My thinking was shaped by Vatican II, so I embrace the immense value of consistency. I am a peace activist who became a pro-life activist. I think the “seamless garment” idea is obvious, fundamental, necessary.
It’s appalling that pro-lifers still oppose the idea, still repeating the same mindless nonsense: not all struggles have the same importance. Sure, good—but so what? If I agree not to be a mass murderer, is it okay to be a serial rapist? What kind of monstrous “thinking” is that?
Perhaps I can persuade some pro-lifers to listen, to respond to the real thing and not to their own oft-echoed caricature.
Chapter 4: The Seamless Garment
six brief insights
Seamless garment: context clarifies (#31) 79
Peace activists denounce Berrigan (#32) 81
Gordon Zahn’s insight (#33) 83
Lessons from Juli Loesch (#34) 85
“Querida Amazonia!” (#35) 87
The Bomb (#36) 89
Context explains. Is abortion like war, or like sex? Don’t listen to what people say to answer this question directly; listen when they aren’t answering directly, but drop hints.
In his immense love, God gave me the opportunity to teach English literature for a dozen years. It was a joy, getting up mornings NOT trying to figure out how to transform the world, but just planning how to bring together two of the joys of my life – great literature and wacky teenagers. During those happy years, there was a detail that proved delightful year after year. When I taught students how to read Shakespeare, I used material from the Folger Shakespeare Library, including a method for examining how a great writer adds meaning to a word. I had my students collect every use of some particularly pregnant word in a play, and note how the word grew in meaning and impact from one use to the next. In Macbeth, for example, Shakespeare uses the word “blood” to refer to the work of a warrior but also of a murderer, to nobility but also to guilt, to life but also death, to kinship but also treachery, to cruelty but also love, and so on. Shakespeare, like reality, is full of complexity. Human speech, like human life, is almost never simple. To understand anything that matters, you must wrestle with apparent contradictions. You must learn to be comfortable with paradox. And to grasp meaning confidently, you need to scrutinize context.
Context explains. To understand what someone means, listen and listen – but also watch.
Pro-lifers say that abortion is about taking life. It is the destruction of an innocent person.
Pro-choicers say that abortion is about sex. Some sexual transactions go awry, and you need to be able to back away from mistakes.
So there’s a difference about the meaning of the word, and about the meaning of the act.
Do pro-lifers mean what they say? Watch attentively! Many pro-lifers, perhaps most, insist that abortion is about life, not about sex. But then they talk a little more, and it turns out they care about abortion and birth control, abortion and sexual sins, abortion and sodomy, abortion and sexual purity. Context reveals: regardless of their claim to the contrary, many pro-lifers talk about abortion and sex, not about abortion and death.
In fact, in recent years, many pro-lifers have made an odd link. Many pro-lifers hate abortion – and demand access to guns. They are not fanatically opposed to violence.
There are important exceptions. For generations, the leadership of the Catholic Church has opposed abortion, but not the same way as other mainstream pro-life leaders. When they talk about abortion – in Vatican II or social justice documents, or in Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical The Gospel of Life – they also talk about war and capital punishment and torture.
Many pro-life leaders denounce this “seamless garment” approach. “Not all issues are the same,” they fuss. “There are priorities.” But the seamless garment approach has many advantages. For one thing, people understand the bishops: they’re talking about abortion and death, not abortion and sex.
In the 1970s, when I was finding my way in the pro-life movement, I was involved in some nonviolent action in Connecticut. I did some cross-fertilization: I was arrested at Electric Boat, protesting against nuclear weapons, and I was arrested a few miles away, at Norwich Planned Parenthood, acting against abortion.
When I was organizing the pro-life sit-in, we had several meetings for prayer and meditation at the home of an engineer at Electric Boat. We were aware of each other’s views, but worked together without difficulty, with mutual respect. My friend was later unemployed for a time, and then offered a new job, building nuclear weapons platforms again, and he called me to talk about the moral issues involved in his job. He disagreed with me, and he took the job; but he did want to understand my view.
When I was in the anti-nuke sit-in, there were 16 of us arrested at the entrance to Electric Boat. Of the 16 peace activists, 14 were pro-life with some involvement in the charismatic renewal.
There was tension between peace activists and pro-life activists, for sure. But it wasn’t anywhere near as sharp and bitter then as it is today.
Still, in 1978 or 1979, the New England Catholic Peace Fellowship had a meeting in Amherst. It was an uproarious event. Charlie McCarthy was there, wild-eyed, urging that we meet to pray and plan at 3 AM, when people are more open to spiritual insights, because all the mental cues are different in the dead of night. Cool idea.
I made a presentation on pro-life nonviolence – not a couple of outsiders whispering at the edge of a room, but a regular scheduled workshop. Imagine.
Dan Berrigan gave the keynote address, entitled “War is abortion and abortion is war.” One of the points he made was that the abortion struggle might wake us up. The threat of nuclear weapon was often so cerebral – except for the Japanese. But abortion was immediate, right in front of us –it might get into our hearts and change something in us “because it’s so personally maiming.”
At lunch, a number of women came in to confront us. They lined up along a wall and chanted pro-choice slogans. It was strange kind of a sit-in, peace activists protesting against Berrigan. They respected him, but they were shocked that he would participate in an event like this – especially since I was there recruiting for “anti-choice” activity. I knew one of them; she had been at the demonstration at Electric Boat. They came in angry, looking for a confrontation, but there were so many warm friendships tying people together that the anger couldn’t get traction; it just dissolved slowly.
Berrigan had his head back a little, eyebrows way up and his eyes wide, mouth shut: he was in listening mode. It can’t have been fun being attacked by friends, but he just looked like a student absorbing a complicated lesson. As far as I could tell, everyone in that room had some degree of respect for everyone else. Everyone in that room was committed to listening, to learning, to welcoming, to loving.
In 1976, the pro-life movement in Massachusetts was congenial to leftie liberal Democrats. Ellen McCormack, a lifelong Democrat and a pro-life activist. Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School was president of National Right to Life Committee, and she lived on Beacon Hill in Boston. I think she was a Republican, but she worked comfortably with anyone who enjoyed dancing. In Cambridge, the most visible pro-life activist was Ignatius O’Connor, from the Catholic Worker House. The leader of the proudly diverse pro-life movement in the commonwealth was Dr. Joseph Stanton. Stanton was trained at Yale Medical School, but that’s okay – his father went to Harvard. And when he found an anti-war activist from Harvard stumbling around the edges of the movement, his eyes lit up. He had a book that I had to read, right away. It was written by his friend Gordon Zahn, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts (Boston), who had been a conscientious objector during World War II. So I read In Solitary Witness: the Life and Death of Franz Jagerstatter.
Jagerstatter was beheaded in Berlin on August 9, 1943, for refusing induction into the Army of the Third Reich. He had discussed his decision to refuse with his parish priest and his bishop; they counseled moderation – that is, cooperation. But he refused, and paid the price. Zahn wrote his story, trying to understand the roots of this courage. What he found was that Jagerstatter fathered a child, and did not marry the mother, but did support the child for the rest of his life. This personal confrontation with responsibility transformed a rough-and-tumble troublemaker into a devout Catholic, utterly opposed to abortion and Nazism.
Zahn’s book had a huge impact on me, and so I was deeply flattered when he sought me out in the mid-1980s to talk about a book he was planning. He wanted to write about three peace activists whose choice of life rather than abortion had been transformative: Franz Jagerstatter, Dorothy Day, and John Leary.
Dorothy Day is well known; John Leary is not. John was a Harvard graduate, a few years behind me. He and my sister Lucy were arrested together in pro-life nonviolent actions a number of times. He was a co-founder of the Prolife Nonviolent Action Project, which sparked sit-ins at abortion clinics in all 50 states in the late 1970s. He lived with the Catholic Worker community in Boston, and was a recognized peace activist. He was a devout Catholic, joyful and easy to approach but never shy about his desire to pray. He was quiet and calm, but deeply inspiring. Example: although he died young with no obvious accomplishments, when the Catholic Student Center at Harvard expanded, Jana Kiely (wife of the Master of Adams House) urged that the new building be named for him. (Didn’t happen.) And Zahn was among his admirers.
That’s a slice of the pro-life movement. Times have changed, but that part of our history matters. We should recover it.
Juli Loesch (Wiley), the founder of Prolifers for Survival and a pioneer of the seamless garment approach, had a huge impact on me.
“Birds fly better with two wings, a right wing and a left wing”: that’s a clear and catchy phrase, fundamental to my thinking for years – and it’s stolen from Juli Loesch. Sometimes, I don’t remember where her thought ends and my own thought begins.
“Bridges and walls are similar, both made of bricks, at boundaries. When you build a bridge, you collect the bricks that other people might use to build walls, or to throw at you.” This insight is a permanent challenge in my life – and it’s from Juli.
I find a deep joy in it when people quote me without knowing it, using my own words to challenge me: I learned that from Juli Loesch.
My kitchen used to have a small room or large pantry attached; we made it a prayer room, then a bedroom for Juli Loesch for some months. It remains a door to joy.
She spoke about peace, against nukes – but listened enough that she realized that pro-lifers were using the same texts from Scripture to make their arguments.
She and I drifted apart some years ago, and I don’t pretend to understand her thinking now, but I owe her a great deal.
Juli Loesch founded Prolifers for Survival in 1979, and built a national network of people who were pro-life and pro-peace – anti-abortion and anti-war. Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” speech was in 1983, four years after she started building her network. It baffles me that people talking about the seamless garment idea don’t refer to her work. She traveled across the country – by humble grimy bus, speaking to people in church halls and living rooms, a dozen at a time, or even one at a time – building a network, making connections between the left and right, between peace activists and pro-life activists.
Dan Berrigan got arrested sitting in the door of an abortion clinic – at the end of a conference organized by Juli Loesch and her ragtag bunch of followers; it was Juli’s Prolifers for Survival that provided Dan with the opportunity to act publicly against abortion.
I met Juli at the March for Life, probably in 1979; she was leafletting about peace and life links, and I was recruiting for nonviolent action. We hit it off, and cooperated for the next decade. I was the editor of her newsletter, P.S., for a couple of years.
From my perspective, the greatest treasure in her work was her deep abiding joy. The topics she addressed were grim – slaughter in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, slaughter in abortion clinics. She was alone a lot, collecting the bricks for bridges one by one. But she prayed a lot, read Scripture, stuck with the Rosary – and radiated joy. She was fun, funny, unpredictable, unquenchable, humble, tenacious – a living joyful mystery.
I learned from the best.
“Querida Amazonia!” (#35)
Pope Francis organized an international meeting and then wrote a fascinating letter about the transformation of the Amazon Basin, the core of South America, “the beloved region of the Amazon.” He says the region enriches the world, and that we should cherish it.
Consider with me what the Pope wrote about, and notice when pro-lifers sit up and pay attention. Tell me if this is fair.
The Amazon Basin includes a vast region that wasn’t much developed – meaning, made to produce cash – until recently. But now the region is being transformed by loggers and planters. This rape of the land enriches a few investors, not including the people who have lived there for centuries. It’s barbaric orc-work.
The rape of the land threatens to obliterate over 300 cultures, societies with their own ways of life, and their own languages, living quietly by themselves deep in the jungle.
What happens when you wipe out a culture?
Many of the people die, but not all. Some are driven into cities, uprooted and homeless and desperate. In this social devastation, some become beggars, driven into drug addiction and prostitution.
And then some seek abortion.
But some pro-lifers ignore the Latin American Pope’s concerns, and question his priorities. They say …
The ecological assault is not a pro-life concern.
The destruction of the rain forest is not a pro-life concern.
The loss of oxygen-producing plants is not a pro-life concern.
The loss of species is not a pro-life concern.
The greed of the developers is not a pro-life concern.
The threat of genocide is not a pro-life concern.
The extinction of cultures is not a pro-life concern.
The displacement of people into cities – a new life, without preparation – is not a pro-life concern.
Beggars are not a pro-life concern.
Drug addiction is not a pro-life concern.
Pushing desperate women into prostitution: pro-lifers start to rumble unhappily, but this still isn’t a pro-life concern.
Women trapped in prostitution show up at abortion clinics. What a shock. And finally, pro-lifers sit up and take notice.
The President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, supports the rape of the Amazon including genocide, but he opposes abortion, and many pro-lifers in the United States applaud his stand.
But abortion has roots. If you feed the roots, but fuss about the fruit, that’s not smart. And it’s not pro-life.
If you don’t care when people are driven out of the forest into the cities, what do you have to offer them? Where were you when their cultures were obliterated, their homes destroyed, the land stolen?
Pope Francis wrote about this, in Querida Amazonia. Pro-life leaders didn’t notice when the Pope talked about genocide; instead, they fussed about the possibility of women deacons. They didn’t pretend to care when the fragile cultures of the area were demeaned; in fact, they applauded when a neo-Nazi threw an Amazon artifact into a river. They sided with the rich who destroyed the land for profit. And then they demand self-righteously that people sit up and listen to their words of praise for Bolsonaro, the “pro-life” president of Brazil. What is wrong with you?
Genocide isn’t brand new. Thomas Malthus wrote his murderous essay about population control in 1798, reacting to the Highlanders who were driven off their land in the Scottish mountains and then showed up in English cities. Their skills – their whole proud way of life – was tied to the rough mountains, and was not good preparation for city life; they were despised as ignorant beggars, producing ignorant beggar babies. So the genocide in Scottish Highlands led to Malthusian despair for generations. And the rape of the Amazon is another chapter in the Malthusian story.
Me: I oppose abortion, and its roots. And its roots! The fruit and the root are inseparable, like a seamless garment.
I stand with Francis.
The fundamental assertion of the pro-life movement is that unborn children are members of the human family. If you accept that idea, then abortion in the past five decades or so has been the deadliest assault on humanity in history. About a quarter or even a third of the people conceived since 1968 have died of abortion. Starvation, disease, warfare – nothing compares to the abortion rate. The only thing that could take more lives would be a world war with nukes.
I understand clearly that most people do not consider unborn children to be fully human, members of the human family, entitled to all the protections that everyone else claims as a right. I understand clearly that women made pregnant without their planning such an event often feel trapped, and that uncountable millions of people are convinced that protecting women from abuse and entrapment requires access to abortion. I understand that, and I respect the people who hold this view. But that’s not my view; I think unborn children are my brothers and sisters. And I accept the idea that the only thing that could be bloodier is nuclear war.
This perception of abortion drives many pro-lifers to accept just about any craziness erupting from President Trump. Fix the worst, first. I understand that too. But I reject it, for a list of reasons – including that Trump is open to the only violence that could be worse. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, every American president has expressed horror about nuclear warfare, and has taken steps to make sure The Bomb is never used again – every president until Trump.
The first time Trump spoke at the United Nations in New York, he threatened to use nukes (9/19/2017).
He threatened to bomb North Korea, with nukes. (9/19/2017 was one time among several).
He threatened to bomb Iran, with nukes (6/23/2019).
When he was a candidate, he said that the military would do what he told them to do, even if they considered his orders to be immoral. He was talking about talking about torture when he said that, but it also applies to bombing civilians, or bombing nations that do not pose a threat to our existence.
He recommended that more nations join the club, get their own nukes. If North Korea has nukes, Japan should get some too (4/3/2016).
One fundamental problem with nukes is that they kill civilians. But Trump said that fighting terrorists requires killing family members (12/2/2015).
For a couple of years, Trump had serious and thoughtful people advising him, making sure he didn’t make silly little mistakes like starting a nuclear war. But those people are gone, and now he’s surrounded with toadies. He could use a nuke tomorrow.
“Use a nuke.” Does that mean press the button and destroy a city, or does it include threats? If someone backs off because you pulled out a gun, did you “use” that gun? Of course you used it. Trump has already used nukes, just not completely.
In my view, there’s only one thing more destructive than abortion. And Trump does it. And most pro-lifers don’t even notice.
go back to Chapter 3