ex-Planned Parenthood Director seeks to come into the Church

If you have been on the Ignatius Press mailing list, you cannot have missed their promotion of Abby Johnson’s new book “un-Planned”. Yesterday, the online edition of Catholic San Francisco was running this story: Former Planned Parenthood Director to convert to Catholicism.

From that story:

Abby Johnson, 30, who will speak at the 11 a.m. Walk for Life West Coast rally in San Francisco Jan. 22, is preparing with her husband Doug to enter the Catholic Church in her native Texas within the next few months. The couple has a 4-year-old daughter.

“When we went to the Catholic Church for the first time we knew that was where we were supposed to be and we have been there ever since,” said Johnson, who said she particularly loves the church’s reverence for Mary as the mother of God. “The more we started learning about the beliefs of the church and the Eucharist and everything, it seemed like this was what had been missing our whole lives.”

After eight years as a Planned Parenthood volunteer and employee, Johnson walked away from her job as director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan/College Station, Texas, Oct. 6, 2009 during a prayer vigil by 40 Days for Life. Johnson, who had two abortions at 20 and at 23, first began working as a clinic escort while a student at Texas A&M University. Assisting with an ultrasound during an abortion in September 2009 turned her into a pro-life advocate.

Johnson’s embrace of Catholicism was a natural development after she became pro-life but was precipitated by her pro-choice Episcopalian community’s vocal rejection of her change of heart, she said. Even before the dramatic experience of assisting in an ultrasound abortion, Johnson said God had been calling to her for several months through the penitential rite of the Episcopal service, which is similar to the Catholic prayer. With the Episcopalian Church one of the largest donors to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Johnson said she and her husband were not going to remain at the church anyway.

But, like me when I realised that in conscience I had no choice but to seek communion with the Catholic Church, there is a problem:

Johnson is in the process of obtaining an annulment of the marriage to the man who was her husband at the time she had her abortions, so that she and her husband Doug can convalidate their marriage and enter the church. “We are ready to come into the church as soon as we are able,” Johnson said.

I know from personal experience what this “soon as we are able” means. It means a long wait with no certainty of the outcome. Annulments are not “church divorces” – you don’t get one just because you apply for one. And in the case of converts, this means you may be facing a situation where you meet a road-block in your earnest desire to enter the Catholic Church. There are alternatives, of course. If it turns out that the Church says your first marriage was valid, the Church is effectively calling you to repentance and to a life of sexual celibacy within your second marriage. Not an easy call.

I thank God that I didn’t have to face this decision. If I had, I think I would have been caught in a half-way house, because I don’t think I could have – or indeed would have – embraced such a call to celibacy. Not just because of my own desires – in fact least of all for that reason – but also because of the pledge I made to my wife when I married her. Yet I would not have turned away from the Catholic Church. I would have chosen to live like one the Catechumens in the early Church, fully participating in the life of the Church but without the benefit of the sacraments.

Of course, a major difference between the divorced and remarried Christian convert seeking communion with the Catholic Church is that they have already been baptised, and this sacramental character and grace would have been what I would have had to rely upon in my Christian life. Of course, that is still true today, even though I have had the grace of completing Confirmation, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist since. It is in fact an irony that the it is because the Catholic Church recognises Christian baptism performed in ecclesiastical communities not in full communion with her that former marriages celebrated in these Churches between baptised Christians require annulment. Things would be easier – but wrong – if we were like some Orthodox communties that do not recognise baptism performed “outside the Church” (as they call it).

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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20 Responses to ex-Planned Parenthood Director seeks to come into the Church

  1. matthias says:

    Takes a lot of guts to come out publicly and say “yep ‘we’re bercomming Catholics”. Now if she said she was becoming Bahai,or Scientology ,there would be greater acceptance.

  2. Tony says:

    I would have chosen to live like one the Catechumens in the early Church, fully participating in the life of the Church but without the benefit of the sacraments.

    This seems to get into the area of plain speaking we’re both so fond of, David. ;-)

    It seems a contradiction in terms to be ‘fully’ participating while not having the benefit of the sacraments.

    It’s like saying, I’m a fully participating citizen of this country but I never vote.

    • Gareth says:

      I will readily admit my eyebrows also raised when reading this?

      Would one really?

      • Schütz says:

        John Paul II once addressed this question in Familiaris Consortio:

        “Together with the Synod, I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life. They should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favor of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace. Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope.”

        One should, perhaps, have said “as fully as possible”. Let us remember that those who died as Catechumens were usually judged to have belonged already to the Church, and not to be outside of salvation.

  3. Gareth says:

    It is such a hard and delicate topic –up there with the toughest of them all. Who would want to be in a priest’s shoes considering they would have to deal with such matters regularly, all whilst defending the church’s position in the process?

    In no way take this as a ‘having a go’, but I will readily admit that based on my own experience of witnessing marriage break-up’s and re-marriages in the Church, I am left bitterly confused and wondering does the Church really have a consistent teaching or pratice what it preaches.

    I have two friends that married in the Church at a very, very young age (20, 21) and there marriages ended in separation in as little as two or three years later. Basically, at the ripe age of 23-24, if they want to continue practising the Catholic faith they are faced with never ever having a life partner for as long as they live or alternatively (as they have done) they can ditch the Church and move onto greener pastures.

    Yet, I know of other more mature people who were allowed to re-marry in the Church after having two or three children from a previous civil marriage, based on the premise that their first marriage was outside the Church to a party who by mere co-incidence was a baptised Catholic.

    And there are the endless stories of Catholics (I know one case of a person with seven children??) that somehow mysteriously gained an annulment, but when pressed for the reasons probably wouldn’t know themselves, yet there is the group other poor Catholics who naively entered into marriage and saw it alll blow-up, yet don’t have any chance or they are too respectful of the Church to even consider the matter.

    The Catholic Church being faithful to the permanency of marriage and being consistent – yeah right.

    That’s my bitch for the day, but in all seriousness, it all send out a confusing message.

    • Louise says:

      Given the terrible effects of the no-fault divorce laws upon marriages generally, with so many now resulting in separation and divorce, I’m inclined to think the Church should toughen up her annulment regulations (if possible) pretty much for the reasons Gareth mentions. When applications for annulments were far fewer, b/c there were fewer marriage break-ups, this was not much of an issue.

      • Schütz says:

        Yes, and that is fair enough, Louise. I do just observe that it makes it very difficult for a non-Catholic in such a situation to enter the Catholic Church. I fully understand and concur with the Church’s position.

        But consider the three following situations of converts to the Church who have divorced and remarried:

        1) An unbaptised person, who may have had many previous marriages and divorces and is currently married
        2) A person who was baptised in the Catholic Church, but was not raised in nor ever practiced the faith and whose previous marriage or marriages took place outside the Church and without a dispensation
        3) A person who was baptised outside the Catholic Church, and was not raised in nor ever practiced his faith, and who married another non-Catholic but baptised person before divorcing and remarrying

        Of all these, the first would have his marriages automatically dissolved, the second automatically annuled, and the third… Well, he would have the most difficulty of all.

        • Louise says:

          It’s *all* very distressing, if you ask me. Consider the main issue of “inability to contract” (if that’s the correct terminology), which seems to be the main reason for getting an annulment. If marriages can be fairly easily annulled where the groom had been under the age of 25, then it seems to me the Church should start forbidding marriages to men under the age of 25. Either that, or become a bit more hard-arsed about the guidelines for establishing an “inability to contract.”

          It’s lamentable that there should ever be impediments to people who wish to come into the Church, but what’s the alternative? A free-for-all on the issue of marriage? Just so we can have as many spouses as we like in succession – as per the general population?

          In fact, the thing which would solve a lot of these difficulties would be the restoration of the old divorce laws, but that’s a matter for the civil law.

          • Gareth says:

            At the heart of the problem with modern-day annulments is that its meaning has been badly disorted.

            Traditionally, marriage is indissolvable; an annulment (“Decree of Nullity”) is a finding by a Church tribunal that on the day of the marriage vows an essential element for a valid marriage was lacking.

            An annulment cannot be granted on what partakes in the marriage afterwards. It pertains to the conditions and intentions of the parties on the wedding day. In fact, grounds for legitimate annulments, before the last century, were very limited such as a marriage between blood relatives.

            • Louise says:

              Yes, I know the difference between dissolution and nullity, but I’m just pointing out that if marriages are lasting and there are few civil divorces (and hence few people wanting to “repartner” then annulment is not going to be sought). Do you see what I’m saying?

              Anyway, it seems to me that the Church must tighten something up. It must revise some of its rules/guidelines.

              So, has the Church generally made conditions for annulment different in recent times, Gareth?

            • Gareth says:

              Louise: So, has the Church generally made conditions for annulment different in recent times, Gareth?

              Gareth: In response to this question, I would have thought that if the granting of annulments has grown from a mere handful worldwide as little as a generation ago to thousands upon thousands per year in the present age, the answer is a very obvious yes.
              Try googling, ‘Are present-day annulments to be taken seriously’? by Fr. Paul Sretenovic, for a good take on how the new Code of Canon Law exaggerates the concessions of annulments.

              Agree that something has to be done to revise some of its rules/guidelines. The Church can’t teach on one hand that marriage is forever and yet on the other grant thousands of annulments and expect to be still respected?

        • Gareth says:

          Hi David,

          I realise that this may be a sensitive and personal topic, David, but I hope you respect my own feelings based on my own personal experiences on the matter that the Catholic Church’s practical application marriage at a local level can send rather confusing message to the faithful and result in a great injustice particularly to those Catholics who were naïve and married at a young age, only to see it end in tragedy a few years later.

          I am not sure what sort of message is sent to the Catholic whose marriage breaks up at a young age and has no hope for the future, when they see other people who are allowed to re-marry with the Church’s approval due to the fact that by mere co-incidence their circumstances related to some of the quirky scenarios you have posted?

          What I am trying to say is the Catholic Church should communicate more thoroughly the precise criteria for when a marriage is true and valid and binding in the eyes of God other than a couple may be standing before a Catholic minister on their wedding day.

          To not do so leaves the faithful scratching their heads and left wondering that the Church like so many things does not truly practice what it preaches

    • Louise says:

      Incidentally, Gareth, your friends who have left the Church for “greener pastures” are discovering (or will discover) that those pastures are not green at all. Quite apart from anything else, second marriages have even less chance of succeeding, statistically.

      • Gareth says:

        Hi Louise,

        Thanks for the response.

        I think in one case I mentioned (it is a very real situation), the person didn’t see much good in being a single Catholic for the next sixty years and lost all hope and ‘moved on’ by being ‘shacked up’. I am sure he is enjoying himself, but I don’t think I will see much of him in Church anymore.

        Seriously sad and discouraging to think in as little as five years ago, I was in the congregation praying for his marriage.

        • Louise says:

          It’s very sad indeed, Gareth, I know exactly what you mean. The problem is that in the past his marriage would most likely have lasted (and possibly they may have got over their problem/s) b/c there was social pressure to remain in the marriage and work things out. Now, as soon as people have trouble, they bail out. At any rate, there is no reason to consider that he is “happy.” People always assume that if people are “partnered” with whomever they are currently on good terms with, then they’ll be happy.

          The choices are seen as:
          1. Stay and be unhappy.
          2. Go and be happy.

          (So facile). Apart from anything else, a third possibility exists:

          3. Stay and work through your troubles and be happy.

          Some studies have shown that divorce does not necessarily make people any happier (whatever that means and however it’s measured).

          • Gareth says:

            Yes, bloody Lionel Murphy has a lot to answer for the state of Australian society.

            Do you also know that no fault divorce (like other things such as child-care) has its origins in Godless communist Russia?

            • Louise says:

              Why am I not surprised (Re: Russia)?

              Thanks for the tip about the liberality of annulments. I certainly suspect greater leniency than previously and greater than is good for society and the Church. In which case, it is mostly just a matter of bishops being far too liberal with the sacrament, as with everything else.

  4. Joshua says:

    I for one am stonkered to learn that the Episcopalian Church (so-called) is a major donor to the “Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice”, even more so than to find that her “Christian” fellow-parishioners vocally rejected her change from pro-choice to pro-life: how unutterably grotesque! Those persons may as well be honest and go join the Church of Satan.

  5. Matthias says:

    the Episcopal Church wonders why it is dying. supporting “Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice” may be a hint

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