Lexington Bishop John Stowe washes feet at the new Catholic Action Center
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Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann came face to face with Native American elder Nathan Phillips in Washington, D.C., launching a national story with repercussions.
A perennial complaint from participants in the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., is that the secular news media largely ignore this massive protest of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. In light of the viral news story of last weekend, of a group of Catholic high school students from Kentucky in a confrontation with a Native American elder after this year’s march, that claim no longer holds.
As the leader of the Catholic Church in the 50 counties of Central and Eastern Kentucky, I join the Diocese of Covington and other Catholic leaders in apologizing in the wake of this incident.
I am ashamed that the actions of Kentucky Catholic high school students have become a contradiction of the very reverence for human life that the march is supposed to manifest. As such, I believe that U.S. Catholics must take a look at how our support of the fundamental right to life has become separated from the even more basic truth of the dignity of each human person.
Without engaging the discussion about the context of the viral video or placing the blame entirely on these adolescents, it astonishes me that any students participating in a pro-life activity on behalf of their school and their Catholic faith could be wearing apparel sporting the slogans of a president who denigrates the lives of immigrants, refugees and people from countries that he describes with indecent words and haphazardly endangers with life-threatening policies.
We cannot uncritically ally ourselves with someone with whom we share the policy goal of ending abortion.
I doubt that it is only these students who are not aware that the pro-life movement got its start among peace activists who saw their opposition to abortion as a natural extension of opposition to all forms of violence.
Similarly, at one time, priests and nuns stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr. King and marched for civil rights. Bishops advocated for world peace and economic inclusion.
Respect for the sanctity of human life included the promotion of all that is necessary for all humanity to flourish. While the church’s opposition to abortion has been steadfast, it has become a stand-alone issue for many and has become disconnected to other issues of human dignity.
This past November, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued their first pastoral letter on racism since 1979.
This letter speaks of the structural kind of racism that has worked itself into the fabric of our nation. It describes the unspeakable sins from the slave trade in which the Church was itself complicit as well as the sins of national policies that deprived Native Americans of their lands and livelihood. The pastoral letter describes racism as a “life” issue; that perspective needs to become part of our educational curriculum. Students must grapple with this history and ask themselves how they are going to live differently.
Here also the bishops’ letter helps point the way: “Our individual efforts to encounter, grow, and witness, to change our hearts about racism must also find their way into our families. We urge each person to consider the dignity of others in the face of jokes, conversations, and complaints motivated by racial prejudice. We can provide experiences for children that expose them to different cultures and peoples.”
These experiences can be found in the church’s dialogue with other religious traditions and the fact that our own congregations span across categories of race, nationality and immigration status. The church’s service to migrants and refugees can also help form these values in the next generation.
The pro-life movement claims that it wants more than the policy change of making abortion illegal, but aims to make it unthinkable. That would require deep changes in society and policies that would support those who find it difficult to afford children. The association of our young people with racist acts and a politics of hate must also become unthinkable.
The Rev. John Stowe is bishop of the Diocese of Lexington.