Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Matt Cato stands prominent in the background as Lesly Chavez and mom Adela hold signs at start of a 40-day vigil outside Planned Parenthood in Northeast Portland in 2010.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Matt Cato stands prominent in the background as Lesly Chavez and mom Adela hold signs at start of a 40-day vigil outside Planned Parenthood in Northeast Portland in 2010.

In 2009, the Archdiocese of Portland merged its Offices of Justice and Peace and Respect Life. The joinder was meant to energize and contextualize two important church movements, ministries whose members before may have been separated by political affiliation.

The union is ongoing.  

"To me, it makes perfect sense," says Matt Cato, director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace. "Respect for life is also social justice. Life and dignity of the human person are the foundation of Catholic social teaching."

Cato says the mutual effort snares the "power of and," leaving behind the relatively weak "either or."

The U.S. Bishops’ Respect Life Program begins each year on Respect Life Sunday, the first Sunday in October. This year, Oct. 7 starts the 30th annual effort nationwide.
Catholic social teaching, including opposition to abortion, is based on scripture, says Cato. "Thou shalt not kill" does not offer much wiggle room.

"Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person-among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. . . .Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law."

Cato looks at the facts: 53 million abortions in the U.S. since Roe v Wade; about 12,000 abortions per year in Oregon. The state leads the way in assisted suicide and still has capital punishment on the books. For him, respect for life is an urgent and primary issue.

"Deciding whether a human person lives or dies is an individual choice now," he says, dismayed. "How in the world did we get to that?"

Cato answers his own question in part. Especially in the American West, the largely invented image of the "rugged individual" has outpaced the reality of our founding — people aided each other and looked to the common good. But now, autonomy has ballooned and it's a value to do whatever one wants, even if it runs counter to communal sense and natural law.

"I don't want anyone to think I want to limit legitimate rights, but where do we get to the point where we make individual choices for the good of a baby, for the good of the community?" Cato asks.

He envisions a strong Catholic-led pro-life movement, in which people are inspired to protect all life not because of politics, but because of faith.

The structure of U.S. politics means someone who embraces the full spectrum of Catholic teaching has no comfortable political home, says Cato. A candidate who opposes abortion, supports anti-poverty spending, counters the death penalty and speaks up for protecting the environment will not get elected, he explains. But he maintains that Catholics can speak up on issues that matter to them, and they can register voters.  

Cato meets quarterly with the chairpersons of parishes respect life ministries. Everyone prays, shares experiences and lends support. The leaders say they had never before met anyone from the justice and peace office. The idea is to sustain the ministries. Since the meetings began, the number of parishes with committees has increased.

"There is a lot of enthusiasm," Cato reports. "People are so excited to be with each other."   

He affirms what the parish groups already know — along with ending abortion, the church must continue supporting mothers and children. In addition to the many Catholic programs doing just that, the church has an obligation to advocate for government aid. If society can remove financial pressures, that will end the reason cited for 7 in 10 abortions.

Cato highlights other church efforts like adoption services and aid for women — and men — suffering trauma as a result of abortion.

Father Tim Mockaitis, associate director of the office, focuses on respect life activities. By coordinating parish groups, the office energizes volunteers and fosters awareness of the "bigger picture," says Father Mockaitis, who is also pastor of Queen of Peace Parish in Salem.

Part of Father Mockaitis' job is encouraging fellow clergy to plan respect life activities in their parishes. Many pastors avoid the topic.

"It is very important that we get people to think about all the life issues — abortion, death penalty, assisted suicide, human trafficking, poverty, war and peace," he says. "My hope is that people learn the fact that the church is not myopic on this. As important as the unborn child is, it's also about life beyond birth. It's about the dignity of the human person."

Father Mockaitis knows the prevailing culture does not support the unswerving Catholic position. "People today have a utilitarian approach," he says.  
A few years ago, Catholics involved in respect life ministries were asking why Portland's Catholic Campaign for Human Development hadn't funded a group focused on the pro-life cause.

Matt Cato, then the new director of the Archdiocese of Portland's Office of Justice and Peace, did some record checking. None had ever applied for one of the anti-poverty grants.

But then Madonna's Center, a pro-life outreach to young mothers and families, won funding to get its ministry going strong. Cato welcomes more pro-life applicants in the future.

There are criteria. Grants are not for charitable work but for social justice undertakings, which seek to change structures that cause poverty. Projects must have the people in poverty as the main voice running the effort — it's about people helping themselves.   

Grants are not only for Catholic groups, but for those who work for the common good and for values held dear by the church. Projects must meet Catholic moral standards, something that Cato oversees himself. He recently withdrew funding from an agency that listed Planned Parenthood in a resource guide given to clients.

Projects in the Archdiocese of Portland always receive more money from the national CCHD program than local Catholics give to the annual collection, taken up the weekend before Thanksgiving. A quarter of what Catholics give stays in the archdiocese.