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Abortion Conversations Need More Nuance (Especially the Religious Ones)
I love receiving Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s newsletter — Life is a Sacred Text — I’m not Jewish, but I do consider myself a religious scholar and someone interested in how religions function in the world…and this week, her essay was on reproductive freedom and Judaism and it: a) was very powerful and b) got me thinking.
(this is long, so buckle up).
I grew up in an Ecumenical Catholic Charismatic community (considered a cult and reported on in the Washington Post in the mid-90s) — i.e. Christians, mostly Catholics, and, many of the ways we worshipped included what folks often associate with Pentecostals, evangelicals, etc. I was surrounded by “praying in tongues” and words of prophecy, etc., before I was even born, as my parents both regularly attended community prayer meetings. I remember my mom teaching us bibliomancy (although I don’t think she’d agree with my naming of it in this way) — we’d open the scriptures and ask for a word from God and then look where our fingers pointed us.
Growing up in the DC area, it’s not surprising that I attended my first “March for Life” when I was in 4th grade — I have a record of it in my journal from the early 90's — and was very much impacted by some very graphic images that I can *still* see in my mind, and a grim reaper character who was shuffling around with bones and such. Going to the march was considered a privilege and a treat. It was a fieldtrip. I continued attending through high school (and maybe? I honestly don’t remember? freshman year of college).
In college, I studied theology — among other things including philosophy — both at my Jesuit university (mostly Catholicism) and at Oxford University (a wider study that included multiple branches of Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and several other lesser known religions).
In the nearly 20 years since college, I’ve worked as a youth minister (and not taken the teens to the march for life), earned my master’s in theology, grown friendships with friends of all religions — and no religions — and continued my interest in all things pertaining to the sacred and the divine and the holy. In some ways, it’s part of what fuels my search for joy. Well, that and my deep familiarity with sorrow and suffering.
I share these things, not to say look at my qualifications for what comes next, but because these questions and conversations have been an ongoing part of my world for nearly my entire life.
And — there is so little room for any nuance of conversation around abortion. Friends who are pro-life see outrageous bills like the Texas bill (or others) and have doubts — but there’s no space for those conversations because everyone gets so inflamed.
One: It is possible to be Catholic and pro-choice (I don’t put myself into this category, as I’m uncertain that I would identify as catholic currently, but I know many Catholics who do).
Two: Your understanding, my understanding, etc., of sacred texts — whether looking at the Torah, the “New” Testament, or any other religion’s texts — is informed by translators’ decisions around language, the determinations of scholars around what to teach (and not teach), the preaching of pastors and the weight that their words (and implied authority) carry, and MANY MORE FACTORS. Including our own views. Confirmation bias can be incredibly present when you read a text. Or, when you translate a text. And, historically this has happened time and time and time again. What I’m writing now is influenced by my studies, my lived experience, and my spirituality + faith.
Three: If you identify as Catholic- — hear this — there are more nuances to teachings than you have (most likely) been taught.
For example, there’s something called “primacy of conscience”.
The TLDR is that you, me, we all, hear the “echo of god’s voice in the inner chamber of our heart” — and that echo is our conscience.
If we educate ourselves on Catholic teaching, our FIRST moral obligation is to listen to our conscience, above and beyond following said teaching.
In fact, it’s considered more grave if we follow the teaching and ignore our conscience. Take time to learn. Take time to read and to understand.
And, if your conscience tells you to “withhold assent”, do so freely, and with the knowledge that it is really truly between you and God, (or you and your partner, for example, if you’re considering contraceptive methods).
Four: You know someone who’s had an abortion. Whether or not you’re aware. And they’re listening and noticing how you speak about it, and about folks who choose to have an abortion. Remember that.
I quit working at the parish (or in youth ministry at all, really) after my grandfather died and my colleagues at the church didn’t acknowledge his death at all, even though he’d been ill for most of the time I’d worked there, and I’d been very clear about how important he was in my life.
The parents, my teens, my volunteers though? They were present and supported me. I was with a parent volunteer when I listened to the voicemail with the news, and she followed me as I drove home, and then she and her kids (at 9 pm at night) packed me for my flight the next morning.
But I knew I couldn’t — wouldn’t — be able to continue working with colleagues who so clearly had a different opinion about what it meant to live a Christian life and minister to and with others.
And, there were ways in which I was chastised (as are many non-priest ministers) and discouraged from sharing things that didn’t fall into a conservative arc of Christianity, and Catholicism. I couldn’t live that anymore; it had been eating me, and the meanness and pettiness of my colleagues was the final straw.
What I really loved about reading Rabbi Ruttenberg’s newsletter, is that she is incredibly scholarly in her approach — and seeing a scholar make a case *for* abortion based on religious texts is incredibly powerful.
At Oxford, I had a similar experience when I was introduced to several scholarly books written by a Dominican priest about sexuality — The Body in Context, and A Question of Truth: Homosexuality — by my Christian Ethics professor (really it was Catholic ethics). It shook my world to learn that there *was* an argument that allowed for kindness, compassion, and acceptance, of LGBT folk. And, good thing, since I have family members who are gay, and I date across gender.
It’s possible for people’s views to grow and change. When I was younger, we grew up listening to Dr. Laura and Rush Limbaugh during carpool. I attended the march for life for countless years. I cried to a priest in confession because I didn’t understand how the boy I’d fallen in love with “could be going to hell” because he’d kissed a boy. As a ten year old, I wrote in my diary about how devastated I was that Clinton would be president because that meant so many babies would die.
I don’t have any bow-wrapping closure to this, but I think it’s important that we start to have these conversations — or at least see that there is a greater tradition within the different branches of Christianity, especially as so many many many laws are moving forward. And — go read Rabbi Ruttenberg’s post. It’s thoroughly researched.
I ask that you remain respectful in comments, although this feels less necessary here than it did on Facebook, where I also posted this.