OUR Teaching Moment: What We Can Learn from the March for Life Incident

If you’ve been on social media at all the past few days, you’ve likely seen the disturbing story of a group of teenage boys from Covington Catholic High School taunting/mocking/chanting at a Native American elder.  The teens, who had traveled with their Kentucky Catholic high school to attend the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, engaged Nathan Phillips, an elder of the Omaha Tribe who was in DC for the Indigenous People’s March, a new march organized to bring attention to injustices that indigenous people face across the globe.

Some accounts (including Phillips’s own story) suggest that Phillips stepped in to try to defuse a tense situation between the teens and another group of young men.  Other media have reported that it actually was Phillips who escalated the situation, though in both scenarios, the students mock the elder.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington quickly condemned the boys’ actions, insisting that “this behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on dignity and respect of the human person.”  The diocese goes on to say that they are investigating the matter and will take “appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.”

While we can debate the “they said/he said” of who started the altercation, and while the Diocese was right to condemn the teens’ actions, these responses are just distractions from a much larger socially and culturally ingrained problem of wealth, social, political, religious, and white privilege.

These young men attend what I believe to be a predominantly white school (from what I can find, the school’s facts and figures does not provide a racial breakdown of its students) that is cost-prohibitive for most students, and particularly for students of color.  Tuition and fees for in-diocese students comes in at just over $9,000 per year.  Many of the boys were wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, a slogan popularized by Donald Trump, whose own approach to interacting with people who are different from him includes mocking and taunting.  Trump’s actions – family separations at the border, rolling back protections for DACA recipients, travel bans, his attempts to criminalize immigrants and people of color, the way he talks about and treats women, his month-long government shutdown over a $5 billion border wall – reflects a vision of a “Great America” that is a white, male dominated America.

These young men also were attending the March for Life, participation which, on its face, can be commended.  At the same time, the March for Life has taken on a public image, at least in (admittedly) liberal/progressive Catholic circles, of a specifically conservative strand of Catholicism that champions ending abortions as THE prolife issue.  I want to be clear, abortion IS an important moral problem.  However, focusing solely on abortion overlooks the complexity of what being “right to life” actually means and overlooks the myriad of reasons why women choose to have abortions.

In The Gospel of Life, the late Pope John Paul II writes:

On the one hand, the various declarations of human rights and the many initiatives inspired by these declarations show that at the global level there is a growing moral sensitivity, more alert to acknowledging the value and dignity of every individual as a human being, without any distinction of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or social class.

On the other hand, these noble proclamations are unfortunately contradicted by a tragic repudiation of them in practice. This denial is still more distressing, indeed more scandalous, precisely because it is occurring in a society which makes the affirmation and protection of human rights its primary objective and its boast. How can these repeated affirmations of principle be reconciled with the continual increase and widespread justification of attacks on human life? How can we reconcile these declarations with the refusal to accept those who are weak and needy, or elderly, or those who have just been conceived? These attacks go directly against respect for life and they represent a direct threat to the entire culture of human rights. It is a threat capable, in the end, of jeopardizing the very meaning of democratic coexistence: rather than societies of “people living together”, our cities risk becoming societies of people who are rejected, marginalized, uprooted and oppressed. If we then look at the wider worldwide perspective, how can we fail to think that the very affirmation of the rights of individuals and peoples made in distinguished international assemblies is a merely futile exercise of rhetoric, if we fail to unmask the selfishness of the rich countries which exclude poorer countries from access to development or make such access dependent on arbitrary prohibitions against procreation, setting up an opposition between development and man himself? Should we not question the very economic models often adopted by States which, also as a result of international pressures and forms of conditioning, cause and aggravate situations of injustice and violence in which the life of whole peoples is degraded and trampled upon? (no. 18).

Many progressive Catholics, while noting the pontiff’s strong and unwavering condemnation of abortion, also draw on his work in The Gospel of Life, as well as on Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s Seamless Garment argument  to advocate for a more complete pro-life movement that identifies abortion as one of many right-to-life issues that also include a focus on poverty, racism, capital punishment, euthanasia, and war.  Nonetheless, conservative Catholics bring the prolife movement back again and again to abortion.  The Catholic League speaks about the untenable nature of the seamless garment approach.

When we put all of these things together, we have a group of young men attending an expensive, mostly-white school, bearing the slogan of a racist and misogynistic president, attending a march that has privileged abortion as a more important life issue than the effects of poverty, racism, and violence. We should not be surprised by their behavior.

I’ve seen many people encourage these young men to use this incident as a teaching moment.  They’ve been told to go to Native American museums.  Or to invite Native American speakers to these schools.  And these actions may be helpful.  But, really, it’s we as a society who need to use this incident as a teaching moment.  How are we raising our young people?  What are we teaching them?  This is our teaching moment.