Catholic to Catholic: Why Joe Biden is the true pro-life candidate

I.

I was an altar boy at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church, in Hicksville, Long Island, NY, starting in the fifth grade. I also attended the parochial school there through eighth grade and was very proud of how well I knew all the rules about being Catholic: The Seven Sacraments. The Six Holydays of Obligation. The Three Theological Virtues. The Six Laws of the Church. I had a particular fascination with the Six Laws of the Church. These told us unambiguously what we had to do and how we had to act to be a good Catholic, and violating any of them would be a Mortal Sin. Unless forgiven in the sacrament of Penance, a Mortal Sin would send us straight to Hell upon death.

Since St. Ignatius was a big parish and had about 10 Masses every Sunday, I was frequently on the altar in the Sunday rotation. For convenience, my mom would attend the Mass I was serving and bring my younger brothers and sister with us. One year, as we entered Lent, I noticed that my mother had not been receiving Communion at Sunday Mass. A few weeks before Easter I asked her about it, and she said that she usually forgot not to eat something before Mass so she couldn’t receive. Okay, I thought, but Church Law #4 was starting to weigh on me, “It is the obligation of every Catholic to receive the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist at least once a year during the Easter Season, that is, the time between the First Sunday of Lent and Trinity Sunday.” It began to dawn on me that my mom had not received Communion during the Easter Season, and time was running out!

I started to keep track. Palm Sunday came and went. Palms yes, Communion no. Easter? Bonnets and chocolate bunnies, but no Eucharist. The post-Easter Sundays marched on, and mom still had not received. Ascension Thursday. No. Pentecost Sunday. No! Finally, her last chance: Trinity Sunday.

I was serving on the altar that day. I went through the motions of bringing the priest water, wine, and hosts, washing his hands in preparation for the Consecration, ringing the bells at the elevation of the Body and Blood, but my mind was on my mom. I kept glancing at her, sitting in the front row, off to the right, thinking of how I did not want her to go to Hell. Sure, she could go to Confession later, but why take the chance? What if we were in a car accident on the way home, and we all got killed? She would be sucked into Hades, and I would never see her again, for all Eternity.

And yes, I am Irish Catholic.

When the priest finished the Canon, I went and did the only thing I could do, what, I felt, any kid would do to save his mother from the fires of Hell. I slipped into the sacristy, snuck out into the church, and tiptoed up to my mom in the first pew. Words cannot describe the look of astonishment on her face as I said to her in a fierce whisper, “You have GOT to receive Communion today!” Astonishment quickly became embarrassment and anger as she hissed, “Kenneth Arthur, get back up on the altar right now.” “But mom…” I implored. “NOW!” she growled through clenched teeth. I did, trailed by the whispers and giggles of my siblings. Did she receive, much to my relief? Or did she sit there, and lecture me later about her reasons being her reasons? I’ll come back to that.

I am very lucky to have grown up in the Church in the 1960’s in the immediate post-Vatican II period. This was a time of renewal and change, of introspection and discernment, of being challenged by the Church and by God to look within to ask, who do you want me to be, Lord? Although St. Ignatius was a parish in a white middle class suburb of Long Island, we were taught that God calls us to reach out to the poor, the sick, the hungry, the outcast. This call resonated deeply within me.

At the same time, I also saw the world beyond Hicksville, NY, through The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Most importantly, as I watched the civil rights movement blossom in the South, I saw African-Americans being attacked, beaten, and jailed, and I couldn’t believe that people were being treated this way because of the way they were born, the color of their skin. While this might have seemed so very far from the white middle-class suburb where I was growing up, at this point in my life, I was just beginning to realize that there were things about me, about the way I was born, that, if people found out about them, I knew I would be treated the same way. I began to understand, then, what it was to be an outcast.

Discerning my path in life over years and through my personal experience and my religious faith, I finally accepted that my calling was to became a pediatrician, to take care of the most vulnerable, children, and to spend my life and my career in poor communities caring for those who were also outcasts.

I am not a recovering Catholic. I am not an ex-Catholic. I am, for better or worse, a Catholic, and I really cannot see that ever changing. I am also gay. I always have been, I always will be, and I am who God intended me to be. As you can imagine, that makes being Catholic…well, complex. But then being Catholic has always been — or should always be — complex.

For me, then, being Catholic and being gay are not opposing forces pulling me apart but synergistic energies that call me to a single purpose.

The Institutional Church, of course, does not always see it that way. Members of the Hierarchy have called me “intrinsically disordered,” and that’s when they’re being kind of nice. But that’s the thing: The Body of Christ has always been about so much more than a bunch of old guys in black and scarlet robes.

A couple of years ago I had an epiphany at Mass one day at College Church at Saint Louis University. It was during a period in my life when — because of some new, astoundingly hurtful statement out of Rome about gay people — I was really questioning whether I still could call the Church my home. At this particular Mass, the Old Testament readings included one from Exodus: the story of God giving Moses the Ten Commandments. The second one was from Leviticus. I can’t remember what that one was about, but since Leviticus is like the Ten Commandments on steroids — it comprises about 500 “Thou Shalt Nots” about things like shellfish and when NOT to have sex — I know that it was telling us not to do a lot of things.

The Gospel reading, however, was from Matthew 22. Jesus is asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replies, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Well, as a Catholic and as a pediatrician, I thought: That’s interesting. I had been taught in those Religion classes at St. Ignatius — where I learned the Six Laws of the Church — that, before the birth of Jesus, God treated His people as a father treats His children. Viewed in that context, the Old Testament God is not unlike a father who has to tell His kids what to do and not do, whether it makes sense to them or not. His people, like young children, are in what the Jean Piaget, the famed Swiss psychologist known for his work on child development, called the Realm of Concrete Operations. Kids at this stage are unable to think ahead to the long-term consequences of their actions so parents have to give them very concrete instructions. As a parent, you know how often you have had to say to your kids, “DON’T stick your finger in a light socket! DON’T run out in traffic! DON’T jump off the roof! Why? Because I SAID SO!”

But what happens when your kids get older? You can actually have conversations with them. You can reason with them. You can teach them to look into their heart. If they come to you with a dilemma to ask what they should do, you can turn it back to them and say, “What do YOU think you should do?” and if you raised them right, if you taught them consistently by holding yourself to the moral and ethical precepts you espoused, then they will give you the answer that you would have given them. They have now entered Piaget’s Realm of Formal Operations where they can make decisions based on a consciousness of long-term consequences and a deep sense of empathy.

Jesus, then, is the fulfillment of God’s Covenant to bring His people to maturity. This maturity and wisdom is what Jesus is appealing to in his reply. He is saying that if, in your dealings with others, you honor that which created you and you act toward others as you would have them act toward you, you have become the person I hoped you would be.

One of the other things that I was taught at Saint Ignatius is that Divine Truth is revealed to every member of the Body of Christ equally if we are open to it. Jesus tells us this in Matthew. So what I have experienced as love and intimacy, seeing the face of God in the person I love and who has loved me, is as revelatory of God’s grace as the latest encyclical from the Pope. I have received so much from the Church, but I have also given so much to the Church. So as difficult, as complex as it is sometimes for me to be Catholic, I cannot imagine not being a Catholic. But of course, I also cannot imagine the Catholic Church without me in it.

One more thing: As a pediatrician and medical school professor, I spend a good part of my days teaching residents and medical students how to be doctors. They have spent a great deal of time and energy reading, memorizing, and learning rules, numbers, and concepts. My job is to reinforce their learning but also to give them a real-life context. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a student give me a presentation of a patient complete with history, labs, and X-ray findings leading to an assessment and plan of care, and yet when I ask, “So how does the patient look?” I get a blank stare. “I haven’t had a chance to look at her.” “Okay,” I say, “let’s go do that.” Once we do that, in a good number of cases, the assessment and plan no longer make sense. All the chart data in the world cannot substitute for the richness of actually looking at the patient.

Which brings me back to my mother, her decision not to receive Communion that day, and my fear of Eternal Damnation for her. When I was up on that altar, having checked off “No Communion” on her heavenly scorecard week after week, I never looked at HER. I never considered that a just and loving God never would send this woman who had lived this life and made these sacrifices to Hell on a technicality. Back then, I thought as a child, I spoke as a child. I just knew the Laws, and that was all that mattered. But as Jesus said, laws are made for Man, not Man for the law.

II.

I tell you this very long story because being Catholic and being a citizen in this country should not be simple. It should not simply be a matter of having somewhere to look stuff up and turning off our mind and our heart.

I have written about many things on this blog, but one thing I have avoided is the subject of abortion. I have not spoken about it because I have felt that others could speak with more authority on it. Yet, because of where I have stood on issues of public health, racial and LGBTQ equity, and social justice, I feel that people have made assumptions about where I stand on this issue.

Well, it’s complicated.

Whenever a human egg is fertilized, it possesses all the unique genetic information it will need to live up to a century as a thinking, feeling human being. Once gone, that being will never be duplicated in the history of all creation.

Does that make this entity a human being in actuality or only in potential? That, of course, has been the question for centuries. Where one lands on answering that question will determine whether one views abortion as a morally acceptable procedure or not.

As such, I cannot call myself Pro-Choice with capital letters.

However, I cannot position myself in the capitalized Pro-Life camp either, especially not as exemplified by the contemporary Republican Party and the current president.

My feeling on the matter are largely expressed in the “seamless garment” philosophy of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. In the November 2008 article, “Twenty-Five Years Later: Cardinal Bernardin’s Consistent Ethic of Life” in “Health Progress,” Ron Hamel writes:

“On Dec. 6, 1983, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, in a lecture at Fordham University, first articulated what he referred to as the ‘consistent ethic of life.’ …in light of the sacredness of human life and human dignity, Bernardin believed profoundly that life issues, broadly understood, are of one piece (a ‘seamless garment’). They are interrelated. In other words, if one is committed to ‘preserving life’ (opposing abortion, euthanasia, [the death penalty, nuclear proliferation, war, the environment], and the like), one should also be committed to ‘enhancing life.’ …As Bernardin said: ‘Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker…Because of its central importance to human dignity … I have felt a special responsibility to devote a considerable amount of attention to health care at both the local and national levels.’”

So I have a question for those call themselves Pro-Life, especially those who support Donald Trump and the Republican Party because they call themselves Pro-Life. I have heard that many follow along because this is so overwhelmingly important, despite all their atrocities toward immigrants, the poor, the handicapped, those who are non-white and non-Christian, those who cannot find a job, feed their families, care for their sick, and keep a roof over their heads.

My question: Are you truly Pro-Life, or are you merely Anti-Abortion and Pro-Birth?

Even before Trump, the Republican Party has consistently worked to weaken protections for those who need help. At federal and state levels, the GOP, practically to a person, have opposed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Medicare for All, Medicaid Expansion, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, the program is designed to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, a food-based safety net program also known as Food Stamps).

If you are truly Pro-Life, shouldn’t these things be at least as important to you as the availability of abortion? And shouldn’t the reasons why women choose to have abortions be of interest to you?

I ask this because a major study by the Guttmacher Institute found that:

“The reasons most frequently cited were that having a child would interfere with a woman’s education, work or ability to care for dependents (74%); that she could not afford a baby now (73%); and that she did not want to be a single mother or was having relationship problems (48%). Nearly four in 10 women said they had completed their childbearing, and almost one-third were not ready to have a child. Fewer than 1% said their parents’ or partners’ desire for them to have an abortion was the most important reason. Younger women often reported that they were unprepared for the transition to motherhood, while older women regularly cited their responsibility to dependents. The decision to have an abortion is typically motivated by multiple, diverse and interrelated reasons. The themes of responsibility to others and resource limitations, such as financial constraints and lack of partner support, recurred throughout the study.”

A significant number of women, then, choose abortion because of economic factors as well as relational problems. Yet the Republican Party continues to make life more precarious for those with few means to begin with and to restrict curricula in schools that deal frankly with human sexual relationships, the very resources that might allow more women the economic and emotional space to consider having a baby.

And of course, there is pregnancy prevention. You can’t have an abortion if you are not pregnant. Yet the Trump administration and the GOP continue to be relentless in their desire to abolish the Affordable Care Act, even though the ACA has been one of the greatest drivers of drastically reducing numbers of abortions in this country in the past decade, not just in states where abortion is restricted but also where it is more freely available. As reported by the Guttmacher Institute:

“Because both abortions and births declined, it is clear that there were fewer pregnancies overall in the United States in 2017 than in 2011. The big question is why. One possible contributing factor is contraceptive access and use. Since 2011, contraception has become more accessible, as most private health insurance plans are now required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to cover contraceptives without out-of-pocket costs. In addition, thanks to expansions in Medicaid and private insurance coverage under the ACA, the proportion of women aged 15–44 nationwide who were uninsured dropped more than 40% between 2013 and 2017.”

III.

So what can we do? What should we do? I can, of course, only answer for myself:

· I can recognize that abortion is a procedure and a reality that has been part of human society and experience across time and cultures since the beginning of our existence as a sentient species.

· I can decline to participate in it personally and professionally.

· I can embrace the fact that scholars of various faiths have discussed this question and come to very different conclusions on the ethics and morality of it for centuries.

· I can accept that the decision to have an abortion is a deeply personal one that I cannot judge in another.

· I can understand that legislation and adjudication to outlaw this procedure will not result in its eradication and will only result in increasing harm to women who are seeking to terminate pregnancies.

Above all, I can work, not just as a Catholic, but as a human being and as a healer, to create a just, equitable society where every person has access to quality health care, everyone’s personhood is respected and celebrated, every child is valued, every person has the opportunity for education, housing, nourishment, safety, and love. I can work — as I have tried to for over 40 years — to be small-letters pro-life and to weave a seamless garment to promote human dignity.

And so, Catholic to Catholic, I urge you to vote for Joe Biden for president and for every Democrat on your ballot. Donald Trump and the entire Republican Party have cynically, hypocritically, and unambiguously abdicated their moral responsibility to our nation and have used the label of “Pro-Life” as a fig leaf to cover their profound undermining of American civil society while Democrats have just as consistently worked tirelessly for economic opportunity, racial justice, and social equity.

If one party embodies Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life,” it is the Democrats. And if one presidential hopeful is the true pro-life candidate, it is Joe Biden.

Pediatrician, Educator, Singer, Writer, Advocate, Actor, Improviser. Views are my own, not those of any institution where I’m employed.

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