Strong Faith, Strong Choice

I was raised Catholic and my faith is extremely important to me, but my position on choice has been - and remains to be - compelled by my conscience and my values, not by my church's policy.
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In the late 1980s, while serving as the Montana State Superintendent of Schools, I was caught in a firestorm of public scrutiny over my religious beliefs and my pro-choice values. After speaking at a pro-choice rally, Bishop Eldon Curtiss, of the Catholic Diocese of Helena, called only the two female statewide elected-officials who spoke - state auditor Andrea Bennet and me - and asked to meet with us individually to discuss our support for a woman's right to choose. I was raised Catholic and my faith is extremely important to me, but my position on choice has been - and remains to be - compelled by my conscience and my values, not by my church's policy. I agreed to meet with Bishop Curtiss at my office in the state Capitol, and with his reluctant permission, a reporter was permitted to sit in on the meeting.

The Bishop arrived at the Capitol in his Bishops Robes. There was an uneasiness in the office, kind of an electrified feeling. Religious leaders evoke a strong emotional and deferential response, especially, I think for Catholics. For 20 minutes, Bishop Curtiss spoke to me about why, as a public official and practicing Catholic, I had to hold strictly to the teachings of the Catholic Church, and he told me I could not be both pro-choice and Catholic. When he finished, I stood up, with my knees shaking, and shared my deeply held belief that while he can dictate in the halls of his cathedral, he cannot dictate in the halls of the Capitol. As a public official, I explained, I represented all women of all faiths.

The next morning, articles ran throughout the state recounting how I stood firm in my pro-choice beliefs during the meeting with the Bishop, setting off a firestorm of debate.

Letters to the editor appeared in all the major state newspapers. I personally received an overwhelming amount of letters, including some that included outright threats. But at the same time, there was an enormous outpouring of support from women all across Montana. I still remember studying the faces of my neighbors, and wondering who opposed and who supported my position.

A few days later, I received a letter from former vice-presidential candidate and pro-choice Catholic Geraldine Ferraro. She encouraged me to stand strong and not to back down. She reminded me that our country was built on the principle of the separation of church and state, and that it is elected officials' responsibility to prevent the imposition of one particular religious belief on the people of their state. She also reminded me that even as we are people of faith, we can be people of faith and pro-choice.

That next Sunday, while I wanted to avoid any potential conflict, I still walked my aging mother into our church. I had hoped, especially for my mother's sake, to avoid a scene, but during a handshake known as the sign of peace in the Catholic mass, the woman behind me offered her hand and said, "The Bishop is right. May you burn in hell."

I was struck by the hostility I was facing from the people my mother prayed with in church everyday. It is one thing as an elected official to become the target of abuse, often hate, and sometimes intimidation and threat - but to have your family exposed to it, especially in the church, is virtually unbearable.

My mother, in her lovely way, wanted to have donuts and coffee at the church afterwards. I agreed to join her. There, I was again struck by a painful contrast: Our neighbors and colleagues chose not to sit with us. But there were also women who put their hands on my shoulder, leaned over and whispered in my ear, "We are with you, we are with you." Even though they felt they could not publicly support me by sitting at our table, they still had the courage to offer their solidarity and urge me on, simply by saying, "We are with you. Stand firm."

As difficult as it was, my experience at the church reminded me I was doing the right thing. Looking back, it was one of the most memorable, challenging, and invigorating experiences of my life. It reinforced for me the most important part of standing up for what you believe, even in the face of adversity, including the implicit threat, as it was for me, of excommunication from my church.

As president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, experiences like this one from my service as an elected official emphasize why it is critical for organizations like ours to stand with candidates who stand up for our values. It's inaccurate for the other side of this debate to paint us as anti-religious. Catholics and non-Catholics alike make up America's pro-choice majority, and I salute the many people of all faiths who in large and small ways understand the principle that women make decisions by hearing their God with their own two ears.