Through four pregnancies, and a forty-seven year marriage, I have never been tempted to have an abortion, never had the necessity to contemplate such a decision. My sons now have a lot of beautiful babies who bring us deep joy.
I had the blessing of a good education in a Catholic college. I was a philosophy major, studying ideas which Basilian priests taught: the importance of inquiry, the Catholic principle of the inviolability of conscience, and the necessity to continue to read theology. I grew up in a period of history where Canada flourished under the rule of law and the Charter of Rights.
Then I encountered the liberating power of the feminist movement, attended an international conference on women in Beijing in 1995, and spent some time as a journalist. I have had a loyal spouse and an adequate income, good health care, and six years of mind-altering overseas experience.
Christian Catholic adulthood has had its profound challenges and its rich rewards. In circles of feminists of faith I have found my community. As for the task for us, Elizabeth Johnson, the Fordham University theologian and author of “She Who Is” said “When the poorest, most abused woman in a South African township, and her children are flourishing, our work will be done”.
It is a distant dream. But we are clear.
But not helping in these great causes are the men leaders of the Roman Church, my church.
Today, there are other themes I would like to give my time and attention to: ecology and spirituality for one. But it is exactly women like me, with my privileged social location and past global history who are most called to defend the rights of other women.
Hence I am fully involved in church and abortion politics. It is surely not in hopes of becoming popular. I am not invited to discuss these ideas in Catholic institutions: pulpits, schools, colleges, convents, retreat houses.
However I am in the struggle because of the ongoing assaults on women and girls globally; those distressed, poor, unhappily-pregnant women, faced with terrible choices, made eternally guilty by their cold church and often by their state; frightened, confused, having been denied proper contraceptive information or having been made pregnant through force, rape or incest. They are frequently on their own.
We Catholic feminists have a special burden: countering the obtuse and absolutist pronouncements of our church. In an ironic sense it is perhaps a privilege to be who we are and know what we know, from the inside. Ours is an international institution with international clout. Many would say an inappropriate misogynist clout. What we influence here in Canada may affect women globally.
So when I read that Archbishop Prendergast, who is a well-educated Jesuit, had taken a leaf from his ill-informed, Vatican-compliant, American episcopal colleagues and said in Ottawa that he would excommunicate pro-choice politicians, I felt bound to speak out and challenge his words. The Ottawa Citizen gave this encounter front-page coverage and it was followed by a radio interview.
Consider this: a recent report from the Ministry of Health in Jamaica, a country which, like many others, is adamantly anti-choice, asked the society to begin to consider the decriminalization of abortion. The Committee reported that clinics and hospitals island-wide are over-crowded and scant public health services are stretched to exhaustion by hundreds of young girls coming for urgent help after botched backstreet abortion attempts. In Nicaragua recently, a poor, sole- support woman with three children was jailed, after being arrested at the hospital doors for having an abortion.My volunteer work with Amnesty International provides me with case after case accounts of the harm done by anti-woman legislation and hypocritical state attitudes, all compounded by the proclamations of the universal Roman Catholic Church.
Bishops gain little and risk much from their use of the sacraments as political tools. Sadly, the sacrament of the Eucharist, holy and mysterious, has emerged as a political symbol. Certainly it has been thus mis-used in Calgary, in Timmins and now threatened in Ottawa. These bishops, ignoring the valued principle of separation of church from state, assert that how you vote on legislation becomes sinful. This alienates lay people even further from bishops. And it will not prevent a single abortion. It has already caused great distress to several sitting Canadian members of Parliament.
And so, Archbishop Prendergast and I have a lot to talk about. I am willing to meet with him at an Ottawa coffee shop of his choice. But no chancery office for me, too unequal. I will ask him to read beforehand a few articles by such theologians as Christine Gudorf, Daniel Maguire and Anthony Padovano. I will set up a couple of private visits for the archbishop at an abortion clinic, to speak with staff, counselors and, with their permission, clients. I will read anything he proposes I read. But he will have to withdraw his remark that I am not a “normal” Catholic.
We will do sexual ethics together. Maybe others will join. Perhaps we will pray together, in inclusive language. It will be civil and searching.
Together I am sure we are capable of contributing to a Canada where abortion is safe, legal and rare.