Abortion and the Catholic Currency of Shame

July 2, 2021 4 min read

One day in Catholic school, Sister Mary Francis pointed her finger like a gun at my classmate and said shooting her was no different than abortion. Both, she said, were intentional murder. That snapshot of Sister's pointed finger haunted me, but it did not prevent me from having an abortion when I got pregnant at 19. My situation does not matter. Each woman has her own story, and our compassion for her choice should not be determined by the context of the story she tells.

In therapy, I asked, "Am I damned?" My nightmares featured people coming after me who, like Sister, believed I had committed murder. What I needed in therapy was help recovering from the Catholic currency of shame.

In my mid-20s, after my daughter was born, I visited our parish priest and disclosed my abortion. He watched me struggle to find the words because though I believed I had made the right choice, I feared his judgement. His shaming. Instead, he offered me compassion. He told me that God's forgiveness was not the question. That I needed to find peace within myself. He did not deny me Communion or any other sacrament.

Though I appreciated that particular priest, I no longer consider myself Catholic. The recent meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is a great example as to why. The bishops voted to draft guidelines for receiving the Eucharist with the goal of ultimately preventing lawmakers, including President Joe Biden, from receiving Communion if they supported a woman's right to choose. Catholic leaders are exerting their power through public shame, hoping to influence decisions of our supposedly secular legislature.

It is the same powerplay that Catholic bishops in New York state exhibited in1967 that resulted in something unexpected from their religious peers. It's a nugget of little-known history that would serve Catholics a great reminder.

Manhattan Democratic Assemblyman Albert Blumenthal sponsored a bill in 1967 that would soften New York state abortion law, making abortion legal under certain dire circumstances such as the risk of serious harm to the mother, a severe birth defect, or if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. According to the book "To Offer Compassion: A History of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion" by Doris Andrea Dirks and Patricia A. Relf, support for the bill was mounting until Catholic bishops issued a "pastoral letter calling on Catholics to 'do all in your power' to oppose liberalizing abortion laws. The bishops directed the letter to be read to congregations at all masses throughout the state on Sunday, February 12, 1967." The bill was killed in committee, but it prompted the Rev. Howard Moody to act.

A small group of like-minded clergy had already been discussing the idea of doing direct abortion referrals. Yes, a group of clergy. Prior to Roe v. Wade, we know women took horrid measures to obtain abortions. Moody and other clergy organized across the country to counsel women and refer them to doctors who would safely perform abortions.

From 1967 to 1973 when abortion became legal, the Clergy Consultation Service referred hundreds of thousands of women for safe abortions. The book reports the demographics of these women: "Two-thirds were single. More than 80% were white. About a third were Protestant, a third Catholic, and about a quarter were Jewish. Half came to their counseling meeting when their pregnancies were eight weeks along or less."

Catholic leadership, in their public shaming of women and those who attempt to support women in legislation, only serves as political posturing. On the ground level — even among clergy — the majority opt for compassion.

To find out more about Bonnie Jean Feldkamp and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: stempow at Pixabay

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