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If we assign the color red to religious conservatives, as we do to their political counterparts, and blue to religious liberals, we'd probably have to paint the Respect Life Committee at Ascension Catholic Church the color purple.
Cara Carmody and Carol Price, who became the leaders of the Respect Life Committee at Ascension three years ago, refuse to be pigeonholed as being either conservative or liberal. "My parents chose Oak Park in the late '80s," Price explained, "because I have five adopted siblings and only one is Caucasian, so they wanted a town where their children would not be judged because they were Puerto Rican or African American. I think liberal is a good term. It can mean everyone is welcome, everyone is accepted, and you need to respect the people around you."
Price and Carmody, along with their neighbors and fellow church members, are all for human rights, which explains why they are pro-life, a posture usually labeled as conservative. "The abortion issue," Price said, "is not a women's issue. It's a human-rights issue."
The two women, both in their 30s, used the late Cardinal Bernardin's metaphor of the "seamless garment" to explain. To be ethically consistent, Bernardin argued, if you are anti-war and against capital punishment, then you have to be against abortion in most cases — and vice versa. He championed respect for life from the moment of conception to when people die a natural death.
And that means the position of Respect Life is consistent politically with neither the red nor the blue political parties in this country. What's more, they are trying to lose the image of the "pro-lifers" of 40 years ago who wore long denim skirts and "had kind of that look you associate with it."
"I think a lot of people," said Carmody, "see our Respect Life group as ultra-conservative and kind of crazy, that all we are about is abortion." That's not true, she said, partly because there are very liberal people in the group as well as conservatives, and because her committee has chosen not to focus on the abortion issue alone.
Anticipating statements made recently by Pope Francis, the Respect Life group in the last three years has, in Price's words, "not been a one-trick pony." They've focused on the elderly, the disabled, mental illness and suicide. An example of the group's broadened scope is the way they kicked off Respect Life Month on October 1. They and friends and fellow parishioners prayed the rosary for peace in the Middle East, for protection of the most vulnerable, for those who are mentally and physically ill, for the unborn and for mothers faced with a crisis pregnancy.
They not only anticipated the substance of the newly elected pope's comments but also his tone.
"We decided that because our parish is such a liberal parish," Carmody explained, "we were not going to be your typical 'pro life' group. We would be called Respect Life in order to win members and get people to open their minds and hearts. We talk about quite a variety of life issues." The sign that the parish allowed the committee to place outside the church building reads: "Life, God's most precious gift."
"Catholics abort at the same rate as everyone else," Price added, "so we assume that if Ascension is a more liberal part of the Catholic faith, then about 25 percent have had an abortion. So we try to tread very carefully. We don't want to offend people. We don't want to alienate people. We try to keep it very broad."
At the same time, they want the doctrine and ethics of the Catholic tradition to be clearly stated. They don't want their church to be "substance lite" by skirting some of the issues not accepted by the surrounding culture. "I'm more of the opinion that we deserve the truth," said Price. "I think our church owes that to us, to give us what our faith preaches, and then we can choose to follow it or not."
She added, "I think that for a long time the Catholic Church was perceived as fire and brimstone. Babies who were born and weren't baptized had to stay in limbo. If you passed away and weren't a Catholic in good standing, you couldn't be buried in a Catholic cemetery. I don't think anyone wants to go back to that."
But at the same Carmody and Price worry that the church has swung the ecclesiastical pendulum too far the other way. Price acknowledged that it's a "difficult line to toe." On the one hand she stated, "It's not our job to look at people going up to communion and say that person shouldn't be receiving." On the other hand, she is afraid the liberal wing of the church has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. "Just because something is traditional," she reasoned, "doesn't make it wrong. I think we kind of bent over backwards to make things relevant."
Referring to the violence we've seen lately in Kenya, Syria and just east of Austin Boulevard, Price said, "If you want to create a culture of life, this is the way you do it. You show that all life is precious, that there's nothing too small, that every person matters, that we don't get to play God."
Rounding out the schedule of events for their October emphasis on adoption, Respect Life has scheduled:
Oct. 17: Informational evening with representatives from Hephzibah and The Cradle providing information on adoption at 7 p.m.
Oct. 25: Happy Hour at Molly Malone's. All proceeds going to Heather's House.
Oct. 28: Connecting and Sharing event with families who have adopted children or are in the process of adopting in the Pine Room at Ascension at 7 p.m.