Even though it in based on a Ph.D. thesis is sociology, and is praised on its back cover by an apostate priest (Gregory Baum), this is an important book.  On the basis of 111 interviews which he conducted in the Toronto area in 1985-86, together with other research, Cuneo concludes that Canadian protesters against abortion are not reducible to a single social type:  they come from different backgrounds, and if many of them are middle-aged housewives a surprising number of others are young men and women under thirty.  He also gives an account of the recent history of the pro-life movement, which should prove very interesting to those who are able to identify the individuals involved in some of the controversies, though their names are not given.

The main focus of the book, however, is on ideological divisions within the Catholic Church in this country.  “Surely all Catholics are united in their opposition to abortion, aren’t they?” one might have asked.  Cuneo says they aren’t, and explains why.  In two decades, he asserts, the pro-life movement has actually been converted from a vehicle of consensus into a cause of dissension.


Those Catholics who fit into a category he calls Progressive or Social Justice do not see eye-to-eye with their theologically conservative brethren, whom he calls Revivalists.  In fact, the former have systematically dissociated themselves from the pro-life movement; they even have second thoughts about re-criminalising abortion or regarding it as immoral.  They see it as related to traditional Catholic preoccupations with sexual sin and with private virtue or piety as against social welfare.  Some of them worry that the crusade against abortion is at bottom an attack on contraception or on a liberal sexual ethic.

When he interviewed his subjects, Cuneo promised them anonymity and confidentiality.  It is a good thing he did so; if he had revealed the names of some of his informants, they would have lost any reputation they still might possess.  One person identified as a prominent Canadian theologian holds the childish view that anti-abortionism is largely a pretext for advocacy of a right-wing political vision:

“I don’t think these people really care about babies or human life.  Were they so concerned about Jewish babies being killed, or the oppression of French Canada, or the horror of South Africa?  Are they really concerned with dignity and justice?  Do they oppose the taking of life in war?  I think we have to adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion when looking at them.  Basically they are fascists simply intent on controlling people’s lives.  I’m appalled that you would even consider doing a study of them.”

I myself am appalled that anyone intelligent enough to be able to spell hermeneutic should hold such narrow, bigoted, uncharitable views.

And here is a woman identified as a Progressive nun, who evidently thinks that Catholic pro-lifers are “uptight” about sexual morality:

“I’d be more comfortable with these people if I thought their sexuality wasn’t coming from the Dark Ages.  They still think that every time you ….(synonym for having intercourse), you’re supposed to make a baby.  We’re committed to exploring alternative, more creative conceptions of sexuality, a sexuality that is liberating and self-expressive, not just a biological function.”

As so often happens, adjectives like “creative” and “liberating” here become an index to stupidity incarnate.  This Catholic nun does not understand Catholic teaching.

Others criticize the anti-abortionists for being “single issue” fanatics who devote themselves to one social problem without placing it in a larger context of social liberation.  Here is what one woman said:

“Pro-life means a whole lot more than being against abortion.  I don’t see these people on the peace marches or protesting against American intrusion in Latin America.  We don’t see them fighting racism.  I’ll take them seriously when they show a wider concern for justice.  Right now they come across as mean-spirited and petty.”

“Mean-spirited” and “petty” are the last words I would apply to those who picket, or used to picket, the Morgentaler clinic.  As Cuneo shows, many of the accusations made are demonstrably false.  For example, far from being racist, several “Revivalist” families have adopted non-white children.  Moreover, it is not true that these people wear ideological blinkers which shut our every issue but abortion.  They are concerned with public morality, family problems, infanticide, euthanasia, and many other questions.  They resent the idea that they should have to prove their sincerity by becoming active in other causes.

Mutually exclusive

What Cuneo’s analysis shows is that Social Justice and Revivalist Catholics inhabit mutually exclusive religious worlds symbolically demarcated by the pro-life movement.  Revivalists subscribe to a traditional institutional model of the church, with strong emphasis on hierarchical authority, sacramental discipline and dogma.  Social Justice Catholics adhere to a more flexible and democratic ecclesiology; they favour doctrinal liberalism, greater sexual freedom and a diffusion of power instead of its concentration in the Roman Curia.  But one of their main concerns is that abortion threatens an ecumenical consensus.  It is in fact a taboo, not just for the Social Justice people but for the Church hierarchy itself.

Cuneo quotes two archbishops as saying jointly, “When we Canadian bishops face a social problem we feel we must deal with, our first question is whether we handle it alone or go into-church.  Inevitably we go inter-church.”

There is a long list of ecumenical task forces given in the book – on human rights in Latin America, Asia and Africa; on world development; on corporate responsibility and so on.  In other words, there is a kind of ecumenical consensus of a progressive or liberal character; on certain political and social issues, the major Canadian denominations can be expected to speak almost with unanimous voices.  When the Catholic bishops published their Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis, it won praise from the primate of the Anglican Church, the Moderator of the United Church, and the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church.

Not ecumenical

But abortion is not one of those ecumenical issues; it is an anomaly, an embarrassment.  In fact it seems rude for the Catholic Church to bring it up – and when the Church does so it meets sharp criticism; there are cries of indignation and accusations of foul play.  When they press a Catholic viewpoint on abortion, the bishops are charged with infringing on the rights and freedoms of non-Catholic Canadians and imposing their own views on a secular state.

“The bishops no more enjoy being cast as cultural cretins than anyone else,” writes Cuneo, “which in the present historical period is the likely consequence of aligning oneself with the anti-abortion movement.”  So the perception of pro-life advocates that the hierarchy has not supported them enthusiastically is entirely correct.  In fact, Cuneo observes that abortion has been practically edited out of the bishops’ social teaching.  An educational guide to new social teaching, Witness of Justice:  A Society to be Transformed – Working Instruments, contains no reference to abortion in its 124 pages.  Fr. E.F. Sheridan, S.J.’s Do Justice! The Social Teaching of the Canadian Catholic Bishops does not deal with abortion in its 470 pages.  Justice for the unborn, apparently, is not justice at all.  As Reginald Bibby has pointed out in Fragmented Gods, a study of religion in Canada, the churches do not say to culture, “This is what religion is,” but instead ask, “What do you want religion to be?”

Pro-life activists

But for those Cuneo designates by the unfortunate term “Revivalists” (suggesting tent meetings and people shouting “Hallelujah”), pro-life activism is an expression of group identity and of opposition to a quasi-pagan culture.  Public witness is more than a political tactic:  “The trials and tribulations of anti-abortion activists evoke for Revivalists distant echoes from a more spiritually robust generation when standard-bearers of truth, then clothed in Jesuit robes, defended the faith by an ordeal of martyrdom.  Pro-life activism, in short, is the new spiritual frontier.”  To their mind, mainstream Canadian Catholicism has lost its way.  Having sold its soul for cultural relevance, it would rather make peace with evil than stare it down.

The main discovery Cuneo thinks he has made, therefore, is the existence of this special group.  He views it in two ways, sometimes favourably and sometimes unfavourably.  On the one hand it is a legitimate response to a crisis in society and in the Church.  On the other hand, these self-appointed vigilantes of Catholic truth fail to realize that the course of North American Catholicism over the past century has been one of showing the compatibility between religion and our political structures and cultural agenda.

Further comments

Sometimes Cuneo is wrong or not wholly accurate in his description of the “Revivalists.”  He is wrong to accuse them of Puritanism; they are no more puritan that John Paul II, the author of Love and Responsibility.

He is wrong to accuse them of being ambivalent towards Vatican II, and to describe it as their Achilles heel; it is more likely to be the Achilles heel of Social Justice Catholics, who frequently refer to “the spirit of Vatican Two” without having read the documents.

He is wrong, especially, to aim his title against them – “Catholics against the Church” – when they support the Pope, the Magisterium, and the Church Universal, and oppose those who are hostile to all three.

The last point needs elaboration.  Cuneo is correct in describing pro-life activism as almost a kind of symbolic ritual which makes “Revivalists” feel that they are participating in another crusade.  He may even be partly right in describing them as self-styled vigilantes.  But in essence they are attempting to preserve what exists, not to revive the rituals and the religious spirit of times long past.  Their resistance to abortion is not based on irrationality, nostalgia, or pietistic sentimentality, but on simple common sense.  Science, not religion, tells us that the young of a species belong to that species; the child in the womb possesses the characteristics of a human being, not of a seal or a salamander.  They see, as the Holy Father does in Familiaris Consortio and elsewhere, that life issues are related to each other, and that abortion, homosexuality, and radical feminism are all part of an anti-life and anti-family mentality.  All of these are offenses against the dignity of the human person.

So they are not really Catholics against the Church, marginalized Catholics.  On the other hand, those who oppose Humanae Vitae, those who call pro-lifers fascists, those who advocate a “creative” and “liberating” sexuality, are not faithful Catholics at all because they are defying the Holy Father, the Magisterium and the moral teaching of the Church through the ages.  They create disunity; the so-called Revivalists hold beliefs which are in harmony with those expressed by bishops from around the world during the Second Vatican Council and in subsequent synods.

Personal morality

A point Cuneo raises and discusses particularly well is the opinion of some Social Justice representatives that abortion primarily involves questions of private or personal morality and therefore has no place as an issue of public discussion.  “Ever since Durkheim demonstrated that suicide, ostensibly the most private of the socially secluded acts is subject to identifiable social pressures,” he writes, “it is naïve to think that any area of human conduct can be understood merely by reference to the individual subject.”  The distinction between private moral concerns and public issues, he says again, is conceptually empty.  On what grounds could we say that pornography, gambling and smoking are public issues, and abortion is not?

Food for thought

There is room for a great many divergent opinions about this book.  Many right-to-life supporters will say, “That’s exactly right.  Why hasn’t anyone said this before?”  Others will complain, “I don’t recognize myself in any of his categories.  He’s got it all wrong.”  But the book is significant, and well worth arguing about, particularly because it describes in black and white many of the arguments and conflicts with which many of us have been concerned and which no one else has written about in so systematic a fashion.

Dr. David Dooley is professor emeritus of English.