By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
Recently I had a dream. The U.S. bishops were meeting at a conference, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), over Zoom.
They were gathered for their semiannual meeting, always held in June. Initially, these spring meetings were scheduled primarily for the bishops’ own spiritual development, something like a retreat. But in recent years matters alleged to be more important have impinged on that focus.
The matter that primarily occupied the bishops at their meeting in my dream was what to do about the conference’s relationship with Catholic politicians.
As it turned out in my dream, the deliberations were rooted in a long history, dating all the way back to 1973 -- 48 years ago -- when the U.S Supreme Court ruled in the cases Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton that abortion was legal in the U.S.
The Jan. 22, 1973, ruling had caught the bishops by surprise. At first they had no idea how to proceed. While none of them supported that decision, a great many of them weighed in across a wide range of media regarding how to react. It was the same with lay Catholic pundits across the ideological spectrum. There was no shortage of ideas. But none of them seemed to gain traction outside various narrow constituencies.
At times it seemed that these Catholic voices had more of a quarrel with each other than with the majority on the Supreme Court. But in my dream the bishops’ perspectives had begun to converge by June of that year.
They were beginning to see their way to a bold, unprecedented, faith-filled response to the daunting challenge.
The bishops started to come together only after one of them chided the others: “Why did we need these Supreme Court decisions to awaken us to the problem? Why weren’t we reaching out on a much broader scale to women with problem pregnancies eons ago. And what excuse do we have now, after the fact, to not assist these women with their burdens and save the lives of their babies?”
The bishops weighed those words with heavy hearts, chastened by their lack of vision at the time. It was a turning point – toward more mercy and less judgment.
By their annual November meeting, in my dream, they had come together and built a consensus to launch an initiative designed, as they explained, “to make abortion virtually obsolete in the United States.”
Their idea was to develop a nationwide ministry of outreach and care to any woman with a problem pregnancy, no questions asked. Their ministry would offer the women counseling, emotional support, concrete assistance and housing for her, leading up to the birth of her baby – and after, until arrangements could be made for the mother and child to thrive together more or less on their own.
They learned that was a gradual process, sometimes taking years.
Their outreach was a bold initiative. And an expensive one, rivaled only by the church’s support for Catholic education. Inevitably, it also engaged the church’s other big ministry, Catholic health care.
But the bishops bet the size of their huge commitment could actually contribute to their success.
They anticipated that church members would be inspired by their vision of making abortion obsolete and step up to support their life-saving ministry in every parish and diocese in the nation.
Now, 48 years later, the bishops were reflecting on what their bold, faith-filled commitment in 1973 had accomplished. It was an inspiring list.
- After an initial surge in abortions in the mid-70s as the bishops labored to develop their ministry in all 190-some dioceses in the country, the ministry eventually grew to serve almost 1.5 million women each year -- women who might otherwise chose abortion and take the lives of their unborn children.
- The ministry not only saved babies’ lives, it saved mothers’ lives too. Recognizing that almost all women who chose abortion do so because they felt they have no better alternative, the bishops’ initiative had, in fact, provided millions of women with a whole host of better alternatives – giving them a solid, reliable, consistent social support network with which to build their own personal support networks, including job skills, counseling and ongoing guidance and support.
- Women who decided that they truly weren’t ready to assume the responsibilities for motherhood were helped too. They were connected to eager couples aching to be parents. In the past 48 years, those couples grew to number in the millions, as did the number of adoptees placed in loving, supportive homes.
- The effort was so extensive and had such dramatic results that it became a virtual “brand” of the Catholic Church in America – much like Catholic Charities had earlier given the church a brand as the go-to place for adoptions.
- Many of these women, filled with gratitude for the church’s help and their incredible, healthy, thriving babies, decided to join the church. Many of them had gradually joined the various ministries that served other women in need.
- Non-Catholic couples who adopted children were also drawn in their gratitude to church membership and active participation in the life of the church.
- Of secondary importance, surveys showed this achievement more than offset negative perceptions formed in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and the horror stories coming out of native residential schools and Catholic facilities for unwed mothers from decades earlier. The church was both doing good and much better than it had done in the past.
For nearly half a century, if you or someone you knew was experiencing a problem pregnancy, the Catholic Church was America’s go-to place for help. You could go to its residential care facilities. You could call a hotline. Or if transportation was a problem, you could just show up at the front door of your local Catholic parish office.
If you needed transportation to doctors or vocational services, Catholics would provide it. If you needed someone to accompany you, Catholics were there for you. If you needed childcare for little ones, Catholics stepped up and babysat.
Whenever and wherever you looked for assistance of any sort, there were Catholics -- ready, willing and able to give you a hand, eager to lend you an arm.
It was always about love. It was never about judgment. There was just nothing like it anywhere else in a woman’s world.
And so over those many years Catholics came to be known as the people who helped women in need. It was a distinctive thing. The selfless service, mobilized by a bold vision and led by church leaders, became the Catholic “brand.” That, too, attracted people and led some of them to become Catholic themselves.
Now in June 2021 the bishops were gathering to once again critique and tweak their efforts and to explore what else they might do to help this and other populations of needy people.
They were also planning to discuss ways to help keep their members connected to these efforts as a way to thank, inspire and empower them as disciples.
Truly, one of them noted to shouts of acclimation, that none of what had been accomplished would have been achieved without the active support of the lay faithful. So as part of the meeting’s proceedings, a few especially exemplary lay stewards were to be singled out and honored by the bishops.
There was also the matter of Catholic politicians. The question before the bishops in my dream was how to engage those in office -- especially a U.S. president who was Catholic -- to further discourage abortion by providing more government assistance either for the church’s social ministries or to parallel efforts that would indirectly support and sustain the bishops’ commitment to do the work of Jesus in the world – serving our neighbors to build up the Kingdom of God on earth.
But before that issue could be addressed, I awoke.
In my initial stupor I slowly came to realize that I had been dreaming.
We had not chosen to fight evil primarily by doing good, by serving others in need, by loving our neighbors as Jesus told us we should – by serving sacrificially, until it hurt. We had chosen instead to focus our resources on seeking a legal constraint.
As I left my dream behind and returned to the real world, I took just one thing with me: the sense that perhaps it is not too late for my dream to come true.
Could we convert our culture by serving it rather than condemning it?
I wonder. Do you?