Getting past ‘pro-life’ vs. ‘peace and justice’

  • Written by Kevin Birnbaum
  • Published in NW Stories
Illustration: Ellen Bollard Illustration: Ellen Bollard

Upcoming conference aims to unite Catholic advocates around ‘building a culture of life’

J ust a couple of decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, St. Paul felt compelled to write to the Christian community at Corinth to address reports of rivalries within the church: “I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” (1 Corinthians 1:10) Unfortunately, Paul’s advice has never quite stuck. Nearly 2,000 years later, factionalism remains a perennial temptation.

In 21st-century America, one of the most obvious divisions in the church is between “pro-life Catholics,” who are devoted to opposing abortion, and “peace and justice Catholics,” who focus on advocating for the poor and marginalized. Too often, the two camps — which seem to divide largely along political party lines — view each other with suspicion or even disdain, each side convinced that the other is missing the point.

“In parishes we know that sometimes there are real divisions — the respect life committee may never speak to the social justice committee,” said Dominican Sister Sharon Park, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops of the state on matters of public policy. “And yet our [Catholic] teaching is that all of life — all of life — is important and sacred and created by God. So how do we get that message out?”

‘A moment of catechesis’

In response to that challenge, Washington’s four Catholic bishops are sponsoring the Cornerstone Catholic Conference this month in Tacoma to inspire Catholics to work together to protect all human life, including the unborn, those who live in poverty or on the margins of society, and people at the end of life.

In addition to presentations by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle and Bishop Joseph Tyson of Yakima, the conference will feature keynote addresses by Rwandan genocide survivor and best-selling author Immaculée Ilibagiza, Feminists for Life president Serrin Foster and former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson; as well as workshops on a variety of topics, including human trafficking, serving the poor and making difficult end-of-life decisions.

The bishops hope the conference will draw about 1,200 Catholics from around the state for “a moment of catechesis” on the value of life, Sister Sharon said.

Transcending politics

The theme of the Cornerstone conference can be boiled down to one phrase: the dignity of the human person.

“The dignity of the human person is the foundation for all of our Catholic social and moral teaching,” said Father Gary Zender, pastor of St. Louise de Marillac Parish in Bellevue, who will lead a workshop on poverty at the conference.

What that means, said Father Gary Lazzeroni, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Vancouver, is that “from the very moment that a child is conceived — from the very first moment of their life — until they take their last breath, they have an innate dignity that needs to be protected and preserved.”

But that consistent and comprehensive principle often falls by the wayside, because many Catholics are more influenced by political ideologies than by church teaching, said Father Lazzeroni, who will lead a workshop at the conference about building a “cooperative culture of life” in parishes.

“If we were all formed and shaped more by Catholic social teaching than we are by the political environment, we would have a much more balanced approach across the board, and language around ‘conservative’ Catholics, ‘liberal’ Catholics — that language wouldn’t make any sense, because the truth is, our teaching cuts across those political spectrums,” he said.

“When we get in trouble is when we say one wing of that teaching is more important than another,” he added. “That’s when we find ourselves really sucked in by a culture that loves us to fight with each other.”

Respecting different passions

The breadth of church teaching on the dignity of human life doesn’t mean individual Catholics shouldn’t focus on particular issues close to their hearts. The anti-abortion activist doesn’t need to leave her crisis pregnancy center and sign up for a protest against human trafficking — but she should recognize the protest’s legitimacy and importance, and honor her fellow Catholics engaged in that work.

“The challenge for us is how to respect the fact that all of us have different passions, and that we don’t need to force everyone to feel as passionately about a particular issue as somebody else does,” Father Lazzeroni said. “That’s the beauty of the body of Christ.”

Conference keynoter Abby Johnson became a prominent pro-life activist after becoming disillusioned and resigning as the director of a Texas abortion clinic in 2009. Her work is focused on opposing abortion, but she still sees the beauty of the church’s expansive vision.

“One of those things that I love about the Catholic Church is that we’re not just saying, ‘Well, we’re pro-life because we’re against abortion,’” she said. “We’re pro-life because we care about the dignity of human life at all stages.”  

“The dignity of the human person is the foundation for all of our Catholic social and moral teaching.” 

Cornerstone Catholic Conference

When: Friday, Oct. 24, at 7 p.m., and all day Saturday, Oct. 25.

Where: Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center, 1500 Broadway.

Cost: $75, or $65 for young adults ages 18–28 (includes lunch). Partial scholarships are available (email cornerstonescholarship@

For more information, or to register, visit


A new approach to helping families in need

Those who attend the Cornerstone Catholic Conference will be introduced to a new initiative of the state’s Catholic bishops dedicated to serving families in need. The Pregnancy and Parenting Support program, or Prepares, will provide material and emotional support for families from the beginning of pregnancy through a child’s fifth birthday.

Program coordinator Lisa Green said she hopes the program will be ready to start helping families by July 2015. In addition to providing practical necessities like diapers, clothing and food, Prepares will also connect families with professional services and parish-based volunteer mentors.

“We’re walking a journey with the family,” Green said. “As a Catholic community we can’t just say, ‘We want you to choose life’ — we have to support them in that choice as well.”

Northwest Catholic - October 2014