In the UK, has abortion become a “Catholic issue”?

by Joanna Bogle

(This feature first appeared on the Catholic World Report website, 27 October 2017)

Britain has just marked the 50th anniversary of the horrible 1967 Abortion Act, which made abortion widely available. Abortion is promoted everywhere, is regarded as a “right,” and is, in practice, available on demand. There are now calls—from Britain’s senior medical establishment organizations—for it to be fully de-criminalized.

“Priests ought to preach more about abortion!” is a cry you sometimes hear. But, curiously, it’s actually the one subject on which they don’t really need to preach. There is a strong pro-life movement that operates chiefly through the Church. The pro-life network is well-funded, has full-time paid staff, and is omnipresent in Church life. There is pro-life material in every parish and pro-life displays at all major Catholic events. Mass mailings ensure regular funding. Pro-life speakers go into Catholic schools, address Catholic youth groups and Confirmation classes, run conferences, and are present at all the major events run by and for Catholic young people. When I spoke at a Catholic school recently, two pupils separately told me they assumed the topic would be abortion: “It’s always abortion. If it’s a special speaker for RE, it’s about abortion.” They weren’t complaining; they are pro-life and quite articulate on the subject. But they did want to know about some of the other aspects of their faith. When my session actually took place the group asked about miracles, saints, visions, and how to explain the Eucharist to non-Catholic friends. They were ready for deep discussions and needed access to sound doctrine. Later I was glad to be involved with a project to equip them with the own copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In fact, that is part of the problem. To the wider public, abortion is now seen as a “Catholic issue.” In a rather sad way, it’s often the first—sometimes even the only—thing that people associate with the Catholic Church: not prayer, not worship of God, not the Eucharistic presence of Christ among us, not forgiveness of sins, not the glories of Heaven, not the holiness of saints, not intimacy with our divine Savior. If you ask people what Catholics believe you are quite likely to get, “Um…they’re against abortion.” They are less confident about the idea that the Church will provide answers to life’s deepest questions, or offer them union with God, forgiveness and absolution of sins, a challenge to make changes in their lives, a vision for eternity.

Catholics themselves often encourage this tendency. “I think priests should speak out more about abortion,” is a statement that gets nods of approval. But when I pondered it recently and replied thoughtfully, “But that’s the one thing that people do know the Church is against!” there was agreement. “Oh, I know…I didn’t really mean that. I just wish the priest would say something more about…oh, I don’t know…things like Mass and confession and why it’s important. That’s what my teenagers need.” The woman was right. Her reference to abortion was actually a plea for something else: for sound doctrinal teaching on a number of issues that would help her to live as a Catholic and pass on the Faith to her children. She wanted to hear more about God, the sacraments, daily prayer, the centrality of the Eucharist, sin, forgiveness, Heaven and Hell.

If we are to win the battle for hearts and minds, we can’t do it by just telling Catholics what they know already. The pro-life movement’s task is to reach out, beyond the safe space that is the Church, to the wide seas of public and community life.  Meanwhile, the Church’s task is to preach the message of salvation and bring Christ to people through the sacraments. And that, in the longer term, will foster the kind of change among people that will mean that they will be open to the realization that abortion is a ghastly and evil thing, that the 1967 Abortion Act was a cruel piece of legislation, and that a civilized society protects its unborn children and their mothers and cherishes each new life.

Back in the 1970s, the pro-life movement was vast, and was not restricted to Catholics. Church of England bishops attended rallies and meetings organized by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, the founders of which were mostly Anglican. I remember speaking to a 100,000-strong crowd in London’s Hyde Park, one of four young women chosen to represent different political and religious views who shared a common abhorrence of abortion. We spoke for our generation: to us the legalization of abortion was something imposed by older people who saw things through the prism of the 1950s and who wanted to promote a different view of sex under the general theme of “liberation.” We knew that public opinion in Britain was actually concerned about the idea of abortion-on-demand and we were right—every attempt to tighten up the law got widespread support in the 1970s, and was only blocked by parliamentary maneuvering.

But massive media pressure and the tragic collapse of the Church of England and other Christian groups have brought a new scene. Today being anti-abortion is seen as a “Catholic thing.” Anti-abortion speakers are standard in Catholic schools, anti-abortion literature is standard in Catholic churches, and fund-raising for the cause is a standard part of Catholic life, with appeals and events and mass-mailings. We can be proud that the Church stands firm. But to reach out beyond is the central task now.

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