Catholics want to engage fruitfully with those who hold pro-choice convictions. I believe it because I have experienced it in my own life.
During college I was a very outspoken pro-lifer, and admittedly I was pretty bombastic. I reveled in conflict and debate and enjoyed being provocative. I certainly made the most of any “persecution” I received for openly expressing my views. Looking back, I doubt my behavior actually changed anyone’s mind. More likely is that it made me and those who already agreed with me feel more righteous.
I did have one pro-choice friend, however, who tolerated my blustering and actually engaged in real dialogue with me. By building a friendship, we created a space where the two of us were able to discuss our beliefs and the reasons why we held our moral positions. We soon realized that despite our disagreements she and I both supported the fundamental values of human dignity and equality.
I never agreed with her position on abortion rights, but she helped me understand the very serious reasons that lead many women to seek abortions. She never changed her mind and became pro-life, but she was able to see that pro-lifers really do care about human dignity—she saw that we aren’t simply motivated by power and a desire to control women’s behavior and restrict their autonomy (as many pro-choice people believe). We found common ground in our values and our hardline approaches were softened.
In my experience, most pro-choice people aren’t extremists. I think most people have a basic sense of the importance of protecting human dignity and equality. Unfortunately those values—for a variety of reasons—are overlooked or distorted when applied to unborn lives and the matter of abortion. Those shared values, however, create space for real progress.
Of course, we must seek ways to prevent those who trample on human dignity to cease their oppression, and we must work for justice (FT 241). But when achieving the political results we want is impossible, we cannot sacrifice love for the sake of power. Pope Francis explained this in Fratelli Tutti:
“‘We achieve fulfillment when we break down walls and our hearts are filled with faces and names!’ The great goals of our dreams and plans may only be achieved in part. Yet beyond this, those who love, and who no longer view politics merely as a quest for power, ‘may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted. All of these encircle our world like a vital force’” (FT 195).
The hard work of dialogue, the pope says, will help create a “culture of encounter.” It will lead to a society where we are “passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone” (FT 216). Creating this culture is a “difficult and slow process,” yet only it “is the guarantee of a genuine and lasting peace” (FT 217).
Our Church cannot limit our pro-life discussion to matters of policy, because doing so will only more deeply entrench the battle lines of the culture war. Cardinal Ladaria’s letter is urging the bishops to follow the same model Pope Francis describes in his encyclical. Francis has laid out the blueprint for engaging in dialogue with those whose values and priorities—even on serious matters of justice and morality—conflict with ours. I encourage Bishop Barron, and every other bishop in the US, to accept Cardinal Ladaria’s invitation: meet personally with pro-choice politicians, listen to them speak personally about their values and moral priorities—not just on abortion, but on other areas of Catholic social teaching as well. Then they can discover areas of common ground that can serve as building blocks to mutual respect, friendship, and even conversion.
We can never lose hope that grace and truth will prevail. Let us always pursue the long work dialogue and foster a culture of encounter.