Dear Pope Francis,
Lately, I’ve noticed a resurgence of negative energy around the abortion debate. This topic always stirs up conflict in me. I’m not conflicted about Church teaching, as I firmly believe in the dignity of every human person from conception to natural death. I feel conflicted because I worry about how that message is being taught and received.
On the one hand, we are told to preach the Gospel, to go and make disciples of all the world (Matthew 28:19). When we look to the Gospels for examples of how Jesus did this, we see there are a few examples in his ministry. Jesus got angry, he flipped tables in the temple (Matthew 21:12). He told it straight, “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). He is “the narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13-14). But, there are many other instances where Jesus was a little more pastoral. He healed the sick and brought the dead to life. He taught in parables using common analogies so his followers might be able to understand something.
Often times in the Church, especially when it comes to issues around abortion and human dignity, I see people using Jesus’ first tactic, the in-your-face, highly emotional strategy. They might wave signs or chant or distribute pamphlets. I realize that some people might respond to this, and the average passerby could experience a moment of grace and openness to God.
However, more often than not, I see people become defensive and angry. The conversation shuts down. No matter how many times the person waving the banner or passing out pamphlets might say, “I respect you”, it falls on deaf ears because there person receiving the message sees a disconnect.. Pictures like the one here point out seemingly weak spots in the pro-life rhetoric. The conversation becomes an argument, often played out in newspapers, social media and blogs, where both sides seem to try to drown the other out in order to prove their point.
This bothers me, so much so that I very rarely wade into conversations about abortion, even with other Catholics. The whole issue is so polarizing, that it seems almost impossible to have a genuine conversation about it, and especially with someone I hardly know. What makes it even harder is when the conversation is done electronically and you lose the non-verbal communication.
I’m not saying that we need to stop all advocacy and public displays. I do think that some people will respond, and that some Catholics are genuinely called to this work. However, in the spirit of the New Evangelization, I think we need to focus on building real relationships and witnessing to the Gospel with our very lives.
When I talk to many people, especially who aren’t Catholic or Catholics who don’t practice, they tell me that they think you, Pope Francis, are doing great work, because you are living the Gospel in every way. You show compassion and mercy and humility. You don’t just preach a gospel of love and forgiveness; you live it in your life. You show people an authentic witness, and tackle problems head on. You are true to your word.
I wonder how many people we could reach if all Catholics lived like that. If we all genuinely entered into relationships with people, whether or not they were Catholic, without the intention to convert, but to love them and meet them where they’re at. Jesus told us to turn the other cheek and not fight back. The literal meaning of this sounds painful. Really, who wants to get slapped twice? But, what about figuratively? I think to turn the other cheek figuratively is to love. It is to know the other person, and even when we disagree with them, to love and accept them anyway.
A relationship based on love needs to be respectful and genuine. This is known by our actions as much as our words. When there is mutual trust and respect, there can be conversation. It is in these relationships built on trust, respect, and most importantly love, that controversial issues can be brought up effectively. Again, these conversations can’t be about converting the other person, only God’s grace can do that, but we can talk about our beliefs without forcing them down the other person’s throat.
This takes time, and lots of different Catholics, but Jesus didn’t just tell a few people to preach Gospel, he told everyone to preach the Gospel. In order to do that effectively, we need live genuine lives and have genuine relationships. Yes, we might need to challenge someone, or encourage them to think in a new way, which can be painful and strain the relationship. But when challenge comes from a friend, a parent, a respected teacher or church leader, then there can be more receptivity to the new idea. When it is done in a way that demonstrates care and concern, and in the context of a relationship where there has been respect and love, then the Gospel can be passed on more effectively.