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