Amid all the shouting, the rallies, the speeches, the chanting of “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Roe v Wade has got to go!” Amid the political lobbying, the thousands of cold stomping feet along Constitution Avenue, the sometimes dramatic displays in front of the Supreme Court, the shaking of heads in conversations about how bad things have become and bewilderment that abortion is still legal in an age when even science upholds the humanity of the unborn child, came a rather startling suggestion last week on the 41st anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision.
“We’re here because we want to save thousands of innocent children who this year will be executed by the very people whose mission should be to heal and protect life,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley said at a Mass the night before the annual March for Life in Washington. “The only way that we can save those babies is by saving the mothers.”
Yes, he said the “only” way. As chairman of the United States Bishops Conference’s Pro-Life Committee, he would surely be aware that his statement would exclude the possibility that legislative action could save those babies, that legal action, specifically a reversal of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, could save those babies. But he went on: “When [expectant mothers] experience God’s loving mercy, then they will be capable of showing that mercy to their children. The pro-life movement has to be about saving mothers. We need to focus on the woman to try to understand what she is suffering.”
The occasion for his comments, made during the opening Mass of the National Prayer Vigil for Life in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Jan. 21, was the Gospel reading of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus “invites her to make a new start, to know that she is forgiven and loved,” he said. Women “caught” in crisis pregnancies must not see the pro-life movement as “Pharisees,” their hands full of stones and ready to execute the law. “The pro-life movement needs to be the merciful face of God to women facing a difficult pregnancy. Being judgmental or condemnatory is not part of the Gospel of Life,” the archbishop of Boston told the gathering of some 20,000 pro-life Catholics. “We want the woman to experience the merciful love of Christ.”
It’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that women considering abortion (or recovering from it) see the Church or the pro-life movement as “judgmental or condemnatory.” When was the last time you heard someone calling down hellfire and brimstone on such a woman? These days, it’s more likely that the pro-choice side is “judgmental and condemnatory.” Cardinal O’Malley spoke just days after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was quoted as saying that “extreme conservatives who are ‘right to life,’ ‘pro assault weapon’ and ‘anti-gay’ … have no place in the state of New York.”
But, perhaps, abortive women have the perception, aided by a media-driven stereotype of pro-lifers, that they are being shunned. And very often, perception is everything.
In any case, Cardinal O’Malley’s focus on the need for mercy comports with the emphasis Pope Francis has placed on that virtue (and that Divine attribute). And the cardinal is one of eight from around the world closely advising the pope on the direction the Church should be taking at the beginning of the Third Millennium.
“Pope Francis urges us to practice that art of accompaniment which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other,” he said during last Tuesday evening’s Mass. “In this case the woman in crisis. This accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and compassionate gaze that heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life. This is precisely what the Sisters of Life, Project Rachel, the Community of Jesus the Living Mercy and so many others are doing…. We need to focus on the woman to try to understand what she is suffering.”
The antidote to abortion, the cardinal went on, is “solidarity, community, where people are willing to care for each other and for the most vulnerable.” He quoted from Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), in which the pope said, “The Church must be a place of mercy, freely given, where everyone can feel loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the life of the Gospel.”
“It is helpful to stress again and again the attractiveness and the ideal of a life of wisdom, self-fulfillment and enrichment,” the pope wrote. “In the light of that positive message, our rejection of the evils which endanger that life can be better understood. Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.”
Indeed, there is an emphasis on showing mercy and compassion in many pro-life activities. Initiatives such as 40 Days for Life and the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants encourage followers to pray and fast for the good of the unborn child and his mother—and the enlightenment of those who would do them harm. Most of them, if not all, have some connection to crisis pregnancy centers and homes for unwed mothers where there is plenty of material help and moral support. And there is no dearth of good-willed participants who are willing to mentor those in need of spiritual help.
Certainly the growing realization that abortion has had traumatizing effects on women has given rise to apostolates such as Project Rachel and the others the cardinal cited. There is much healing in forgiveness, including the ability to forgive oneself.
The Sisters of Life, founded by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York specifically to address the need for greater respect for life, hosts Entering Canaan retreats, a ministry of healing for post-abortive women. As one of the sisters told me a few years back, Entering Canaan offers an “accompaniment” to post-abortive women, “as they walk toward healing.”
There is also a focus on Divine Mercy, which helped one participant I interviewed overcome a feeling that “all the evil of the world was embodied in” her, even though she had confessed her abortion sacramentally. Another said that after the retreat, “I came to understand that if God loves me so much, he must be able to forgive me, and I can forgive myself for what I’ve done.”
I keep thinking of one phrase Cardinal O’Malley uttered last week: “When they experience God’s loving mercy, then they will be capable of showing that mercy to their children.” A bit of reflection on that would suggest that unborn babies are pleading for mercy as they see a threat approaching, whether it comes in the form of a syringe or a pair of forceps. Again, Pope Francis: “The Church must be a place of mercy, freely given, where everyone can feel loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the life of the Gospel.”
And, we would hope, where mothers (and fathers, for that matter) would naturally feel, “I could never do that to my baby.” The goal is to make abortion not only illegal, not only unnecessary, but unthinkable. An infusion of mercy into the culture seems like a good place to start. Who but those in the pro-life movement, especially those in the Church, could be conduits of that mercy.