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Interview with Jon O’Brien


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/07/01


Jon O’Brien is the President, Catholics for Choice. He discusses: Roman Catholic Church faith community issues regarding pro-choice and pro-life; and the contrast between the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the lay public with consideration of Aquinas as well as Augustine where conscience is the final arbiter.

Keywords: Catholics for Choice, conscience, Jon O’Brien, pro-choice, pro-life, Roman Catholic Church.

Interview with Jon O’Brien: President, Catholics for Choice[1],[2],[3]

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, we have talked about the Catholic faith and reproductive health as well as the situation in America regarding both of those. I wanted to touch base again talking about some of the more up to date issues around prochoice as well as around the discussion within the faith because you would know the situation better than I would.

So, what are some of the more pressing issues within the faith community – within the Roman Catholic Church now regarding prochoice and prolife?

Jon O’Brien: One of the biggest problems is the disconnect between the Catholic hierarchy and the Catholic people on issues of contraception and abortion. For example, in the failing days of the Pinochet regime of Chile, the Catholic hierarchy there pressured General Pinochet to introduce a restrictive anti-abortion law. In 2017, Chile, a country that is still predominantly Catholic, changed this Pinochet-era law on abortion. We see that sort of law all over the world, especially in Latin America.

We also see that as people have a deeper understanding of human rights, civil rights, women’s rights and the idea of conscience and autonomy, there is a change in the way Catholics can be stereotypically viewed as “Oh, he’s Catholic. he must be anti-abortion.”

The reality is that whether it is Poland, Portugal, the Philippines, Peru or Pittsburgh in the United States, what we find most is Catholics living according to values that contradict in some areas what the hierarchy has been teaching.

So, in Chile, the prime minister Michelle Bachelet introduced a law that would reform the total ban on abortion. The country now allows abortions in limited cases: for pregnancies resulting from violence against women as with the case of rape, for fetal abnormalities and to save the health of the woman.

And what is significant is we’re seeing Catholic voters and Catholic politicians no longer feeling intimidated by the institutional Church and standing up and saying as Catholics, “We don’t see a contradiction between allowing people to follow their conscience,” which is a Catholic thing.

Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine taught us that conscience is the final arbitrator in moral decision making. So, you’re seeing this teaching asserted by Catholics regarding personal freedom. You’re also seeing it around LGBT issues as well.

Here in the United States, Catholics supported gay marriage. Sometimes at a higher level than others. Although the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic hierarchy ran really highly funded campaigns against the idea of marriage equality, they lost.

In the Republic of Ireland, the country of my birth, we’ve seen a referendum on the same subject. In other words, the people themselves voted in favor of marriage equality, despite the views of the Catholic hierarchy.

I don’t think this change means that Catholics today are less Catholic. It means the Catholic people are standing up and living social justice as they see it. The difficulty for those of a more conservative view is that they don’t see the Church authority as vested in the hierarchy being obeyed.

Catholics are making decisions for themselves. They say, “Your baptism makes you Catholic.” Being Catholic is not a litmus test as to whether you adhere to the letter of law in every teaching. Nor does it mean you get up in the morning and do whatever you want to do. It means you properly form a conscience and follow it. You must examine your conscience and that is a serious process of looking at what the church leaders have said, looking at what the Church has written and looking at your impact on others.

Being careful and present with what you’re doing is the reason 99 percent of Catholic women who are sexually active in the United States use a method of birth control that bishops don’t like.

You find that the world over. You go to a clinic in Kenya or you go to a clinic in Uganda, and you will find Catholic women doing the same thing that they would do in Canada or the United States. They are doing the best for themselves and for their families and for their communities.

2. Jacobsen: When it comes to the hierarchy of the Catholic church, in contrast to much of the lay public and as you noted with Aquinas as well as Augustine, as far as conscience being the final arbiter, do you feel the Catholic laity are living closer to the fundamental values of the Catholic faith?

O’Brien: It sounds unbelievable, but we are the true traditionalists. I have seen many good things within traditional Catholicism. I appreciate those who are singing nuns or whatever, but I do value the traditional aspects of Catholicism.

However, when it comes to stuff like this, “Are you a cafeteria Catholic?” they say as an insult. Choose responsibly to use birth control, use a condom to prevent HIV; or if a marriage breaks down and you find yourself in a divorced situation, the reality is that Catholics who live in the real world are applying a lot of social justice principles around the decision making they have.

It’s traditional to understand, believe and follow that conscience is the final arbiter in moral decision making.

So, when Catholics make decisions, even if it goes against what a bishop says, they’re doing the right thing. Doing the wrong thing would be doing what the bishop says even though it is wrong. Catholicism has this huge internal logic that we see Catholics followings these days.

You must understand that. I’m sure there are many in the Catholic hierarchy that believe that following a teaching that is fundamentally flawed, such as that on contraception, is the right thing to do. Many of them in good faith do believe this church teaching: that each time you have sex you must remain open to the transmission of life.

What I fear is that it’s a much more political rather than pastoral decision. The birth control commission was set up by Pope John XXIII during the early 1960s. The contraceptive pill had been invented by Doctor John Rock, an Irish Catholic physician in Boston.

Contraception in the form of the pill meant that there was the possibility that women worldwide and Catholic women worldwide would be able to access a method of birth control that could improve the lives and freedoms of women and for people to have sexual relations without having children that they could not afford and could not look after.

This was a revolutionary moment in the early 60s. John XXIII was a modernizing pope. He was the guy that set up the process for Vatican II that took the nuns out of their convents and out in the community to the front lines in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua.

And it was John XXIII who believed in aggiornamento, the Italian phrase used to mean bringing the church up to date. He said to the guys at the Vatican, “Do you think we should put this in Vatican II?” They were more of the conservative bent.

They were concerned that Vatican II would get out of their control, which it did. They said to him, “No, with this birth control thing, why don’t we set up a birth control commission?” So, they got together with a bunch of priests, bishops and cardinals, and the birth control commission started meeting in the early 60s. Sadly, John XXIII passed away; Pope Paul VI took over in 1965.

Pope Paul VI looked at the commission and he had a rather strange notion. He thought maybe the birth control commission, cardinals, bishops and priests would benefit from having some people who had sex advising them. They went around the world and they found some faithful, married Catholic couples and brought them along to talk to the birth control commission.

The stories they told so moved the people of the commission. What they were talking about was married life and how, especially when it’s hard to put bread on the table and hard to get your kids educated, many couples struggle. Could you imagine if you had a couple of kids and you were fearful that every time you wanted to be intimate with your husband it could result in another pregnancy, another mouth to feed? They spoke about that.

The medical phrase grand multipara, it was invented in, believe it or not, the Republic of Ireland in Dublin. It was people in the maternity hospital noticing women who gave birth after birth after birth until they died and were so worn out and sick.

There was a consciousness around that situation when the lay people, lay married people, spoke to the bishops about married life when you don’t have the ability to control your own fertility. And this is why I believe in miracles, because in the hearts and minds of those bishops, those cardinals changed. The majority report that came out in the late 60s from the birth control commission, which said there was no impediment, nothing to stop the Church changing its teaching on contraception.

Imagine what that would mean for the Catholic Church, having waged a war against the use of condoms. It has charities around the world that control people’s access to what healthcare they get.

Imagine what it would mean for women in developing countries who still today will die because they can’t control the number or spacing of their children. Would it not have been a revolutionary moment when this birth control commission of faithful cardinals and bishops listening to the lay people came forward and said, “Yes, you can change this ban on contraception; each time you have sex, it doesn’t have to be open to the transmission of life.”?

The Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Will wrote a good book called Papal Sin, and I highly recommend it to people because Gary talked to a lot of people involved in the birth control commission. He looks at why it was that Pope John Paul VI rejected the majority finding of the commission: ultimately, because he didn’t have enough faith in Catholics. Instead, he listened to the ultraconservative voices that were surrounding him. They told him that if he admitted that the birth control commission was right, if he reversed the ban on contraception, then the whole Church would fall apart. Next thing, they would want changes on this, that and the other.

It’s quite possible we would want a lot more change. However, the cynicism of deciding that they’re going to reject the majority support is astounding. I’m sure the Holy Spirit was guiding that majority report and accepting a minority report was wrong. It was wrong to continue the ban on contraception, and to this day that minority report is the reason why in the United States we have bishops lobbying the Trump administration to take no cost contraception out of the Affordable Care Act.

This is the legacy of that minority report. Today we still have bishops lobbying here in the United States, lobbying as the Holy See in the United Nations and lobbying around the world to stop people from being able to exercise their free conscience when it comes to contraception, reproductive health care or abortion.

3. Jacobsen: Thank you much for your time again, Jon.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1President, Catholics for Choice.

[2] Individual Publication Date: July 1, 2018 at; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2018 at


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