A sad dispute

  • March 23, 2011
It was a sad day for the pro-life movement when Alberta’s bishops announced a boycott of Edmonton’s March for Life because some participants insist on hoisting placards displaying graphic images of aborted fetuses. It was sad because, while sympathy abounds for the bishops’ concerns, their leadership is essential in this struggle. And sad because their withdrawal underlines a deepening rift that is harming the pro-life movement.

In a letter on behalf of the Alberta bishops, Archbishop Richard Smith said they disapprove of the large images of aborted fetuses that have become increasingly prominent at the annual march. Such images, said Smith, offend the dignity of the aborted baby and can be upsetting to women who had experienced abortion and to children attending the march.

He said the bishops felt compelled to withdraw from the May 12 event when organizers admitted they were powerless to ban graphic imagery. “It is not that they will not do so; they simply can’t because it is beyond their control,” Smith said. ”We want to make it clear that the bishops are not affiliated in any way with such expressions and do not approve of them.”

Smith’s objection is valid, even though in our increasingly desensitized society explicit messaging is gaining popularity. Health Canada has proposed a new series of grisly pictures that will be mandatory for cigarette packaging. Anti-drinking campaigns often show the catastrophic effects of drunk driving. Similar shock therapy is favoured by many in the pro-life movement who believe provoking a strong emotional response is the first step to rejecting abortion. But these gruesome images are entirely inappropriate for an event attended by children and young teens. So Smith has a case.

Yet the response of the bishops is disappointing. Rather than a public declaration of boycott, the bishops could have deplored the placards but supported the march. Catholics want leadership from their bishops. If the placards insult human dignity and offend other Catholic values, then the bishops should deliver that pastoral message, sternly. Take down the placards but bring on the march.

Unfortunately, not everyone would heed the bishops. But most Catholics would listen and hopefully they’d influence other marchers, including the non-Catholics. That approach would clearly demonstrate the bishops’ disapproval of the questionable signs while allowing the bishops to join the march in good conscience.

The pro-life movement needs bishops on the front line. So it’s disconcerting when a dispute about tactics causes such division that Alberta bishops feel compelled to boycott the province’s largest pro-life event. Even if it could unite as one strong voice, the campaign to end abortion is daunting. Divided it is hopeless. If the pro-life movement can’t work together what hope is there to convert others to the cause?

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