Monday, April 14, 2008

'Compassion Forum' and the Child in the Womb

By Deacon Keith Fournier
Catholic Online, original HERE...

The "Compassion Forum" showed that even professed Christians can be tragically wrong on some of the most vital issues.

LOS ANGELES (Catholic Online) - Messiah College in Grantham Pennsylvania, the State where the next, and possibly decisive, Primary election will be held, hosted the first ever “Compassion Forum” to address “Faith in Public Life” on Sunday evening.

The event presented an opportunity for the two Democratic contenders for the presidency to discuss how their professed Christian faith informed their political participation and would influence their leadership if they should attain the highest office in the land.

At the end of the forum it was announced that Senator McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, was unable to attend. However, the host added that another forum including the Senator will be held.

So, the night belonged to Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama.

Given the landscape of this volatile topic, such an event had great value. It certainly presented a Democratic party which has finally realized the vital importance that faith, and the values informed by faith, has for much of the American electorate and the historic role that such faith informed values have played in the American experience.

In the past election cycle, this entire topic was presumed to be an area reserved for more for some Republicans. However, with the demise of the so called “religious right”, a topic which I have addressed at length, the field is now open for a new discussion and a new look at a social justice and human rights agenda as it is properly informed by religious values.

The forum was hosted with real professionalism by CNN's Campbell Brown and Newsweek's Jon Meacham. The two hosts posed most of the questions but later relied upon a select group of ministers from various religious traditions and activists such as Jim Wallace of Sojourners, an evangelical Social Justice outreach.

With far ranging topics spanning such existential questions as “Why does a loving God allow innocent people to suffer” to surprisingly blunt issue focused questions such as “Do you believe that life begins at conception”, the forum was well worth watching.

It showcased the very real role that faith plays in the life of both Democratic contenders. It also showed this editorialist what history has long proved, that even professed Christians can be tragically wrong on some of the most vital issues, especially when their Christianity is not anchored in the 2000 year history of the Apostolic Tradition.

Senator Clinton was first up. This time, she requested it, having won the coin toss. She personally described her own Christian faith and attempted to explain her experience of the work of the Holy Spirit in her personal life. It was a bit awkward in its manner but probably sincere.

On the day of this “Compassion Forum”, the Clinton Presidential campaign had released a new advertisement where the candidate spoke of her efforts to "climb the mountain," saying "I don't think that I could have made my life's journey without being anchored in God's grace and without having that, you know, sense of forgiveness and unconditional love... "

In the advertisement the candidate continues with these words “...some of my struggles and challenges have been extremely public...And I have talked about how I have been both guided and supported through those, trying to find my own way through, because, for me, my faith has given me the confidence to make decisions that were right for me, whether anybody else agreed with me or not."

During her time at bat in this “Compassion Forum” she continued in this verbal vein, using many of the same words revealed in the advertisement.

She also pledged to surround herself with people who do not agree with her on some of the fundamental issues which are touched upon and informed by faith. It was no accident that the camera panned on several occasions to the former Mayor of Boston, Ray Flynn, a Pro-life Democrat who is a surrogate for the Senator, as if to underscore her point.

As long as the questions stayed somewhat generic and “personal” in their religious tone, the candidate acquitted herself well, espousing a kind of personal evangelical Christianity with a commendable concern for, at least some, of the poor.

However, when Newsweek's Jon Meacham asked “Do you believe that life begins at conception”, the civil veneer disappeared. Senator Clinton, a member of the Methodist Church, sought to position the comments which followed within the “Methodist tradition” which she said has “struggled” with this issue.

First of all this so called “struggle” is a relatively new anomaly in the history of the Methodist tradition, which finds its roots first in Anglicanism, and then, as do all Christian traditions, within Apostolic Christianity. Up until the Anglican Lambeth conferences of the early 20th century, most major Protestant denominations
took the unbroken position of the ancient Apostolic Christian tradition, stretching back to the first centuries of Christianity, that every procured abortion constitutes a grave moral offense as the taking of innocent human life.

In addition, John Wesley, the Anglican cleric credited with the origins of Methodism, would have been surprised by Senator Clintons’ response. He was the 15th child born to a poor preacher and his wife. Certainly, his family encountered precisely the kind of situation which, in Senator Clintons “compassion” lens, would have provided a ripe terrain for making the so called “difficult” choice to terminate the young Wesley in the womb through abortion. His mother instead chose life.

The candidate then proceeded to mouth the mantra of a new verbal offensive among many, in both the Democratic and Republican Parties, who support what I call the “Wrong choice movement” telling the millions who were watching “I believe that ‘potential’ life exists at conception”. She continued “... I have concluded, our task should be that individuals should be able to make this personal decision”.

She salted her sophistry with the other mantra of the advocates of the “Wrong Choice movement” and its newly “compassionate” rhetoric by espousing her understanding that such choices are difficult, followed by her assertion that taking the life of innocent children in the womb by a form of execution should be “legal safe and rare.”

It was what followed this discussion which was even more incredible to this observer.

She pointed to her opposition to China’s forced abortion policy, a position which I certainly share. However, in a strange verbal maneuver, she then referred to another experience, telling the viewers that under the dictatorial reign of a Marxist despot, Romanian women had been somehow forced to bear a lot of children. Her effort was to apparently make some kind of moral claim of equivalency by arguing that both situations removed the free agency of the woman in the so called “choice”. The comparison was patently absurd.

When Senator Barack Obama took the stage, he fared no better on this vital litmus test of real compassion. The dignity of every human life must be just that for anyone who understands the real gravity of the issues surrounding legal abortion on demand.

After all, if children in the first home of the whole human race, the womb of their mother, are human persons - and our medical science confirms what our conscience and the Natural law have long confirmed that they are - then their intentional destruction through lethal injection, surgical dismemberment or suction is a heinous act and always a wrong choice.

His demeanor and manner in handling the initial questions concerning his personal Christian convictions seemed much more substantive and reflective than his opponents. He referred to himself as a “devout Christian” and spoke of God’s intervention in human history. He indicated that he seeks to act in a manner in his entire life that conforms to God’s will.

He bore “witness” to his own turn to the Christian faith, having been raised in a non-religious home, in a manner which I am sure delighted many who were watching. He seemed much more comfortable addressing some of the issues which arise at the intersection of faith and culture, telling the assembled crowd and the millions viewing by television "...religion is a bulwark, a foundation when other things aren't going well. That's true in my own life, through trials and tribulations. ..."

He then asserted: "I am a devout Christian ... I started my work working with churches in the shadow of steel plants that had closed on the south side of Chicago ...Nobody in a presidential campaign on the Democratic side in recent memory has done more to reach out to the church and talk about, what are our obligations religiously, in terms of doing good works, and how does that inform our politics?"

Unlike Clinton, Obama at least mentioned that there is a moral dimension to the discussion of abortion and noted that “... those of us who are “pro-choice” need to acknowledge it as a moral issue”. He spoke of what he called the “sacredness of sexuality” as he presented his views on the importance of sex education for minors. However, he also made clear that, along with abstinence, he supports the teaching of contraception to children.

The hosts asked Senator Obama the same bellwether question, whether he believed that life begins at conception. He waffled. However, he did not hide behind some perceived denominational struggle like his opponent. Instead he made a glancing reference to a leftover archaic discussion which was predicated more upon medievalist biology then the trajectory of the Christian tradition, referring to the concept of “en-soulment”.

Based on this, he indicated that he did not know the answer to when life begins. Sadly, the result was the same. He called the child in the womb, presumably for all nine months, only “potential life”.

He, like Clinton, made reference to surrounding himself with those who disagree on this issue. And, there in the audience was Pro-Life Catholic Senator Bob Casey. At that moment I thought of my friend, Professor Doug Kmiec, another Pro-Life Catholic. And I grieved for the state of things.

In some respects, Senator Obama’s treatment of the concern over the dignity of human life was more distressing to this observer; partly because it was so articulate and intelligent in its delivery. In response to questions from Evangelical Protestant Ministers, he went further, apparently supporting at least passive, if not active, euthanasia.

He articulated a real grasp of and commitment to a stewardship of the environment. He supported faith based initiatives and demonstrated a real appreciation of the role of mediating institutions in the delivery of compassion. He gave an eloquent presentation on the role of faith in the Public Square.

He presented a reflective vision of a kind of religiously informed principled pluralism. Finally, in response to a good question from Evangelical Jim Wallace of Sojourners, he committed himself to an aggressive vision for promoting the advancement of economic justice.

As a Catholic Christian, steeped in and committed to the Social teaching of the Catholic Church, I was profoundly disappointed that neither candidate was asked questions by a Catholic Christian, even though, some were in the gathered assembly.

Perhaps if they had been, the viewers would have been given more than a disconnected presentation of the growing palate of issues emerging in the evangelical Protestant community’s commendable concern for social justice.

In the Catholic Social Justice tradition, the foundation of all social justice issues is the human person and his or her dignity, at every age and stage of human existence. It is only in such a holistic and integrated vision that the entirety of all the Social justice issues makes real sense.

Instead, the so called “Compassion Forum” failed to deliver.

The etymological root of the word “Compassion” is “Compassio”, meaning to “suffer with”. The Democratic Party in its new iteration has made some headway in its proper critique of some within the other major Party who seem to be more concerned about unborn children than those who are born.

However, it is never compassionate to take innocent human life, at any age or stage.

A truly just vision for the Social order, and true Compassion, must start with the dignity of every human person. It must “suffer with” those whom Mother Teresa called the “poorest of the poor”, those in the womb who have no voice but our own.

Then, it must work out from there, by creating a truly just social and economic order which protects and defends every human life, promotes human flourishing, fosters solidarity and serves the common good.

The “Compassion Forum” left the Child in the Womb out of the conversation.