Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Fr. Altman #1 - who is he attacking?

 open letter (first of six)

RE: meet one of the people you consigned to hell


Dear Fr. Altman,

I’m a healthy-medicine guy, with six doses in hand. Some of your friends might advise you to slam the door right away!

Our mutual friend Will Goodman has been defending you. I’m responding to your vitriolic attacks on me – not me by name, but me as a representative of a group. Perhaps we can manage an open and honest dialogue.

I am a pro-life Catholic, and a Democrat. You have asserted that people like me must repent or go to hell. Let’s get away from straw men: I’ll explain who I am and why I’m a Democrat, and what was wrong in your sermons. Respectfully, Fr. Altman: I think I have a right to a careful response to reality, not a caricature.

I plan (tentatively) to write six letters: (1) an introduction to a real pro-life Democrat, not some silly ragged straw man; (2) pro-life strategy;  (3) the authority of the Church to teach about morality and justice; (4) the division you exacerbate between social justice activists and pro-lifers; (5) lynching; and (6) Covid-19 and euthanasia.


So who am I?


I wrote Pro-Life Democrat. I am not the only pro-life Democrat, nor the most prominent; but I am among the most prominent.

I was a conscientious objector during the war in Vietnam. While I was doing alternative service, a friend whom I admired and loved told me about her abortion, and wanted my approval of her decision. I was pretty ignorant then, and I didn’t pretend to understand what she was talking about, except that she ended a pregnancy. But if she wanted my support, she had it, right away and without reservation. But then, she went on and on about it; she was upset. So I did some reading, and became convinced that (1) my beloved friend was the mother of a dead child, and (2) she needed to mourn, but (3) she couldn’t because she was in denial. I didn’t know what to do to help her, other than love her and listen, and probably shut up. I don’t think I was any help to her. But the incident transformed my life. My opposition to war expanded to include opposition to abortion, and I never looked back. I didn’t jump on a soapbox right away or anything, but I was a convinced pro-lifer. That was 50 years ago.

The first thing I did publicly was to organize a pilgrimage to Guadalupe to pray for unborn children and their mothers. That was in December 1972: Roe v. Wade was already decided, but had not been made public. At the shrine in Mexico on the feast day, Mexicans assumed we belonged with the other gringos in the sanctuary, and they pushed us up there. But we didn’t belong to that group, and we ended up standing behind the curtains to the left of the altar, alone. We shifted a little, and settled down right under the tilma. In the image, Mary is looking down to her right, our left. We reached up and touched the left corner of the frame of the image. That’s where we were for Mass December 12, 1973, praying for unborn children and their mothers. By God’s grace.

In 1976, I worked in the Ellen McCormack campaign. She ran for President in the Democratic primary, and got was on the ballot in 18 states. I wrote and distributed material on college campuses. (I hope to God that the stuff I wrote then doesn’t re-surface; it was not well done. Whoo-ee.)

Also in 1976, I wrote my first piece about pro-life nonviolence, “Human and Vulnerable.” I wrote it for the National Right to Life Convention, which was in Boston that year.

In 1977, I was a co-founder of the Prolife Nonviolent Action Project. We organized sit-ins at abortion clinics, later called rescues. Our work was modest; we were pleased when we got half a dozen people participating. But we got things started in 50 of the 50 states. Most of the material that people used across the country (and in Australia) was written by a team of three, including me. One of my flyers, “Peaceful Presence,” was used everywhere – all 50 states.

I was the keynote speaker at a LIFE conference in Britain in 1978. I also spoke in Canada and Mexico. I helped organize Rescue Outreach, starting rescues all over Europe. I was invited by Fr. Al Schwarz (Venerable) to build the pro-life movement in Korea. (I declined, but they used my material.)

I was with the first group that went to jail for pro-life nonviolent action. Overall, I was arrested 39 times, although I never served a long sentence.

Some people have dubbed me the “father of the rescue movement.” I’m ambivalent about the label; I got credit for the work of a team. The hard work – that is, the organizing – was done by women, especially Jeanne Gaetano and my sister Lucy O’Keefe. Burke Balch did legal work; Dave Gaetano did press; Leszek Syski led many rescues; John Leary kept us grounded in prayer; we all went to jail. This appellation showed up in a variety of places, including a history of pro-life nonviolence by Jim Risen (LA Times, later NY Times) and Judy Thomas (KC Star) entitled Wrath of Angels, Time magazine, NY Times magazine, and elsewhere.

My articles have appeared in some publications you know, like Homiletic and Pastoral Review and National Catholic Register.

I worked for a dozen years at national RTL groups including National Right to Life Committee, American Life League, and Human Life International. I was a cofounder of my local pregnancy center, and helped Marilyn Szweczyk start pregnancy centers and support groups for post-abortive women (the Gabriel Project) all over Maryland. I worked to get ultrasound equipment into Maryland centers; I failed, but others picked up the idea and succeeded. I helped launch the Population Research Institute. I was the executive director of the American Bioethics Advisory Commission, fighting against human cloning. I was the editor of P.S., the newsletter of Prolifers for Survival.

I worked with Bill O’Reilly (not the TV celebrity) and helped him close 400 abortion clinics in Bangladesh. I do not know the status of his work now; but if it lasted, he may have saved about 15 million unborn children. There were four people who made indispensable contributions to that great work; I was one.

In 2000, I wrote two books – one about the fundamental strategy for pro-lifers, and the other a re-evaluation of the fundamental strategy of our opponents. The first is about nonviolence: Emmanuel, Solidarity: God’s Act, Our Response. The second is about eugenics: The Roots of Racism and Abortion: An Introduction to Eugenics. They are not best-sellers (!), but they remain useful.

In 2012, I embarked on a project of bridge-building. It seemed to me that the pro-life movement was drifting away from its moorings, ignoring the teaching in Scripture and the leadership from the oldest pro-life group in the world (the Catholic Church). The movement was also breaking up old alliances and coalitions and connections, instead of strengthening old ones and forging new ones. The movement was choosing to be smaller, deliberately excluding more and more friends and potential friends. It tied itself more and more tightly to the Republican Party, and alienated Muslims, and immigrants, and feminists, and civil rights activists – and eventually a whole political party! I thought I could focus on one significant bridge and make it strong. So I set out to develop a consistent ethic of hospitality. I thought pro-lifers should embrace the teaching in Scripture and Tradition about strangers, should build strong alliances with immigrants – and stay away from anti-Catholic xenophobes.


So that’s me. I don’t think there’s a pro-lifer on earth who agrees with everything I have said over the past half a century – not even me! But the idea that I am not a serious pro-lifer is crazy.

I would like to talk with you. I think I can help you see some things that you have misunderstood or ignored.


John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Pro-Life Democrat is published

My book is published, and available on Amazon or Kindle.

I still have a draft posted here. The published version is better, of course. Most of the changes were small, but the section on Catholic questions has some changes larger than tinkering. 

Amazon: $6

Kindle: $3

Obviously, I'd prefer it if you bought the book. But the pro-lifers I trust and admire are often kinda dirt poor. If you want a free copy, electronically, lemme know. cavanaughokeefe@gmail.com.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Shaping a tabernacle

The readings at Mass that the Catholic Church uses this week are from the Letter to the Hebrews, and Thursday’s (1/21/2021) reading invites some reflection on tabernacles. Lemme skip around a bit.

So what’s a tabernacle? It’s a tent, with a history – with special reference to the tent which housed the stone tablets of the Law given by God to Moses – the Ark of the Covenant. The tabernacle is a dwelling of sorts, where God dwells in some sort of way.

King David wanted to provide a better dwelling for the Lord. He lived in a palace, but the corner of the universe set aside by the king and his people for the Lord was still a tent. So he was ready and eager to do better. The prophet Nathan said okay; but then slept on it, and returned with a more careful answer. God says no: God will build a house for David instead. And then Nathan talked about the House of David: it’s not made of stone, but is rather a people, a kingdom.

Catholic churches have “tabernacles.” They aren’t tents; they are boxes sitting on the altar in the front of the church. Inside the tabernacle is the Blessed Sacrament, bread that the Lord broke and blessed and distributed to his disciples, saying, “This is my body.”

I’m a Catholic, and I accept the Church’s teaching about transubstantiation. But I am deeply uncomfortable with teaching that starts weird and then goes nowhere. I’m happy to start weird as long as we go somewhere. And let me explain where I think the Lord’s words go: it’s more than a gold box. We understand that tabernacle when we see it radiate.

There wasn’t a tabernacle on the table at the Last Supper. There is no story about the fragments left over after the meal that night. They ate the bread; they consumed the flesh of the sacrifice. Did they do it right? Or was that just a primitive beginning, a Model T? What did the Lord do?

After a person receives Communion, where is the Lord? I’m okay with the tabernacle, but I think that’s a radically incomplete answer. The Lord dwells in his people. The dwelling we construct for him is interesting and useful, but the dwelling the Lord constructs matters more – and that dwelling is not a box; it’s the hearts of his people. That is, it seems to me appropriate to bow before the tabernacle – before all tabernacles – including each child of God. When the rite of Communion is completed – that is, when Mass is over – in a church with – say, for example – 600 people and a tabernacle up front, the Lord dwells sacramentally in 601 places. And half an hour later, the Lord still dwells, sacramentally, in 601 places.

When I walk down the street and pass someone, have I walked past a tabernacle of the Lord? Dunno; likely so. For sure, with tranquil certainty, I can say that this person may be a tabernacle, and should be a tabernacle. But is he/she? Dunno; but prudence demands that I assume so.

I understand that there are some people who are believe, more or less explicitly, a fragmentary thing. They believe that God enters into the hearts and minds and indeed into the bodies of his people – but then, they think, this presence in and among us is fleeting. After a little gastric acid and/or inattention and/or sin on our part, the Lord departs, decamps. He still dwells inside that gold box, but probably not inside me and you, and definitely not inside Joe. So say some people, although they may say it much more elegantly (and obscurely).

I don’t think God is squeamish. He comes to dwell with us – in us! – and he means it. The tabernacle that David wanted to build, and the tabernacles that we want to build, are interesting and useful. But the tabernacle that matters is what the Lord builds. I am / thou art / he/she/it is / we are / you are / they are tabernacle(s). So said God; and if he said it, he did it.

When we think about God’s visits in Scripture, the idea of tabernacle may get clearer. Elijah was in a cave when God visited. Elijah went to entrance of the cave, and saw storms and earthquakes – but found God in the gentle breeze. So God communicated gently: got that. But also, he communicated at the door of the cave. Elijah was in a quiet spot, a place of quiet meditation and contemplation; but God spoke to him as he came out. Not to say as he burst forth; that’s not right. But God was there at a place of transition, where quiet thought turns into action. Elijah went back inside the cave, but he didn’t stay there; God had spoken to him, and so he was getting ready to come out and make some changes in the world.

God visited Abraham at his home in Mamre. But they met at the entrance of the tent. They were in and out. Their conversation that evening ended under the stars.

The whole idea of a tent is about being in the midst or on the brink of action. If you stop permanently, you build a house. But if you are restless, peripatetic, on the move, on a pilgrimage, on a campaign, ready to go – well, tents are better.

John’s Gospel proclaims that the Word of God came to us, came to dwell among us. John’s word for this is provocative: the Lord came to “pitch his tent” among us. He might build us into a house, but he himself dwells among us in a tent, because he keeps tumbling forward. His home, his castle, his palace – and ours, in eternity – is elsewhere.

Caves and tents – we meet the Lord as we tumble out of the quiet into action. And yet, we do cherish the times and places of quiet. The cave has an entrance, but it’s a cave. So what’s in my cave? What do we choose to do in the cave, to shape that space?

I was very interested in the stories about Biden’s cave (if indeed it is such), the Oval Office. It’s a place for a ruler – not with a sceptre and a throne, but with a pen at a desk. Not in robes and mantles, but in coat and tie. The details change a bit, but this is a place where a ruler does his ruling, where he pronounces his decisions. And the way he shapes that space can and should explain what goes on inside his imagination before we hear what’s in his mouth. If the office isn’t in fact his cave, still it can and should correspond to whatever it is that he uses to decorate the walls of his cave, the home of his imagination, the tabernacle of his soul, where he listens to the Lord. And indeed, Biden chose busts and pictures of an impressive group from the communion of saints to stand around him as he ponders and rules. His family of course, and Washington and Lincoln of course, and crisis manager FDR, tussle-dancers Jefferson/Hamilton, martyrs MLKing and RFKennedy, activists Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez and a sculpture by an Apache from a Japanese-Hawaiian friend, geek Franklin and a moon rock, Unionizers Lincoln and Webster. The choices reveal, and are meant to reveal: if he’s not really intending to emulate these men and women as well as he can, he’s a liar, deceiving us for sure and perhaps himself.

In the tabernacle of our hearts, we surround ourselves with the clear recollection of God’s word and work in our lives, and with the love and the work of family and friends and heroes and models and artists and poets and other sources of strength and joy and challenge. That is (I think): we build our tabernacle according to the model of the house that the Lord promised to build for David: the House of David is the People of God.

God came to dwell among his people – in fact, in his people. We are the tabernacle, and although we are the anointed stewards and empowered custodians of our souls, it is the Lord who builds. And he is comfortable living in my restless heart, because he came to live among us in a tumble-forward dwelling – a tent but especially the entrance, a cave but especially the exit, in our hearts but also in our hands, where love becomes service, where hidden contemplation becomes visible action.

Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, 

Pure and holy, tried and true. 

With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living 

Sanctuary for you.

Wash Post photo in Biden's Oval Office

Monday, January 4, 2021

The pro-life movement in a democracy

I’m a pro-life activist, and have been since 1972. Some years ago, I faced a major dilemma. I was convinced that tiny children before birth were members of the human family; but also, I became convinced that democratic government – that is, government based on the will of the people, expressed in votes – would not protect unborn children in my lifetime. So what then? Was an honest pro-life movement possible in a democratic nation? Did I have to choose between the values I held dearest, and the American way of government? Could I hold to both?

The answer doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker.

I am convinced of the following.

First: life begins at the beginning, not in the middle. The beginning is real and objective, not a social construct. It is significant, non-arbitrary, and discernible. And when an individual’s life begins, that individual is precious in the eyes of God, and is a member of the human family, worthy of all the respect and protection offered to older and larger people. If the Fourteenth Amendment means anything, it includes equal protection for tiny and dependent children.

Second: effective protection requires the cooperation of the child’s mother. An effort to protect the child that is dismissive of the mother’s concerns is certain to fail.

Third: effective legal protection requires the agreement and joint determination of the society around this child and this mother. This is not a minor point, because …

Fourth: a dictatorship can indeed create laws much faster than a democracy, but cannot enforce them.

I do not have to choose between struggling to protect unborn children, and choosing to live within a democratic system. Democracy is slow, but it works, while the alternatives go faster until they smash. I assert that an unborn child has rights, and also I am convinced that the painfully (lethally) slow democratic process is the only way to move toward effective social and legal protection.

I understand clearly that unborn children will not have social and legal protection in my lifetime. I will do what I can do help mothers and children in ways that are not affected by a broken legal system. But also, I want to see a realistic plan for moving toward social and legal protection. So …

Fifth: I am convinced that the only way to move toward protection is by a sustained campaign of nonviolence.

There was once the beginning of such a campaign. That campaign was smashed by people who refused to study the power and the discipline of nonviolence. They were distracted by the more obvious power of the press. The best-known campaign of nonviolence in America was led by Rev. Martin Luther King, who was committed to nonviolence but was also adept at harnessing the power of the press. This American experience may have obscured the differences between these two powers. But the two are different, and pro-lifers need to study nonviolence as practiced by Gandhi, King, Walesa, and Aquino – and build a disciplined campaign, with or without the added power of the press.

There is, at this time, not a single pro-life leader with recognized national status who is serious about building a campaign of nonviolence. Some admirable people are engaged in efforts that are good and aren’t violent. I pray that their work prospers.

The pro-life movement in America today is prepared to scuttle democracy in order to protect children. I understand the temptation, but I reject it. There is another way forward. It is not cheap, and it will not be quick. But it exists.

In the shadow of death, I choose life. In the face of violence, I choose nonviolence. So help me, dear God.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Hospitality -- Divine Mercy Sunday

Hospitality in today’s readings

No one disputes that hospitality is nice. But there is a fierce debate about whether it’s fundamental and mandatory – like truth and justice – or decorative and optional – like using the best dishes when special guests come.

I note with interest that the first reading at Mass today, on Divine Mercy Sunday, is a short passages from the Acts of the Apostles (2:42-47), with three references to hospitality. It’s repeated three times: the ideal of a Christian life in community includes prayer and hospitality.
First: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.”

Second: “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes.”

And third: “They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people.”

Monday, January 27, 2020

Two Stout Monks Myth

I've completed a new book, the third in a series, on immigration in Scripture and Tradition. The first was immigration in the Old Testament; the second was immigration in the New Testament; this is immigration in the teaching of the Church from the Fathers to Aquinas.

I have posted a draft. I would be pleased to get some feedback.

The book is serious, but it's readable and relaxed. The book took me a long time -- partly because I'm undisciplined, but partly because I wanted to understand the people I was writing about. Understand: for people like these, "understand" that means "appreciate and enjoy." I like these men and women, and I tried to make it easy for you to like them too.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Dear Liz

Dear Liz –

Cause. Movement. Supporters. I sort of know what that stuff is all about. And it’s got almost nothing to do with why I’m a pro-lifer. When people talk about the political “movement,” I listen, but wonder if they have any idea what they’re talking about.

I am a pro-lifer. May I, respectfully, explain me? (1267 words)

I should say first that I have immense respect and affection for you. I understand your commitment to protecting women from assholes, and I applaud it. I disagree with some details, perhaps.

There’s a difference between your view and mine. But it does seem to me that the difference between your view and mine is much much much smaller than the difference between my view and – pick a figure – Pat Buchanan’s or Fr. Pavone’s or … The difference between your view and mine is, in a sense, a detail – and important detail, but a detail. That is, I think that tiny unborn babies and full-grown adults are pretty much the same, that the changes are very interesting but essentially insignificant. You think (I think you think) unborn children and adults are pretty far apart. The difference between your view (if I understand it) and my view is not a small detail, but I still think it’s just a detail, because if you changed your mind about whether fetuses are part of the human family, you would protect them. Fr. Pavone, on the other hand: he and I agree about whether unborn children are members of the human family. But I do not trust him to protect adults in need. So the difference between his view (if I understand it) and my view is stupendous, not a mere schmere detail.

I opposed the war in Vietnam. Much of my opposition was because of my brother’s death there. Let me try to make this clear, because it’s not a simple and predictable thing. When I heard my brother was dead (on my 18th birthday), a deep and permanent part of my reaction was about the Vietnamese soldier who fired the mortar that took off the back of his head. I was sorry for the guy. I didn’t blame him; he was defending his country. I don’t know who he was.  I doubt very much that he was aware that he had killed anyone, although of course he was trying to; mortars kill from a distance. But there is a guy who killed Roy. Everyone dies, but not everyone kills. I’d rather not be the person who killed someone like my brother. For all eternity, that’s a part of who he is: he’s the guy who killed Roy. Damn, what a bummer.

Pretty promptly, I was deeply convinced that the guy who killed my brother was in far worse shape than my dead brother. I understand that that’s a little weird.

I am convinced, right to my toes, that guns do huge damage at both ends. The person in front of the gun gets hurt or killed. The person behind the gun becomes a killer. Getting killed is not a big deal: everyone does it. I’m nervous about dying: you can’t practice, you only do it once. I’m nervous, but I am not afraid. Killing someone, on the other hand, is a big deal, and it’s not good. Or so I think.

My brother shot his weapon a bit, but I don’t know whether he killed anyone. I don’t think he knew either. He was a sentry one night when his unit was under siege, a Special Forces camp in Dak To. He heard noises on the hill, and fired; but in the morning, no one was there. I pray with everything in me that he never killed anyone.

When I first bumped into abortion, this was what was in the back of my mind.

I had a friend who explained her decision to get an abortion. She wanted my support, and I gave it to her as well as I could. But she went on and on, explaining and explaining. And slowly, it grew on me that I had seen this before, this pain in the heart in the person behind the gun. I didn’t judge her; I wouldn’t know how to begin to judge her. I was just puzzled. When I started to figure it out, I thought that she was a mother, and her child was dead, and she couldn’t mourn because she was in denial. That’s what I thought, anyway.

I didn’t know what to do. I listened, and loved her.

I read King on nonviolence, and his stuff made sense to me. Nonviolence protects blacks from exploitation, and protects whites from turning into monsters. Who does it help more? It seemed obvious to me.

For some time, I wasn’t too interested in the pro-life movement, because I thought they were a bunch of self-righteous prigs. But there was a guy from the Catholic Worker House in Boston who used to picket at Harvard Square, protesting abortion, and he intrigued me. Ignatius O’Connor. He was seriously ugly, but he had bright bright eyes and an irresistible smile. Then I met Dr. Joseph Stanton, a leader of the pro-life movement in Massachusetts. He gave me a book about Franz Jagerstatter written by a friend, Gordon Zahn. Jagerstatter was an anti-war activist, beheaded in Berlin in 1943 for refusing induction into the Army of the Third Reich. He had been radicalized by his encounter with abortion. Bit by bit, I got pulled in … into a movement.

That’s where I started, and I didn’t change much. But the movement changed, over time. I gave a workshop at the National Right to Life Convention one year, and got tossed out (cops, orders to depart, all that stuff) of the convention a few years later. I wrote for National Right to Life News, but got fired because I was too liberal. I worked for American Life League, but got fired for who-knows-what liberal shit. I worked for Human Life International, but got fired for smelling like a union organizer. (I wasn’t organizing, but I appreciate the thought.)

Almost every person who was ever arrested blocking the door of an abortion clinic had read a lot of my stuff, although my writing was in the public domain and usually didn’t have my name on it, especially when Protestants used it. I helped start rescues in all 50 states, and in Latin America and Korea and all over Europe. But when the “nonviolent” branch went crazy and hid a murderer (Jim Kopp), I lost a long list of friends trying to get pro-lifers to denounce what he did. I became persona non grata in the part of the movement that I had built.

I fought racists for control of the pro-life movement. I thought we had won easily in the 1980s. But today, Buchanan’s people hold the leadership.

I’m aware of the movement, and I know far better than most people what went wrong. But movement craziness doesn’t change me. I buried bodies, hundreds of little bodies with blue eyes, and I’m committed, even if I’m alone (again). I don’t judge, but I mourn for the dead.

Liz, you and I don’t agree about abortion. I have huge respect for you, but we don’t agree.

But I can’t change who I am.

I say again: I feel much closer to you than to many pro-lifers, because I know you will fight for people in danger, people in need (people you recognize). I’m proud to know you. But even for you, I can’t change who I am.