This week, in addition to being the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the 40th annual March for Life, is also the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It’s fitting that these two events should overlap, since the pro-life movement seems to have done more to draw together Catholics and Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, than any official ecumenical talks. It’s fittingly been dubbed “the ecumenism of the trenches,” and this cooperation has only increased in the face of the HHS Mandate, with Evangelical schools like Wheaton joining the fight for religious liberty.
|AHA’s philosophy, in a nutshell.|
That’s not to say that there haven’t been some trials and tribulations in that relationship. In fact, the latest bump in this relationship occurred recently, with a rather poor-timed feud between the Crescat (who is Catholic) and the pro-life group Abolish Human Abortion (who do really good work, but really don’t care for Catholics). At the heart of the dispute are two facts, as was explained in an open-letter written by one of their bloggers. First, AHA believes that the only solution to the problem of abortion is the Gospel. Second, they “do not affirm the same gospel as the Roman Catholic Church,” going so far as to call the Catholic Gospel “satanic.”
There is a certain irony in all of this. The blogger Rhology, the author of that open letter, is a Southern Baptist. And the Southern Baptist Convention was vocal on the issue of abortion, even before Roe. The only problem: they were on the wrong side. This oft-overlooked history was pointed out recently by Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a fascinating article for the Washington Post :
Two years before Roe, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for “legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such circumstances as rape, incest, clear evidence of fetal abnormality, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”That resolution reveals two very important aspects of this story. First, that the language of “the emotional, mental, and physical life of the mother” was already in use and, second, that the convention called for the legalization of what would become abortion on demand. After Roe, the language about emotional and mental health would be used to allow virtually any abortion for any reason.Did Southern Baptists have any idea what they were doing? The leadership of the denomination’s ethics agency was then pro-abortion, but the convention itself passed the resolution. Clearly, no pro-life consensus then prevailed among Southern Baptists.
And when the Southern Baptists, along with much of the Evangelical world, looked ready to simply go with the flow on abortion (as they had with contraception), who was it who saved the day? The Catholic Church:
From a 2009 Pro-Life VigilWhile most evangelicals were either on the wrong side of the issue or politically disengaged, Roman Catholic leaders were on the front lines opposing abortion as a fundamental assault on human dignity. By the late 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church was fighting demands for the legalization of abortion nationally and state by state – opposition that preceded the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae.By the time Roe was handed down, Catholic leaders had developed sophisticated arguments and growing organizations to fight for the pro-life cause. In 1967, six years before Roe, Catholics had led in the creation of the National Right to Life Committee. The Catholic tradition, drawn largely from the natural law, became the foundational intellectual contribution to the development of a united front against abortion. Nevertheless, for evangelicals to join the movement in a decisive way, arguments drawn directly from Scripture had to be formed and then preached from the pulpits of evangelical churches.Those arguments captured the conscience of the evangelical movement and produced a seismic shift within the movement and within the political life of the nation. From the 1980 U. S. presidential election until the present, the pro-life movement has been populated, funded, and directed, for the most part, by evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders. Beyond that, the emergence of crisis pregnancy centers and support systems for women considering abortion have come from the work of millions of pro-life Roman Catholics and evangelicals at the grassroots.
There are a lot of ways of reacting to this news. We could view it in a triumphalistic way, in which the Catholic Church (or at least, the Magsterium) stood strong even while Evangelicalism blinked. Or we could view it as a silver lining in Evangelicalism’s ability to change core beliefs over the span of a few years or decades. Evangelical believers are even more pro-life than their (nominally) Catholic brethren these days.
But perhaps the most edifying reaction is to remember that we’re strongest when we work together. The story of pro-life Evangelicalism can’t be told without reference to the cooperation and support of their Catholic brothers and sisters. That’s a legacy to continue, not to lightly throw away.