Catholic Church leaders have been a driving political force behind Proposition 115, a ballot initiative that seeks to ban abortion at 22 weeks of pregnancy in Colorado.
While the campaign to pass Prop. 115 hasn’t gotten much support, monetary or otherwise, from politically powerful anti-abortion organizations, Catholic Church leaders in Colorado have played an instrumental role in placing the initiative on the ballot, and are now working hard to make sure the initiative passes in November.
The Denver Archdiocese, with the leadership of staunch abortion rights foe Archbishop Samuel Aquila, has been particularly active.
The initiative would impose criminal penalties for doctors who perform abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases where not providing an abortion would pose an immediate threat to the life of the patient. There are no exceptions for rape, incest, the patient’s physical or mental health, or fetal diagnosis.
In June, proponents of the initiative celebrated after handily exceeding the threshold of 124,632 signatures for statutory initiatives, many of which had been collected by volunteers at Catholic Churches across the state before the COVID-19 pandemic was underway.
In a July letter, Aquila, along with Colorado Springs Bishop Michael J. Sheridan, Pueblo Bishop Stephen J. Berg, and Auxiliary Bishop of Denver Jorge Rodriguez, said that “Ending the legal protection for abortion is the most important political objective of Colorado Catholics because these children are deprived of their right to live.”
The bishops also wrote that “There has never been or will be a legitimate need to abort a 22-week-old baby in the womb.”
Data, reporting, and personal testimony from those who have sought abortions in the second and third trimester show a wide variety of situations that lead women to seek abortions later in pregnancy. The Boulder Abortion clinic, which is one of just a handful of clinics in the nation that accepts patients from anywhere for abortions late in pregnancy, serves patients with complicated medical issues, fetal diagnoses, minors, survivors of rape, and more.
Colorado is one of seven states that doesn’t impose gestational limits on abortion care, and thus serves as a rare point of unobstructed access for women nationwide when seeking an abortion later in pregnancy.
Aquila discussed his support for Prop. 115–and his stance that life begins at conception–in a recent interview with conservative KHOW radio host Dan Caplis and Kristi Burton Brown, the vice-chair of the Colorado GOP and a leader of failed initiatives to ban abortion in Colorado.
“Haven’t you been heavily involved in proposition 115 the effort to end late term abortion here in Colorado?” Burton Brown asked Aquila.
“Yes, yes that’s very close to my heart, the respect of the unborn child,” Aquila said. “Everyone’s life began when a sperm and ovum came together in our mother’s womb, attached to the wall, and that is when we began to grow and eventually become the people we are today.”
Last month, Aquila called for a rosary crusade, asking Catholics in his diocese to pray for an end to abortion.
Much of the church’s anti-abortion advocacy is filtered through the philanthropic arm of the Denver Archdiocese, Catholic Charities of Denver, which is a member organization of Catholic Charities USA. One of the nation’s largest charitable organizations, its main focus is on reducing poverty, and some of its most recent political advocacy includes calling for the strengthening of fair housing regulations, fighting President Trump’s attempt to shut out asylum seekers, and consumer protections against payday lending.
Catholic Charities of Denver is also on a mission to help the poor, but unlike its parent organization, anti-abortion advocacy is a critical focus of the organization, which operates its own anti-abortion pregnancy centers and hosts a “Celebrate Life” rally at the capitol each year that draws thousands of abortion opponents. It even has its own anti-abortion office, called Respect Life Denver, which does legislative advocacy and abortion clinic “sidewalk counseling” where volunteers stand outside abortion clinics and attempt to persuade those walking in against having an abortion.
The webpage for Respect Life Denver is full of resources for those who support Proposition 115, including a sign-up sheet for volunteers, a link to a graphic description of an abortion procedure, and a document outlining “how to have a conversation about Prop. 115.”
“We’ve got coalitions across the state working on educating people about this,” said Respect Life Denver Director Lynn Grandon in a radio interview last week with Caplis. “We just have to explain to people what’s happening with late-term abortion and why it’s wrong.”
During the same interview, Grandon praised Sister Deirdre Byrne’s speech at last week’s Republican National Convention (RNC), during which she framed “the unborn” as a “marginalized group” within the U.S.
“She hit it out the park, because she in all of her grace said, ‘You know, we forget that the largest marginalized group in the United States is the unborn’ and that’s why people don’t get worked about this, because abortion goes virtually unseen,” Grandon said. “That’s why we are really working hard right here in Colorado to work on Proposition 115.”
Grandon also praised Abby Johnson’s RNC speech, during which Johnson described abortion in graphic terms and criticized Planned Parenthood, and called Johnson a “friend.”
Johnson, a Planned Parenthood employee turned anti-abortion activist, is something of a celebrity in the anti-abortion movement despite the shaky details of her conversion narrative, her antiquated stance against women’s voting rights, and saying it would be “smart” for cops to racially profile her own biracial son (something which caused some Catholic leaders to denounce Johnson and call on the church to stop promoting her and her work).
Despite the trumpeting of RNC speakers, both Grandon and Caplis described Prop. 115 as a nonpartisan effort, and praised the Archdiocese for nonpartisanship.
“This is not a political issue, this is a moral issue,” Grandon said. “No matter who you vote for, you can vote yes for this.”
“We aren’t equal, and we’re never going to be”
Deacon Geoff Bennett, Catholic Charities’ Vice President of Parish and Community Relations, has been the most directly involved representative of the Catholic Church in the fight to pass Proposition 115, fielding questions from reporters and assisting directly with signature-gathering efforts during the spring.
During an April phone call, Bennett spoke with volunteers for Due Date Too Late, the frontmost group advocating for Prop. 115, and briefed them on the campaign’s signature collection efforts.
In a recording of the call, which the Colorado Times Recorder obtained from a source, Bennett can be heard telling supporters that he listened to a virtual town hall meeting hosted by the reproductive rights advocacy organization Cobalt, and appears to mock their efforts to work toward women’s equality:
“They were talking on there like they have all the answers, that it’s all this women’s rights and reproductive technology. They think it’s a disgrace that women aren’t equal to men. And for those of you who may not be sure, we aren’t equal and we’re never going to be. I don’t care what kind of laws they institute here in Colorado. It’s funny, Aristotle also has another really good quote that basically, the worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal, and that’s exactly what the other side is trying to do. For some reason, they think women are at a deficit to men, which is totally untrue.”
During the call, Bennett also framed the initiative as a stepping stone to passing stricter abortion restrictions in Colorado, a stance that is consistent with Aquila’s that life begins at conception and that all abortion must be stopped.
“We’re not going to stop,” Bennett said. “If we get this on the ballot and we get this approved, we’re going to do like many other states, eventually they’ve gotten heartbeat bills. But you can’t put the cart before the horse, and we wanna make sure we get this going now.”
Asked to clarify his remarks on women’s equality and the ultimate goal of banning all abortion, Bennett refused to address the subject matter directly, and instead asked me to come on his podcast.
“Madeleine, please join me as a guest on Respect Life Radio to discuss Proposition 115 and how we can all support pregnant moms and their babies,” Bennett wrote via email. “Readers of the Colorado Times Recorder, and all Coloradans, deserve a fair and open discussion on these life-and-death matters. Thank you for your consideration.”
I told Bennett that I’d come on his podcast if he responded to my inquiry for this story. He did not.
Bennett is the host of the Archdiocese’s Respect Life Radio podcast, where he primarily discusses abortion with activists, clergy, and others in the anti-abortion movement.
The most recent episode features an interview with Rebecca Kiessling, an anti-abortion activist who was conceived after her mother was raped and is now an advocate for the criminalization of abortion without exceptions for rape survivors.
In a statement provided to the Colorado Times Recorder, Cobalt President Karen Middleton argued that abortion is essential for establishing gender equality:
“This is why we center abortion access as an organization – it’s fundamental in establishing equality for all,” said Middleton. “There is nothing more simple, and more powerful, than each person’s ability to control their own body and to decide for themselves if, when, how, and why to have children. And this statement from the proponents of 115 confirms what we knew all along: that this measure is part of a national, coordinated effort with the ultimate goal of banning abortion altogether – for Coloradans and across the country. Every Coloradan who believes in equality, self-determination, and the right to make their own personal, private medical decisions should vote No on 115.”
During the call, Bennett also signaled that efforts to get other faith leaders on board with Prop. 115 have been challenging.
“Reaching out to other faith communities is going to be critical,” Bennett said. “Catholics are really important, but so is everyone else. Can we reach out to the evangelical churches that have been M.I.A. in terms of collecting signatures?”
Bennett also mentioned reaching out to mosques and synagogues, but then added that “unfortunately, many of them tend to support abortion.”
Not all Catholics
While Catholic leaders in Colorado are firm in their opposition to legal abortion, some Catholics have a different perspective on the matter.
“The fact of the matter is that the Catholic hierarchy, the bishops and those who make up the leadership of our church institutionally, are certainly not the only opinion in the Catholic Church,” said Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, president of Catholics for Choice, a national pro-choice advocacy organization.
In fact, recent polling from Catholics for Choice shows that 63 percent of Catholic voters in the U.S. think abortion should be legal, and six in 10 Catholics surveyed said they believe that having an abortion can be a morally acceptable decision.
“There are 70 million Catholics in the United States and nearly 900,000 in Colorado, and these folks, we are the church, as much as or even more so than the hierarchy of our church, especially when Catholics are considering public policy,” Ratcliffe said.
Ratcliffe added that while Catholics tend to have varied and complicated feelings about abortion, she believes that most Catholics view the decision of whether or not to have an abortion as a personal one, not one that should be codified into law.
“Catholics may be torn about their own feelings, but they understand that to make a law that usurps the individual conscience of people who are in need is wrong,” Ratcliffe said. “When we are making moral decisions for ourselves and for our families as Catholics, we actually are duty-bound by our religious faith to follow our individual conscience in matters of decision making. So for us, conscience is always the first and last arbiter of any moral decision.”
The concept of personal conscience is a key tenet of Catholic theology, and is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act.”
“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey,” the Catechism states. “Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”
Speaking at the Celebrate Life rally in Denver in January, Aquila said those who “participate in” abortion “have no conscience,” and that their consciences are “dead.”
Ratcliffe criticized Colorado bishops’ assertion that banning abortion is the most important issue of our time, especially at a time of great suffering and economic uncertainty.
“The idea that a supposed community leader like the bishop would stand up and say this is the most important issue of our time, it’s so far away from where most people are,” she said.
The rift between Catholics views on abortion rights was laid bare following the Democratic and Republican National Conventions last months, with Sister Simone Campbell’s speech at the DNC serving as a stark contrast to Sister Byrne’s.
Responding to questions about her stance on abortion, Campbell said it was “above my pay grade,” and during a 2016 interview with Democracy Now that “From my perspective, I don’t think it’s a good policy to outlaw abortion.”
Aquila criticized Campbell on twitter last week, writing that “This is about Catholic teaching, the seriousness of abortion, and never to be dismissive or flippant with so serious a matter. Catholic public persons & every Catholic has the responsibility to be faithful to the Gospel of Life.”
Aquila similarly urged Catholic voters to select an anti-abortion candidate for president during the 2016 election, saying in October of that year that “Catholics in good conscience cannot support candidates who will advance abortion.” It was all but an endorsement of Donald Trump, an unusually strong political statement for a Catholic prelate.
Aquila’s History of Anti-LGBTQ Advocacy
In addition to opposing abortion rights, Aquila and the Denver Archdiocese have been highly politically active in Colorado around LGBTQ issues.
Aquila was an outspoken opponent of a 2019 bill, passed by Colorado’s legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis, that made public school sex-ed programs more inclusive for LGBTQ students, include lessons on consent, and present the pregnancy outcome options of parenting, adoption, and abortion in a factual, unbiased manner. Thanks in part to the Archdiocese’s calls to action, social conservatives flooded the capitol in opposition to the bill, showing up in huge numbers to hearings and protests.
Gay conversation therapy, which was banned this year by Colorado lawmakers, has been another political focus of the Denver Archdiocese, which hosted a conference early last year that aimed to “heal homosexuals” and other “sexually broken” people.
Aquila once even suggested homosexuality as a root cause of the systemic sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. In Colorado, at least 166 children were sexually abused by 43 priests since 1950, according to a state-led investigation that found that the church for decades had been covering up evidence of the abuse.