In a letter published in the March issue of the Canadian Catholic Review, writer Peggy MacIsaac objects to Professor Keith Cassidy’s favourable appraisal of Michael Cuneo’s Catholics Against the Church, (Toronto, 1990) a sociological study of the pro-life movement in Toronto (reviewed in The Interim, Insight insert, February 1990).

The book’s central thesis, she writes, is that pro-life activists are a divisive element in Canadian Catholicism and a threat to its soul.  According to Cuneo, she writes, ‘revivalist Catholics’ are a backward, discontented segment of the laity, mainly from the lower middle class, many of them housewives, all of the theologically and culturally conservative.  They believe, for example, in a transcendent God and the divine presence in the Blessed Sacrament; their goal is to preserve the traditional norms of sexual and family life.  Cuneo calls them “intolerant Catholic zealots.”


Opposing them, Peggy MacIsaac says, are what Cuneo presents as the so-called enlightened mainstream Catholics, including most Canadian bishops, many priests and nuns, and laity in the professional class.  They take a modern liberal view of sexual matters, and they are committed to feminism, ecumenism and social justice.

They also consider the activists to be fanatics, as a remark by one prominent Canadian theologian quoted by Cuneo clearly reveals: “Basically they’re fascists simply intent on controlling people’s lives.  I am appalled that you would even consider doing a study of them.”

Because of his unfavourable portrayal of pro-life activists and his evident sympathy with those who oppose them, Peggy MacIsaac considers that Cuneo’s study is heavily slanted; it is “a thinly disguised attempt to discredit the pro-life movement in the Church.”

Other interpretation

In fact, the book provides material neither for her interpretation or Cassidy’s.

The pro-life Catholics who are supposed to be against the Church turn out to be for it: they support the Pope and the Magisterium, the accusation that they are ‘single issue’ people does not hold water, and unlike many others they are not swayed from upholding Catholic doctrine by causes which are popular at a given moment. Without saying so, Cuneo gives the impression that the theologian who calls them fascists is narrow-minded, bigoted, and prejudiced.

However, it is true that Cuneo’s book is being used by some to knock down the pro-life movement or to alter its course.

Harry Byrne

In an article which appeared in the once reputable Jesuit journal America on January 12, 1991, Msgr. Harry J. Byrne, former chancellor of the diocese of New York, seized on Cuneo’s book as his own tool to discredit the ‘revivalist Catholic pro-lifers’ in his own country and instead of their approach, advocate a ‘moderate’ approach to abortion.

The revivalists \, he said, see abortion as linked to contraception, divorce, and sterilization, all of which must be opposed together; and they consider the more temperate, tactical approach of the Canadian bishops to be a kind of betrayal.  They and their American counterparts, in Byrne’s view, are misframing the debate and putting it in an inappropriate context.


Byrne is worried, for one thing, about society’s perception that the pro-life movement is anti-feminist.  He himself accepts the feminist view that St. Augustine was hostile to women, that it is time to put women in the sanctuary and that the Church’s attitude to women is thoroughly outdated.  To argue out of a patriarchal context, he writes, is a sure recipe for failure.

“As in Toronto, so too here (in the U.S.),” he says, “many thoughtful pro-lifers drop out in frustration as their more carefully nuanced position is rejected or ignored by the revivalists.”  The abortion debate, he argues, must not be isolated from the context of women’s freedom.

Test of feminism

As the American historian James Hitchcock pointed out long ago, however, approval of abortion is seen as the real test of a woman’s commitment to the feminist cause.

In this context it was interesting to see the perplexity Canadian writer Lindalee Tracey manifested in a recent article in Toronto Life questioning the ‘pro-choice’ position.

Her own experience of having a baby convinced her that the pro-abortionist contention that it wasn’t a human being before birth was sheer nonsense; she could not have thought of aborting her growing son.  Yet she almost felt guilty at such a betrayal of her ‘religion’ of feminism.  Consequently she found it necessary to follow the feminist line in continuing to label (good, kind, compassionate) pro-life people as aggressive, irrational fanatics.

So, whatever may be the case in New York, Catholic feminists in Toronto are not known for a carefully nuanced position; many of them are filled with bitterness, self-pity, and a desire to hurt the Church.

Democratic principles

Monsignor Byrne also considered that many genuine pro-lifers are reluctant to be identified with tactics contravening American and democratic principles.

“The statement of one of New York’s auxiliary bishops that New York’s Governor Mario Cuomo was risking hell for his support of state funding of abortions had a polarizing effect,” he said.  He implied that it was silly and counterproductive to say such a thing, reducing a broad natural-law postulate to a narrow denominational precept.  The threat of a church penalty only strengthened the hand of those who claim that anti-abortion laws mean the imposition of one particular religious position, he argued.

Given this view, it was not surprising that Msgr. Byrne deplored what he called the ‘blackening’ of names of such prominent pro-abortion Catholics as Ted Kennedy, Daniel Moynihan, and House of Representatives Speaker Tom Foley.


Father Byrne also deplored what he called the tendency of pro-lifers to put abortion in the same context as contraception.  The linking of the two “is a likely cause of alienation of many from the cause,” he states.  He himself points out, however, that they are frequently linked by Pope John Paul himself.

Here it may be worthwhile to note that the relationship between abortion and the contraceptive mentality is increasingly recognized by Protestants and Evangelicals.  In the U.S. leading pro-lifers such as Randy Terry (Evangelical) now resolutely reject contraception, as do former abortion providers Carole Everett (Baptist) and Bev MacMillan in Canada.  Bev Hadland (Baptist) is one of the most effective opponents in the country on this subject.

The article by Msgr. Byrne is interesting chiefly because it shows that there are still priests and prelates who think the way he does.  He refuses to follow his own Church in her opposition to both abortion and contraception.  Against all the evidence, he thinks that pro-life supporters are too aggressive.  Like Moynihan, Cuomo and Kennedy, he does not put a high enough propriety on the pro-life cause.  Aiming to heal division, he creates it.

On target

So called ‘revivalist Catholics’ have been right on target.  The birth control pill separated intercourse from procreation, and produced a sexual revolution: the careful girl could have it all and not get caught.  But the truth is that many girls do get caught.

Birthright volunteers, for example, are not just dealing with widely experienced young women at the advanced age of 16, but with girls of 14 and even younger.

The drive for contraceptive birth control has done untold harm.  No one should cooperate with it.