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Incivility hurts the pro-life cause.

One bit of gallows humor in Catholic Circles is that sometimes the worst enemies of the pro-life movement are pro-lifers themselves. The point is that a handful of activists occasionally come off as so shrill, so angry and judgmental, that fair-minded people simply tune out the pro-life message.

That's horribly unfair, of course, to the vast majority of people involved in pro-life efforts, who in my experience are respectful, idealistic and eminently rational. There's just enough truth to the perception, however, to make it worth a brief examination of conscience.

Cases in point are offered by the health care reform debate and last month's funeral of Sen. Ted Kennedy, both of which have occasioned some truly nasty commentary--much of it, naturally, in the blogosphere. Two Catholic personalities in particular have found themselves in the line of fire: Daughter of Charity Sr. Carol Keehan, president and executive director of the Catholic Health Association; and Basilian Fr. Tom Rosica, head of Salt and Light TV, a national Catholic network in Canada.

Both, I should acknowledge, are friends, and it pains me to see them facing unwarranted personal attacks. For that reason, I'm permitting myself to set aside my normal journalistic detachment in order to make a point.

I came to know Keehan when she began leading annual trips to Rome for board members of the various Catholic hospital networks in America, the purpose of which is to foster greater understanding and a deeper sense of common cause between the Vatican and leaders of Catholic health care in the United States. (In the interests of full disclosure, I'm usually part of the program for these visits.) Keehan enjoys obvious trust in official circles: when Pope Benedict XVI came to America, she was part of the medical team traveling with the pope. Over the years she's emerged as an important spokesperson for Catholic health care, including the church's unambiguously pro-life position.

My friendship with Rosica dates to 2002, when he was the chief organizer of Pope John Paul II's visit to Canada for World Youth Day: Since then, we've bumped into one another in a variety of settings. He's perhaps the most truly "catholic" guy I've ever met, not only in the sense of speaking multiple languages and being a man of the world, but someone obviously in love with the whole depth and breadth of the Catholic tradition. He's also a talented entrepreneur, as his performance with World Youth Day and his success in building a TV network from the ground up illustrate.

Both Catholic Health Association under Keehan and Salt and Light under Rosica have positioned themselves firmly in the Catholic middle. They're faithful to the doctrine and discipline of the church, but also nonpartisan in the sense of being open to a variety of temperaments, outlooks and experiences.

For their trouble, both now find themselves under siege.

In Keehan's case, the blast came from a blog operated by the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese. In an Aug. 6 posting, writer Jack Smith accused Keehan of "being at odds with the [U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops] and the pro-life cause" on health care reform. (A bishops' conference spokesperson promptly denied that assertion.) Smith pointed to Keehan's annual salary of $856,093--which, as he noted, is turned over to her order--to suggest that she's essentially a highly paid shill for the health care industry, The post has metastasized on the Internet.

With Rosica, the drumbeat stems from a pro-life Web site called LifeSiteNews., which prior to the Kennedy funeral invited readers to send protests to Cardinal Sean O'Malley in Boston, Some pro-life activists wanted Salt and Light to make a similar appeal to its viewers, which Rosica declined to do: He argued that it's not the role of his network to put pressure on the bishops, and in any event, Salt and Light isn't even an American operation.

When Rosica wrote a commentary appealing for calm, LifeSiteNews posted an article setting him in opposition to Raymond Arroyo, a news commentator for EWTN Who was openly critical of the funeral. (For the record, Rosica says that Salt and Light actually has good relations with EWTN.) That piece, according to Rosica, generated more than 500 hostile messages from people whipped up by the LifeSiteNews coverage--some so ugly and threatening that they couldn't be published for fear of triggering legal repercussions.

Of course, there's plenty of room for legitimate discussion about judgment calls Keehan and Rosica have made. Maybe Catholic Health Association should indeed push harder about abortion in the health care debate; maybe Salt and Light should have given more space to critics of the Kennedy funeral. In principle, there's also nothing wrong with asking where a group that takes positions on public policy gets its money, and how that funding might influence its judgments.

I'm certain both Keehan and Rosica would be the first to acknowledge that raising such questions is entirely fair. There's a world of difference, however, between respectful disagreement and character assassination, and some of what we've seen recently doesn't just cross that line but obliterates it.

There's much more I could say, but I'll restrict myself to this: If Sr. Carol Keehan or Fr. Tom Rosica are your idea of enemies of the faith, it's time for a reality check.

Moving forward, it's important that influential Catholic leaders, particularly those with the greatest credibility in pro-life circles, find ways to call off the rhetorical fireworks. They don't help the pro-life cause, and good people end up as collateral damage.

Abraham Lincoln once said, "I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends." Pro-life activists, like everyone else, ought to remember that this principle also works in reverse..

John L. Alien Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His column, All Things Catholic, appears every Friday on]
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Author:Allen, John L., Jr.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 2, 2009
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