Have you ever wondered why it can sometimes be so much easier to find common ground in discussion with non-Catholics than it is with fellow Catholics? Some months ago, I encountered a Traditionalist Catholic and a Planned Parenthood activist on the same day, and came away asking myself that very question.
The day began when I was catching up on the latest on dits in the Catholic blogosphere. I was surprised to find mention on the Traditionalist Catholic news site, The Remnant, of a nearly decade-old blog post of mine that I wrote when I was a contributor to fellow apologist Jimmy Akin’s personal blog. In a blog post in which he was seeking to excoriate Jimmy, Remnant contributor Christopher Ferrara used my blog post as evidence of Jimmy’s supposed hostility to Catholic Traditionalism.
“Well, this should be easy to fix,” I told myself. So I set about to try to contact Ferrara through Facebook to inform him that the post was mine, that my original byline had been lost during changes to Jimmy’s blog over the past decade, and that a correction on that point of his blog post would be in order. I didn’t have much hope that Ferrara would react civilly to being informed that he had made an inadvertent error in attributing my blog post to Jimmy, but I did figure he would at least add an update to the original blog post noting the information he had received from me.
After a frustrating day spent jousting back and forth with Ferrara, I had to admit to myself that I had wasted my time. The nutshell version of Ferrara’s immediate response was:
The moment Jimmy Akin tells me your piece does not reflect his views, I will publish his retraction of the piece he published and featured on his website. Have him contact me like a man, instead of having you take responsibility for what he published and blame it all on a computer glitch.
Later he would write a blog post on the exchange titled Whodunnit? (Someone Else at Catholic Answers Claims Authorship of Post by Jimmy Akin) and introduce the post with this comment:
Someone named Michelle Arnold, a Catholic Answers Staff Apologist, contacted The Remnant today to advise that she wrote the piece at JimmyAkin.com under Jimmy Akin’s byline from which I quoted yesterday (emphasis in the original).
Evidently, Christopher Ferrara thinks that I have nothing better to do with my time than to run around claiming authorship of essays that were really written by a colleague, someone who could have easily disputed my “claim” if I was in fact attempting to pass off his work as my own.
(Nota bene: Some may wonder why that old blog post still does not carry my byline many months after this incident. When we discussed the matter, Jimmy offered to go into his blog and fix the byline. I told him not to put himself to the trouble just to satisfy Christopher Ferrara.)
At the end of that frustrating day, I was tired and discouraged. I decided to drown my sorrows in window-shopping for books at a local mall. On the way into the bookstore, I noticed someone with a clipboard waylaying shoppers. Not at all interested in whatever she was hawking, I quickly sidestepped her and headed into the store. My heart wasn’t into browsing though, so I wasn’t in the store very long. I exited to find the woman with the clipboard still standing at the door, and this time I couldn’t avoid her.
As it turned out, she was specifically seeking to talk to the women shoppers.
“Hi, I’m from the local Planned Parenthood,” she began. “And I was wondering if I could talk with you about what we’re doing to work for women’s rights. We’re gathering signatures for legislation to protect women’s reproductive health. Would you be interested in signing?”
I realized that I was going to have to engage her, and that I had only a few seconds to figure out how to frame my refusal to sign her petition in such a way that it would not instigate an unpleasant scene—something I was especially eager to avoid after the day I’d already had.
“I’m pro-choice,” I said, knowing that this affirmation would give us common ground. “I support all of women’s choices. I can’t sign the petition because Planned Parenthood performs abortions.”
Before we go further, let’s look more closely at what I said here.
- “I’m pro-choice.” In its most literal definition, to be “pro-choice” means to support choice, to be “for” choice. It means to support human free will. The term has become a euphemism for abortion advocacy, but I believe it can and should be reclaimed by pro-life advocates as an affirmation of the human right to use the God-given gift of free will. That is the sense in which I could say with complete honesty to a Planned Parenthood activist that I am “pro-choice.”
- “I support all of women’s choices.” I must admit I used some mental reservation here. If I were in a court of law, I’d have to clarify that I support all of women’s morally legitimate choices. I don’t consider abortion to be a morally legitimate choice, and so I do not support abortion. But I do support all of the morally legitimate choices a woman has when faced with a crisis pregnancy, such as raising the child alone, marrying the father to create a family for the child, or giving up the child for adoption to an already-established family. In this situation, I did not consider it necessary to offer that clarification unless I was directly asked. (For a more in-depth explanation of how Catholics understand the nature of free choice, please see this article by Mark Shea, which was published in Catholic Answers’ magazine, This Rock, now titled Catholic Answers Magazine.)
- “I can’t sign the petition because. . . .” After having affirmed those truths we both held, here is where I felt I could state to the activist my opposition to Planned Parenthood and why I could not sign the petition she offered me.
How did the conversation proceed from there? Quite well. The activist accepted my refusal to sign with equanimity. She offered a defense of Planned Parenthood, of course, which I listened to attentively. I did not change my mind, but we parted with a handshake and her comment that “I respect your position.”
As I drove home, I thought about the two exchanges I had that day. Why was it, I wondered, that I could more easily establish common ground with a Planned Parenthood activist than I had been able to do with a fellow Catholic? Here are a few of the conclusions I reached:
- I approached Christopher Ferrara with far less care than I did the Planned Parenthood activist. I was braced for attack from both, but I was more careful in how I chose my words with the activist. In all honesty, I did not use that same care in how I phrased my end of the exchange with Ferrara. Would having done so made a difference? I don’t know, and I’ll never know now if the same care I used in the second exchange might have altered the tone of the first exchange.
- There’s also the fact that we tend to treat “family” with less diplomacy than we do “strangers.” Whatever my differences with Ferrara over matters of faith, he is a brother in Christ. One reason why even the most successful evangelists don’t often convert their own relatives is because the old adage that “familiarity breeds contempt” is absolutely true. We tend to treat those closer to us more brusquely than we do those at a distance.
- And, frankly, the activist was seeking to convince me of her position, while Ferrara had no such incentive to play nicely.
In the end, I realized, there was fault on both sides in my exchange with Christopher Ferrara. I could have made more of an effort to frame my approach with all of the diplomacy and (if necessary) the mental reservation necessary to achieve my goal of obtaining a correction. And, yes, he could have been more considerate in his response to me.
If only all Catholics could treat each other with the same courtesy that many Catholics very naturally extend to those outside the faith.