On Being Consistently Pro-Life–How Working with the Poor Changes your Faith

On Being Consistently Pro-Life–How Working with the Poor Changes your Faith January 10, 2008

I have often been told that one does not become truly “pro-life” until one actually obeys Jesus Christ and ministers to the lesser brethren (cf. Matthew 25). Then, I am told, respect for life in its totality is finally and truly gained, for life consists in the full duration of one’s living existence. Well, such was the case for Jeffrey Reed, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, who was assigned to Casa Juan Diego as part of his seminary formation. He relates how true, integrated Catholicism is found in service. Here’s a portion of an article he wrote for the November/December 2007 Houston Catholic Worker:

Five years ago, when I seriously began to discern the priesthood, my self-description was a “conservative Catholic” or, often, “an American Catholic.”

My presuppositions were rooted in a particular understanding of the Church that was largely shaped by American conservative ideology more than authentic Catholic teaching. For example, in advocating the pro-life position, I often appealed more to the evil of Roe vs. Wade than to the positive Gospel affirmation of the sanctity of all human life. I often appealed to the Declaration of Independence and its statement that the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are to be protected for every citizen, rather than to our rich faith tradition that is replete with a consistent Gospel of Life. When I heard the words “social justice”, my conservative ideology would wave a warning flag, indicating that a “leftist agenda” was afoot. When I heard about Dorothy Day, I almost reflexively dismissed her as a “leftist agitator.” When I first heard of the Catholic Worker Movement, I categorized it under the heading “leftist” and was closed to discerning any validity in the positions of the movement. I listened to talk radio religiously, often subjected my family and friends to conservative tirades that I inaccurately labeled as Catholic ones, and often railed against the “liberal Catholics” who were undermining to the True Faith. In short, I was a very myopic Catholic who embraced certain issues of the faith that were palatable to my ideology, and dismissed others that did not fit into my presuppositional conservative framework. All the while, I believed that I was a “true Catholic” defending the faith against those “liberals, socialists and communists” who were “diluting the truth” in favor of a “political agenda” (in retrospect, I recognize the irony).

By the grace of God, I was gifted with friends, spiritual directors and formators who recognized this myopia and charitably called me to task. Particularly poignant was my experience of serving dinner to the poor at a homeless day shelter during my first year of formation. To see the poor up-close widened my field of vision. I recognized, through many discussions with different poor people, that it is very easy to live insulated from the “least among us” and consider them freeloaders in the system, bereft of personal responsi-bility. Their problems were much more profound and their suffering acute. Furthermore, I witnessed how the very “welfare” system that I decried was sometimes the only means of support for the poor. I realized in time that many dimensions of my faith had become subordinated to my ideology. I realized that in order to maintain my narrow ideological stance, I would have to jettison an integral component of my faith: compassion for the poor through social justice ministry. I was now engaged in such ministry, and I experienced some very palpable challenges to my presuppositions that dis-comforted and attracted me simultaneously. Ironically, it was a joy to minister to the suffering because, in a real sense, they were ministering to me, expanding my field of vision, making me more integrally Catholic.

To see Christ in the “least of my brethren” was a slow process of realization, but, by the grace of God, I now realize that in serving them, I am serving Him.

I noticed myself becoming angry when listening to the jeremiads of talk radio hosts against the “freeloading poor” of our society, primarily immi-grants. How myopic, selfish, and ideological! I then slowly began to realize that it was precisely these attitudes that I had held but a short time ago. I also began to be agitated when listening to sonorous “pro-lifers” who were eloquent in their denunciation of the evils of abortion but too often devoid of any intrinsically attractive and positive advocacy of the Gospel of Life. I also noticed that many “conservative” groups used the term veritas more often than caritas in their polemics and literature. I realized as well that to speak the truth without love disserves the Gospel as much as failing to ground love in truth.

I presently help weekly at Casa Juan Diego on Tuesday mornings, assisting in the distribution of food to the poor. I also accompany a seminarian brother to home visits of those who are poor and ill. To see such acute suffering personally, to attempt to minister to those who suffer, to be an advocate for their cause in a society that is deaf to their pleas for justice, to be a genuine Catholic in a politicized and ideological environment—these have been monumental challenges for me. I notice now the injustice of the system to which I formerly adhered. By the grace of God, I believe that my “faith field of vision” has widened, and that I must be faith-driven as a priest, not ideology-driven.

I also notice something else—I am still very pro-life, pro-family and orthodox. As written above, I believe that my field of vision has been widened to a more integrated Catholicism . I feel I am more fully Catholic than I was five years ago. And this last point speaks to the theme I introduced at the beginning of this article: integration.

I recognize in hindsight that my Catholicism of the recent past saw one part of the big picture. Any dimension of the faith that did not complement what I was comfortable with I considered threatening or “liberal.” Just as I was dismissive of so-called “social justice Catholics”, I have witnessed a comparable dismissiveness among some of those involved in social justice ministry. At times such people deny the legitimacy and sincerity of such apostolates as the pro-life movement and pro-marriage movements, for example. We must move beyond an “adjective Catholicism” and towards an integrated Catholicism. We must talk to each other and support each other. Saint Paul aptly describes that each of us has his or her particular gifts. Some are more gifted for immigration advocacy, others for the pro-life movement. Some are more disposed to missionary work in poor countries, others to apologetics. Some are called to participate in Pax Christi, others to follow the spirituality of Opus Dei. Each of these gifts is complementary to the other.

There are a variety of vocations in the one Church that are compleme-ntary, not contradictory. He who has the gift of serving the poor should not look disdainfully on he who focuses his energy on advocating the pro-life message. She who advocates the traditional family should not look disdainfully on she who advocates the human rights of the immigrant. Each of us has his or her unique gifts, given by God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the Mystical Body of Christ.

A feature of the original Pentecost experience was that each of those present spoke different languages but all could understand each other because it was the one Spirit that animated them all. We are unique and diverse pieces grafted onto the one mosaic of faith. Through my experience, I have come to realize that Christianity is bigger than the particular apostolate to which I have been called, but it is inclusive of it. I pray that I may live my mission faithfully in the world as a priest and utilize the gifts that God has given me humbly and faithfully as a priest. I shall also seek to respect and encourage those who are gifted with different gifts. May we all seek to understand and respect each other’s gifts; unity in diversity; one Spirit, many gifts: Catholics, each living his or her vocation to their fullest potential, building up the Kingdom of God. Catholics.

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  • We must move beyond an “adjective Catholicism” and towards an integrated Catholicism.

    Nice.

    Thanks for the story.

  • We must move beyond an “adjective Catholicism” and towards an integrated Catholicism.

    Nice.

    Thanks for the story.

  • I think many of us have had this realization at one point in time or another. It took me some time and depth in my own theological studies to see the fullness of the Gospel of Life and its integral unity. More than anyone else, Vladimir Solovyov and his works on moral theology influenced me here; everything else that I had read and not seen became an open book, as it were.

    The point is, for some it takes working with the poor to see it, for others, they can be led to it in other ways. But I agree, even if they are led in other ways, it must in some way come back to real life interaction as well.

  • I think many of us have had this realization at one point in time or another. It took me some time and depth in my own theological studies to see the fullness of the Gospel of Life and its integral unity. More than anyone else, Vladimir Solovyov and his works on moral theology influenced me here; everything else that I had read and not seen became an open book, as it were.

    The point is, for some it takes working with the poor to see it, for others, they can be led to it in other ways. But I agree, even if they are led in other ways, it must in some way come back to real life interaction as well.

  • This post expresses something I’ve been feeling for awhile. Namely, the “culture war” battles fought here and elsewhere in the Catholic Blogosphere are symptoms of a wider cultural battle, but can lead us to forget the things we have in common.

  • This post expresses something I’ve been feeling for awhile. Namely, the “culture war” battles fought here and elsewhere in the Catholic Blogosphere are symptoms of a wider cultural battle, but can lead us to forget the things we have in common.

  • radicalcatholicmom

    He expressed eloquently my own process of conversion with different circumstances.

  • radicalcatholicmom

    He expressed eloquently my own process of conversion with different circumstances.

  • Daniel H. Conway

    Peter Maurin termed the houses of hospitality as centers of learning. This is what he was talking about.

    Two important processes are notable-one is identifying Christ in the poor, and the second, while not touched upon here much, is being served by the poor. This second point is the most difficult and humiliating for many.

  • Daniel H. Conway

    Peter Maurin termed the houses of hospitality as centers of learning. This is what he was talking about.

    Two important processes are notable-one is identifying Christ in the poor, and the second, while not touched upon here much, is being served by the poor. This second point is the most difficult and humiliating for many.

  • arewak

    This man perfectly outlines the reasons for my contempt for some that post here…they can quote tomes of literature but have no clue what Catholicism is about. Experience taught me and I’m hopeful that it will do the same for our Vox Nova brethren.

  • arewak

    This man perfectly outlines the reasons for my contempt for some that post here…they can quote tomes of literature but have no clue what Catholicism is about. Experience taught me and I’m hopeful that it will do the same for our Vox Nova brethren.

  • I agree with arewak, and would like to pose the following question: how is it that this man can characterize all Catholics who consider themselves to be politically conservative?

    If, as he says, his vision of the faith was myopic, it does not follow that everyone who he used to agree with also has a myopic understanding of Catholicism. It does not follow that everyone who agreed with him is trapped in some sort of cultural or ideological prison, as he would like us to believe.

    It is insulting to assume this is the case.

  • I agree with arewak, and would like to pose the following question: how is it that this man can characterize all Catholics who consider themselves to be politically conservative?

    If, as he says, his vision of the faith was myopic, it does not follow that everyone who he used to agree with also has a myopic understanding of Catholicism. It does not follow that everyone who agreed with him is trapped in some sort of cultural or ideological prison, as he would like us to believe.

    It is insulting to assume this is the case.

  • Another way to make this point: you don’t have to support the welfare state to be integrally Catholic or consistently pro-life. There are ways to pursue social justice and serve the poor that don’t involve the government.

  • Another way to make this point: you don’t have to support the welfare state to be integrally Catholic or consistently pro-life. There are ways to pursue social justice and serve the poor that don’t involve the government.

  • ben

    You know, I had a similar experience, but from the other side. In college I had spent a lot of time working on affordable housing and education projects for the disadvantaged, but then I got to know some pro-lifers, discovered they were loving, compassionate, and deeply concerned people who continually give their lives over to the cause of defending the least among us and endure the continual scorn of the rest of society–even most of those who work with the poor,

    The witness of their love converted me. When I was 21 I was the president of the College Democrats, committed to the politics of NARAL, and very excited when I had the Chance to meet Hillary in 1992.

    Today I’m the father of 8.

    The witness of Love destroys our commitments to the culture of death.

  • ben

    You know, I had a similar experience, but from the other side. In college I had spent a lot of time working on affordable housing and education projects for the disadvantaged, but then I got to know some pro-lifers, discovered they were loving, compassionate, and deeply concerned people who continually give their lives over to the cause of defending the least among us and endure the continual scorn of the rest of society–even most of those who work with the poor,

    The witness of their love converted me. When I was 21 I was the president of the College Democrats, committed to the politics of NARAL, and very excited when I had the Chance to meet Hillary in 1992.

    Today I’m the father of 8.

    The witness of Love destroys our commitments to the culture of death.

  • Policraticus

    Ben,

    Hopefully you are not bringing “affordable housing and education projects for the disadvantaged” and NARAL under the umbrella of “the culture of death.” It’s one thing to move away from a politic, quite another to be converted from helping the disadvantaged.

  • Policraticus

    Ben,

    Hopefully you are not bringing “affordable housing and education projects for the disadvantaged” and NARAL under the umbrella of “the culture of death.” It’s one thing to move away from a politic, quite another to be converted from helping the disadvantaged.

  • Policraticus

    Another way to make this point: you don’t have to support the welfare state to be integrally Catholic or consistently pro-life. There are ways to pursue social justice and serve the poor that don’t involve the government.

    Many popes would disagree with you, but by all means, outline your cosmic trust in the good of local communities.

  • Policraticus

    Another way to make this point: you don’t have to support the welfare state to be integrally Catholic or consistently pro-life. There are ways to pursue social justice and serve the poor that don’t involve the government.

    Many popes would disagree with you, but by all means, outline your cosmic trust in the good of local communities.

  • Jonathan

    Policraticus,

    Better yet, give refences to the “many popes” to which you refer, and specific statements or links to them so that we may better understand where you come from, and if there are any counterarguments to be made.

    Thank you!

  • Jonathan

    Policraticus,

    Better yet, give refences to the “many popes” to which you refer, and specific statements or links to them so that we may better understand where you come from, and if there are any counterarguments to be made.

    Thank you!

  • ben

    Policraticus,

    Now why would you think that?

    Surely no one assumed that the young seminarian scaled back his comitment to the unborn, he deepened it.

  • ben

    Policraticus,

    Now why would you think that?

    Surely no one assumed that the young seminarian scaled back his comitment to the unborn, he deepened it.

  • arewak

    Zach, not sure you were following…I agree with the article 100%.

  • arewak

    Zach, not sure you were following…I agree with the article 100%.

  • haha!

    you’re right arewak, I wasn’t following you. I thought your contempt was directed at the implicit insults frequently hurled at Catholics who disagree with the Democratic party’s plan for this nation’s poor.

  • haha!

    you’re right arewak, I wasn’t following you. I thought your contempt was directed at the implicit insults frequently hurled at Catholics who disagree with the Democratic party’s plan for this nation’s poor.

  • Policraticus

    Better yet, give refences to the “many popes” to which you refer, and specific statements or links to them so that we may better understand where you come from, and if there are any counterarguments to be made.

    Check out the extensive list of papal social teaching in the sidebar. Start with just the encyclicals…perhaps John XXXIII, Benedict XVI and Paul VI would make things clearest for you. I’m glad you’re willing to read them.

  • Policraticus

    Better yet, give refences to the “many popes” to which you refer, and specific statements or links to them so that we may better understand where you come from, and if there are any counterarguments to be made.

    Check out the extensive list of papal social teaching in the sidebar. Start with just the encyclicals…perhaps John XXXIII, Benedict XVI and Paul VI would make things clearest for you. I’m glad you’re willing to read them.

  • Policraticus

    I thought your contempt was directed at the implicit insults frequently hurled at Catholics who disagree with the Democratic party’s plan for this nation’s poor.

    I think you mean at Catholics who agree with the Republican Party’s plan for the nation’s poor. Free market economics is about as good at solving the nation’s poverty problem as Planned Parenthood is at providing prenatal care!

  • Policraticus

    I thought your contempt was directed at the implicit insults frequently hurled at Catholics who disagree with the Democratic party’s plan for this nation’s poor.

    I think you mean at Catholics who agree with the Republican Party’s plan for the nation’s poor. Free market economics is about as good at solving the nation’s poverty problem as Planned Parenthood is at providing prenatal care!

  • No, I don’t mean that.

  • No, I don’t mean that.

  • Policraticus

    Well then in your case, Zach, thought certainly does not correlate with reality.

  • Policraticus

    Well then in your case, Zach, thought certainly does not correlate with reality.

  • That, or you don’t know how to read.

  • That, or you don’t know how to read.