Remembering Bill Doherty

In December 1980, I spent several hours talking with Mike Hammer, a field representative in El Salvador of the American Institute for Free Labor Development. AIFLD, an overseas development affiliate of the AFL-CIO, was trying to bring some sense into the polarized politics of El Salvador, a country coming apart at the seams. A few weeks after we met, that violent polarization cost Mike Hammer his life.

When Hammer and two of his AIFLD colleagues were murdered in El Salvador in January 1981, I wrote a memorial essay in the Seattle Weekly, praising these martyrs for decency and democracy. Such were the politics of the time that this tribute to three good men got me into the hottest of hot water with the Seattle-area Left, represented by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. (Thirty years later, when the Mitrokhin Archive, a huge cache of KGB documents, was published, it was revealed that CISPES was a front created by the KGB, the Soviet secret intelligence service, to advance communist interests in Latin America.) The memory of those debates is not what I cherish, however, in thinking back on this episode. What I remember is that my memorial essay was reprinted in AIFLD’s newsletter and became the occasion for meeting William Charles Doherty Jr., who died this past Aug. 28.

Bill Doherty was one of the great Catholic laymen of 20th-century America.  A bear of a man who had been a defensive lineman at Catholic University during his student days, Bill dedicated his professional life to trade unionism as an instrument of democracy-building (and hence peace-making) in Latin America. Free trade unions, he believed, were crucial components of the civil society that made democracy possible. By helping build those kinds of worker associations, Bill and his AIFLD colleagues were not only giving the poor the tools by which to pull themselves and their families out of poverty; they were giving democracy a chance in places where it had never taken root.

When I brought Bill Doherty to Seattle to speak, some of the salient aspects of his singular personality became evident. The first question he asked me, on arrival, was, “Where can I go to Mass tomorrow morning?”  A daily communicant, Bill prepared for political combat by prayer and the sacraments, his deep faith nourished intellectually by his fidelity to Catholic social doctrine.

Then there was his contempt for the juvenile leftism of CISPES and its fellow-travelers, on whom he heaped scorn and ridicule with relish. Having fought communists for the control of trade unions throughout the western hemisphere, Bill Doherty wasn’t about to take any guff from the pre-grunge, pre-Starbucks radicals of the Puget Sound area. They tried to call him a tool of the propertied class. “How dare you call me an oligarch?” he roared back.

Bill Doherty was an equal opportunity opponent of tyranny, whether it was the communist tyranny threatening El Salvador and Nicaragua or the rightist tyranny entrenched in Chile, Argentina and Paraguay. He fought them all and he enjoyed the battle. He never hated markets; he wanted them to work fairly, for everyone. He didn’t believe in class warfare; he believed in building the infrastructure of freedom. He cheered John Paul II’s assault on communism in central and eastern Europe, just as he worked to help give organizational expression to the democratic revolution that John Paul encouraged in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.

Like others of his generation of lay Catholic leaders, Bill Doherty was a political liberal who believed in the widest possible participation in government, an economic pragmatist who wanted to open networks of productivity and exchange to everyone, and a Christian radical who believed that the Gospel was the truth of the world. The stupidities (and worse) of many Catholic activists and journalists in Central America in the 1980s grieved him. But he never lost faith, and he was always willing to welcome converts to the pro-democracy movement. He was a big man in every sense of the word; the biggest thing about him was his big heart.

He now lives in the embrace of the divine solidarity.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”