Bryan Kemper, Lila Rose and Abby Johnson have followed different paths into the Catholic Church
Bryan Kemper once wanted to "save" Catholics. Priests for Life photo
When Bryan Kemper was getting started in pro-life activism about 20 years ago, he "was kind of paranoid at first" about working with Catholics, he said, having been taught by other Protestants that the Catholic Church was the whore of Babylon. "I was hellbent on saving all the Catholics," he recalled recently.
Kemper's younger self would likely be shocked to learn that he is part of a recent string of prominent pro-life activists — including Lila Rose, undercover videographer of Planned Parenthood, and former abortion clinic director Abby Johnson — who have decided to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Kemper, now 44, had been baptized Catholic as a kid to appease his great-grandmother, but the faith was never practiced at home.
He spent his teen years doing and dealing drugs, getting kicked out of the military, and periodically living on the streets. His life began to change when he overdosed at a Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan concert in 1987 and a doctor "shared the hope of Christ" with him, he told Our Sunday Visitor.
The ranks of Catholic converts include at least two people who played a key role in the legalization of abortion in America.
Norma McCorvey was the "Jane Roe" of the 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion in the United States. She later renounced the pro-choice position, and on Aug. 17, 1998, she was received into the Catholic Church and confirmed by Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who died Feb. 21, helped found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) in 1969. An obstetrician-gynecologist, he performed 5,000 abortions and oversaw tens of thousands more. In the late 1970s, as a Jewish atheist, he came to oppose abortion; he was received into the Church in 1996.
He soon "gave his life over to Christ" and immersed himself in pro-life work. In 1993 he started Rock For Life, which led to spots on MTV and the Lollapalooza music tour. Later on, he started Stand True Ministries, which challenges young people to take a stand against abortion.
Kemper eventually came to realize that his Catholic colleagues "loved Jesus, too," he said, but that didn't keep him from trying to convert them. But his efforts didn't turn out quite the way he expected.
"Twenty-three years of debating my Catholic friends caused me to study the Catholic Church," he said. And although Kemper "fought it so hard" for the past few years, his study led him this past spring to return to the Catholic Church.
Historical facts, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch's early-second-century writings on the Eucharist, confirmed Kemper's sense that holy Communion was more than just a symbol. And he came to believe that "there's no possible way that God can be pleased with 40,000 denominations, and there had to be one truth," he said.
While in Brussels for the March for Life Belgium at the end of March, he talked with a monsignor and made "a pretty heavy-duty confession." After affirming the Nicene Creed at Mass, he was able to receive Communion.
In May, Kemper became the director of youth outreach for Priests for Life, and he's now preparing for confirmation with Priests for Life's president, Father Frank Pavone.
Tip of the iceberg
Kemper's story is far from unique among pro-lifers, said Father Pavone.
"When you see these leaders go through this [conversion], it's really a tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon, because it's happening on the grass roots very commonly."
As Father Pavone travels around the country, people regularly tell him, "I became a Catholic through my pro-life activism."
There are several factors that lead pro-lifers toward the Church, Father Pavone said: the Church's consistent position on pro-life issues, its strong philosophical tradition and the trust that develops between Catholics and non-Catholics "rubbing shoulders" in the pro-life trenches that helps make non-Catholics more receptive to learning about the Faith.
Father C. John McCloskey, who has played a part in the conversions of several public figures, added that many people "learn about the Catholic Church for the first time through their involvement with pro-life."
Shaped by the saints
While at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., this past January, Kemper revealed to another recent convert that he was thinking of returning to the Catholic Church. Lila Rose — the 23-year-old founder of Live Action whose undercover videos exposing shady practices at Planned Parenthood clinics have made her a somewhat controversial pro-life celebrity — said she "was not surprised" at Kemper's conversion because the Catholic faith "is the truth."
Rose was raised in an interdenominational church by devout parents who homeschooled her and her seven siblings. From an early age she was surrounded by the writings of saints such as Justin Martyr, Athanasius, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. As a young teen, she read Catholic author Michael O'Brien's novel "Father Elijah" and Mark Twain's "Joan of Arc," which got her interested in the lives of the saints.
"All of these things began to influence me and shape my spiritual perspective from a young age," she told OSV. "I would debate with my very hard-core Calvinist friends about justification or transubstantiation or different principles of the Catholic faith."
As a sophomore at UCLA, Rose "stumbled across" an Opus Dei center near campus, attended a Mass and found a spiritual "mentor" in the woman sitting next to her. A year and a half later, on March 15, 2009, Rose was received into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Although Rose was impressed by the pro-life writings of Catholics such as Mother Teresa and G.K. Chesterton, "It wasn't the pro-life movement that brought me to the Church," she said, so much as her education and exposure to the saints.
Leaving abortion behind
Opposition to abortion played a more prominent role in the conversion of Abby Johnson. As a young Southern Baptist growing up in Louisiana, Johnson was fascinated by the Virgin Mary, and she enjoyed watching Mother Angelica on EWTN and dressing up as a nun by putting towels on her head. But until recently, she never imagined she'd actually become Catholic.
Johnson rose to national prominence in 2009 when, after witnessing an ultrasound-guided abortion, she left her job as director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas and became a pro-life advocate.
After her pro-life conversion, Johnson and her husband, Doug, no longer felt welcome at the pro-choice Episcopal church they'd been attending.
Although Doug was adamant that they would not become Catholic, Johnson saw something special in her new Catholic pro-life friends in the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life. "I just saw how Christ was really real every day in their lives, and I thought, 'I want that too.'"
One Sunday they attended Mass after missing another church service, and they realized that the Catholic Church was where they belonged.
They completed their RCIA classes in the spring, and Johnson said they were awaiting an annulment ruling before they can receive what she most looks forward to about becoming Catholic: the Eucharist.
"It feels like torture to have to wait," she said, "but it just confirms that we're in the right place and that this is what we really want and that this is really God's desire for us."
Kevin Birnbaum writes from Washington state.