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Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities: A Reaffirmation

United States Catholic Conference (USCC)

November 14, 1985


All human beings ought to value every person for his or her uniqueness as a creature of God, called to be a brother or sister of Christ by reason of the incarnation and the universal redemption. For us, the sacredness of human life is based on these premises. And it is on these same premises that there is based our celebration of life— all human life. This explains our efforts to defend human life against every influence or action that threatens or weakens it, as well as our endeavors to make every life more human in all its aspects.

And so, we will stand up every time that human life is threatened.

Pope John Paul II
Homily on the Capitol Mall
Washington, D.C.
October 7, 1979

Respect for human life was declining in our society when the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities was first issued in 1975. In part this reflected a secularizing trend, a rejection of moral imperatives based on belief in God and his plan for creation. It also reflected social trends encouraging individuals to give precedence to their own well-being to the detriment of others. These and other trends had helped bring about laws and judicial decisions which denied or ignored basic human rights and our moral responsibility to protect and promote the common good. Conspicuous in this category were the 1973 decisions of the United States Supreme Court, removing any effective legal protection from unborn children, and the efforts to justify euthanasia, which were stimulated by those decisions.

A decade later these destructive trends continue to exert their effect, though resistance to them is stronger than it was ten years ago. In several later rulings, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed and broadened its 1973 abortion decisions, spurring the growth of an abortion industry which now destroys the lives of over one and a half million unborn children in the United States every year. This situation in turn has encouraged a trend toward lethal neglect of newborn children with disabilities, a practice sometimes rationalized by appeal to the same "right of privacy" used in the attempt to establish a right to abortion. Increasingly, public debate over "death with dignity" has become a debate regarding the legitimacy of "rational suicide" and the active hastening of death for elderly patients. In other areas of public concern—including nuclear deterrence, capital punishment, immigration policy, and social spending for the poor—respect for the intrinsic dignity of human life does not play the central role it deserves.

For these reasons it is highly appropriate not only to revise the original Pastoral Plan in light of the contemporary situation, but also to reaffirm its central message regarding the dignity of human life while urging intensified efforts to implement this plan.

In fulfillment of our pastoral responsibilities, we the members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops reaffirm that human life is a precious gift from God; that each person who receives this gift has responsibilities toward God, toward self and toward others; and that society, through its laws and social institutions, must protect and sustain human life at every stage of its existence. These convictions grow out of our Church's constant witness that "life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception" (Gaudium et spes, 51). In stating this principle, and in condemning abortion and infanticide as "abominable crimes," the Second Vatican Council restated a teaching which has been a constant part of the Christian message since the Apostolic Age.

This principle of the absolute inviolability of innocent human life has emerged intact from centuries of discussion, during which some have argued for a compromise of principle in certain cases to serve various aspects of human well being. The Church has always known that the fear and desperation of some who take human life in circumstances of severe hardship can so cloud their conscience as to reduce their moral guilt. Thus, it recognizes a need to remove or alleviate those circumstances which may lead otherwise responsible people to choose such actions. But it does not and cannot conclude that any circumstance gives a person the right directly to destroy an innocent human life.

Ultimately, the duty of individuals and society to respect human life is grounded in the dignity of the human person, made in the image of God. Recognition of this duty is thoroughly consistent with the legal traditions of our own nation, whose Declaration of Independence names the right to life as first among the unalienable rights conferred by our Creator.

Basic human rights are violated in many ways: by abortion and euthanasia, by injustice and the denial of equality to individuals or various groups of persons, by some forms of human experimentation, by neglect of the underprivileged and disadvantaged who deserve society's concern and support. But society's responsibility to ensure and protect human rights demands recognition and protection of the right to life as antecedent to all other rights and the necessary condition for their realization. It is unlikely that efforts to protect other rights will ultimately be successful if life itself is continually diminished in value.

Moreover, among the many important issues involving the dignity of human life with which the Church is concerned, abortion necessarily plays a central role. Abortion's direct attack on innocent human life is precisely the kind of violent act that can never be justified. Because victims of abortion are the most vulnerable and defenseless members of the human family, it is imperative that we, as Christians called to serve the least among us, give urgent attention and priority to this issue of justice. Our concern is intensified by the realization that a policy and practice allowing over one and a half million abortions annually cannot but diminish respect for life in other areas. As we said in our pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace: "Abortion in particular blunts a sense of the sacredness of human life. In a society where the innocent unborn are killed wantonly, how can we expect people to feel righteous revulsion at the act or threat of killing noncombatants in war?" (no. 285). In a society where abortion is claimed as "a woman's right," the most fundamental right—the right to life—is denied, and the basis for defending the rights of all women and men is, thereby, eroded. In this Pastoral Plan we, therefore, focus attention especially on the pervasive threat to human life arising from the present situation of abortion virtually on demand.

This focus and the Church's firm commitment to a consistent ethic of life complement each other. A consistent ethic, far from diminishing concern for abortion or equating all issues touching on the dignity of human life, recognizes the distinctive character of each issue while giving each its proper role within a coherent moral vision. Within this vision, different issues are linked at the level of moral principle because they involve the intrinsic dignity of human life and our obligation to protect and nurture this great gift. At the same time, each issue requires its own moral analysis and practical response. In addressing a specific issue - whether it be abortion, nuclear war, capital punishment, degrading poverty, or racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination - the Church highlights a particular aspect of the Christian message, without forgetting its place within a larger moral framework. Taken together, the Church's diverse pastoral statements and practical programs constitute no mere assortment of unrelated initiatives but a consistent strategy in support of human life in its various stages and circumstances.

Thus, we are fully committed to taking up the many issues touching on the dignity of human life and examining their interdependence. This is already clear from the diversity of concerns we have addressed and continue to address as an episcopal conference through pastoral letters and other statements, and from the range of matters discussed every year in our educational effort known as the Respect Life Program. But, in this Pastoral Plan, we are guided by a key insight regarding the linkage between abortion and these other important issues: Precisely because all issues involving human life are interdependent, a society which destroys human life by abortion under the mantle of law unavoidably undermines respect for life in all other contexts. Likewise, protection in law and practice of unborn human life will benefit all life, not only the lives of the unborn.

In focusing attention on the sanctity of human life, we hope to generate a greater respect for the life of all persons. We are confident that greater respect for human life will result from continuing the public discussion of abortion and from efforts to shape our laws so as to protect the life of all, including the unborn.

This Pastoral Plan calls into action the resources of the Church in three major areas:

  1. a public information and education effort to deepen understanding of the humanity of the unborn, the sanctity of human life the moral evil of abortion, and the consistent efforts of the Church to witness on behalf of all human life;

  2. a pastoral effort addressed to the special needs of women with problems related to pregnancy, of men and women struggling to accept responsibility for their power to generate human life, and of all persons who have had or have taken part in an abortion; and

  3. a public policy effort directed to ensuring effective legal protection for the right to life of the unborn.

This Pastoral Plan is addressed to and calls upon all church-sponsored or identifiably Catholic national, regional, diocesan and parish organizations and agencies to pursue this threefold effort with renewed determination. This plan envisages dialogue and cooperation between the NCCB/USCC and clergy, religious and lay persons, individually and collectively. We seek the collaboration of all national Catholic organizations in this effort.

At the same time, we urge Catholics in the professions to discuss these issues with their colleagues and carry the dialogue into their own professional organizations. We recognize the important role of Catholic health care professionals, who are called to act as models of responsible stewardship for human life. We also urge those in the legal profession and in research, education and academic life to make an effective presentation of the Church's commitment to respect for life at every stage and in every condition.

Dialogue among churches and religious groups is essential and has already proven fruitful. We are grateful that many other religious groups have voiced their strong opposition to abortion in recent years and have actively joined in the effort to restore legal protection for the unborn. We encourage continued national efforts at interreligious consultation and dialogue with other Christian bodies and with Judaism, as well as with other religious traditions and with those who have no specific denominational allegiance. Dialogue among ethicists is an important part of this effort.

The most effective structures for pastoral action are in the diocese and the parish. While recognizing the roles of national, regional and statewide groups, this plan places primary emphasis and responsibility on the clergy, religious and laity who serve the Church through diocesan and parish structures. While the work of informed and committed lay people at the parish level is clearly indispensable to the success of any large-scale pastoral effort, they must be able to rely on the support of religious and ordained ministers. The success of this Pastoral Plan depends in a special way on the support and encouragement given it by parish priests.

  1. Public Information and Education Program

    To deepen respect for human life and heighten public opposition to abortion, there is need for a twofold educational effort presenting the case for the sanctity of life from conception on.

    The first aspect is a public information effort directed to the general public. This effort creates awareness of the threats to human dignity inherent in evils such as abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and of the need to correct the present situation by establishing legal safeguards for the right to life. It gives pro-life issues continued visibility, while sensitizing those who have general perceptions of these issues but little firm conviction or commitment. This public information effort is necessary to inform public discussion and demonstrate the Church's commitment to a long-range pro-life effort. It will take a variety of forms: accurately reporting newsworthy events, issuing public statements, sponsoring conferences on pro-life issues, preparing and distributing informational materials, etc.

    The second aspect is an intensive, long-range educational effort leading people to a clearer understanding of the issues, to firm conviction and to commitment. The Church has a duty to carry forward such an effort, directed primarily to the Catholic community. Those engaged in this effort should use the best legal, sociological and medical information available, emphasizing advances in medical technology which call attention to the continuity of human development from conception on. Ultimately, however, moral and theological arguments present the central issue of respect for human life in its most intellectually compelling terms.

    This intensive educational effort should present scientific information on the humanity of the unborn child and the continuity of human growth and development before birth; the biblical and theological foundations which sustain our commitment to human life and the dignity of the human person; society's responsibility to safeguard the life of the child at every stage of its existence; and humane and morally acceptable solutions to problems that may exist for a woman during and after pregnancy.

    This effort should be carried on by all who participate in the Church's educational ministry, notably:

    • clergy and religious, exercising their teaching responsibility in the pulpit, in other teaching roles, through

    • parish programs, and through their public support for pro-life projects;

    • all church-sponsored or identifiably Catholic organizations, national, regional, diocesan and parochial, conducting adult education efforts;

    • schools, catechetical programs and other church-sponsored educational agencies providing moral teaching and motivation, bolstered by medical, legal and sociological data;

    • seminaries and houses of religious formation conducting academic and pastoral ministry programs;

    • Catholic social service and health care agencies conducting educational efforts through seminars and other appropriate programs, including special efforts to publicize programs and services offering alternatives to abortion; and

    • lay people instructing each other through discussion of critical public issues and forming the values of the next generation by their example and parental guidance.

    The primary purpose of this intensive educational program is the development of pro-life attitudes and the determined avoidance of abortion. There is need for accurate information regarding the nature of abortion, a compelling explanation of how it violates God's plan for his children, and efforts to motivate people to act responsibly toward human life even though they may encounter hardships in doing so. Success will depend in part on promoting a moral and emotional climate in which human persons, human sexuality and the power to generate human life are treated with the respect and sensitivity they deserve. At the same time, ethical consistency requires extending the program to related issues involving respect for human life.

    The Respect Life Program, through its program manual and other materials, helps parishes call attention to specific problems and provides appropriate program formats and resources. It highlights the relationships among many of the Church's concerns and serves as a model for education on Christian responsibility. It sets abortion in the context of other issues involving threats to human life, such as certain problems facing the family, youth, the unemployed, the elderly, and persons with disabilities. It addresses specific issues such as poverty, housing, war, capital punishment, population control, infanticide and euthanasia. While each of these issues demands its own moral analysis and response, the Respect Life Program calls attention to the way in which each touches on the dignity of human life.

  2. Pastoral Care Program

    Pastoral care includes the range of services which the Church offers people in dealing with their problems. Both spiritual assistance, extended with compassion and dignity, and essential material assistance, including supplementary services beyond those available in the community, express the Church's love for all human beings.

    Three facets of the Church's program of pastoral care deserve particular attention.

    1. Prayer and Worship

      Responsibility for the least among us transcends all social theories and finds its root in the teaching of Jesus Christ. Appreciation for this responsibility is deepened by prayer and fasting. Participation in the sacramental life of the worshipping Catholic community sustains us in our ministry of service.

      In the Eucharist, which renews and celebrates the saving mystery of Christ's death and resurrection and his gift of life to the Church we are continually called to reconciliation and new life. Those entrusted with the ministry of preaching the homily should preach the truth about the dignity of all human life, born and unborn, and about the moral evil of abortion and other attacks on life. They should call forth compassion for individuals and families who find themselves in stressful situations and should motivate the Catholic community to offer practical assistance to help them make life-affirming decisions. The readings of the Church's liturgy give ample opportunity to proclaim respect for the dignity of human life throughout the liturgical year.

      The Liturgy of the Hours and paraliturgical services also offer opportunities for the celebration of life and instruction in the moral teaching of the Church.

    2. Service and Care

      Respect for human life leads individuals and groups to reach out to those with special needs. With the support of the Catholic community, Catholic organizations and agencies will continue to provide services and care to pregnant women, especially to those who would otherwise find it difficult or impossible to obtain high-quality care. Ideally these programs should include:

      • material assistance, including nutritional, prenatal, childbirth and postnatal care for the mother and nutritional and pediatric care for the child throughout the first year of life;

      • continued research into and development of prenatal and neonatal medicine;

      • extension of agency-sponsored adoption and foster care services to all who need them and concerted educational efforts to present adoption in a positive light;

      • spiritual assistance and counseling services to provide support for women and men who face difficulties related to pregnancy and parenting;

      • opportunities for teenage parents to continue their education before and after childbirth, including school policies which make it possible for them to complete their high school education;

      • special understanding, encouragement and support for victims of rape and other forms of abuse and violence;

      • efforts to promote the virtue of chastity and to enable young men and women to take responsibility for their power to generate human life; and

      • education in fertility awareness for young men and women and expansion of natural family planning services for married couples.

      Many of these services, involving the dedicated efforts of professionals and volunteers, have been and will continue to be provided by church-sponsored health care and social service agencies. Collaboration with other private and public agencies, with volunteer groups and with local communities, as well as efforts to obtain government assistance, are necessary extensions of the long-range effort.

    3. Reconciliation

      Christ's redeeming act, the Paschal Mystery of his death and resurrection, is the cause of human reconciliation in its twofold aspect: liberation from sin and communion with God. The whole Church has the mission of proclaiming this reconciliation.

      Priests have a privileged opportunity to serve others by offering the unconditional and efficacious love of Christ in the sacrament of penance and fostering conversion and healing in women and men who have been involved in the destruction of innocent human life. Clergy education should reflect this reality, especially by training seminarians and priests to understand the painful experience of women who have had abortions. Many lay people, by God's grace, also serve directly or indirectly in this process of restoration to spiritual, mental and emotional health.

      Effective pastoral programs of reconciliation will draw upon these God-given resources to rebuild the penitent's bond with God, with the child, with the family and with the community.

  3. Public Policy Program

    Protecting and promoting the inviolable rights of persons are essential duties of civil authority. As Americans, and as religious leaders, we are committed to governance by a system of law that protects the rights of individuals and maintains the common good. Consistent with our nation's legal tradition, we hold that all human laws must ultimately be measured against the natural law engraved in our hearts by the Creator. A human law or policy contrary to this higher law, especially one which ignores or violates fundamental human rights, surrenders its claim to the respect and obedience of citizens while in no way lessening their obligation to uphold the moral law.

    This relationship between morality and law is highlighted in the case of abortion. The abortion decisions of the United States Supreme Court violate the moral order and have disrupted the legal process which previously attempted to safeguard the rights of unborn children.

    All in our society who are pledged to protect human rights through law have a moral responsibility to address this injustice by seeking the restoration of legal protection to the unborn. While at any given time human law may not fully articulate this moral imperative, our legal system can and must be continually reformed so that it increasingly fulfills its proper task of protecting the weak and preserving the right to life.

    A comprehensive public policy program on behalf of the unborn must include the following long- and short-term goals:

    1. a constitutional amendment providing protection for the unborn child to the maximum degree possible;

    2. federal and state laws and administrative policies to eliminate government support of abortion and restrict the practice of abortion as much as possible;

    3. continual refinement, precise interpretation and ultimate reversal of decisions by the Supreme Court and other courts denying the right to life; and

    4. support for legislation that provides morally acceptable alternatives to abortion, including efforts to expand education, health, nutrition and other services for disadvantaged parents and their children.

    Implementing this aspect of the Pastoral Plan will undoubtedly require well-planned and coordinated advocacy by citizens at the national, state and local levels. This activity is not solely the responsibility of Catholics, nor should it be limited to Catholic groups or agencies. It calls for widespread cooperation and collaboration. As citizens of this democracy, and as leaders of a religious institution in this society, we see a moral imperative for public policy efforts to ensure the protection of human life. As participants in the American democratic process, we appeal to our fellow citizens to recognize the justice of this cause. Since our goal is to eliminate violence against the unborn, we oppose any use of violence to achieve this objective.

  4. Implementing the Program

    Restoring respect for human life in our society is an essential task of the Church that extends through all its institutions, agencies and organizations and embraces diverse tasks and goals. The following schema suggests a model for organizing and allocating the Church's resources of people, institutions and finances at various levels to help restore protection of the right to life for the unborn and to foster respect for all human life. We recommend that the Committee for Pro-Life Activities periodically inform the NCCB on the status of the implementation of the plan.

    1. State Coordinating Committee

      The state Catholic conference or its equivalent should provide overall coordination in each state. Where a state Catholic conference is in process of formation or does not exist, bishops' representatives from each diocese should be appointed as the core members of the state coordinating committee.

      The state coordinating committee may be comprised of the director of the state Catholic conference and the diocesan pro-life directors. At this level, it is valuable to have one or more persons who are knowledgeable about and experienced in legislative activity. The primary purposes of the state coordinating committee are:

      1. to monitor social and political trends in the state and their implications for the pro-life effort;

      2. to coordinate the efforts of the various dioceses and to evaluate progress in the dioceses and congressional districts;

      3. to analyze relationships within the various political parties and coalitions at the state level as they affect local implementation efforts; and

      4. to encourage unity and cooperation among pro-life groups in the state.

    2. The Diocesan Pro-Life Committee

      The general purpose of the committee is to coordinate activities within the diocese to implement this Pastoral Plan. In its coordinating role, the committee will receive information and guidance from the Bishops' Office for Pro-Life Activities, and may also seek advice and assistance from the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment. The committee should be directed by the diocesan pro-life director, who is appointed by and responsible to the diocesan bishop. Its membership may include: the diocesan pro-life director; the respect life coordinator; representatives of diocesan agencies (Family Life, Education, Youth Ministry, Catholic Charities, Health Affairs, etc.); representatives of lay organizations (Knights of Columbus, Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, etc.); medical, legal and public affairs advisors; representatives of prolife groups (Right to Life, Emergency Pregnancy Services, Congressional District Action Committee); and representatives of parish prolife committees. The committee's objectives are to:

      1. provide direction and coordination of diocesan and parish information and educational efforts;

      2. support ongoing programs provided by Catholic Charities and other groups which counsel and assist women who have problems related to pregnancy and promote development of new programs where needed;

      3. maintain working relationships with local pro-life groups and encourage the development of local lobbying networks;

      4. maintain communications with the Bishops' Office for Pro-Life Activities and, as appropriate, with the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment regarding federal activity;

      5. maintain a local public information effort directed to print and broadcast media (This includes monitoring the public media's treatment of pro-life issues, seeking response time under the Fairness Doctrine, etc.); and

      6. develop responsible and effective communication with each elected representative.

    3. The Parish Pro-Life Committee

      The general purpose of the parish pro-life committee is to make parishioners more aware of pro-life issues and needs, and to recruit volunteers to help meet those needs. Whether it is a distinct committee or a part of the parish council or other parish organization, it should include representatives of both adult and youth parish groups, as well as those responsible for educational and pastoral care.

      The parish committee relies on the diocesan pro-life director for information and guidance. The committee should play a vital role in parish life and enjoy the strong support of clergy and other key personnel. Its objectives are to:

      1. coordinate parish implementation of the Respect Life Program by promoting it to all groups within the parish, especially schools and religious education programs;

      2. promote and assist pregnancy counseling and comprehensive maternity support services, as well as postabortion counseling and reconciliation programs; and

      3. foster public awareness of the need for a constitutional amendment and other laws and policies to restore legal protection to the unborn.

    4. The Pro-Life Effort in the Congressional District

      Passage of a constitutional amendment and other pro-life legislation requires the support of members of Congress. Efforts to persuade them to vote for such measures are part of the democratic process and are most effective when carried on in the congressional districts or states which legislators represent. Ongoing public information activities and careful, detailed organization are required. Thus, it is necessary to encourage the development of identifiable, tightly knit and well-organized pro-life units at the local level. Such a unit can be described as a congressional district action committee or a citizens' lobby; but no matter what it is called, its task is to organize people to persuade their elected representatives to support a constitutional amendment and other pro-life legislation.

      As such, the congressional district action committee differs from the diocesan, regional and parish pro-life coordinators and committees, whose task includes educational and motivational as well as legislative aspects, and whose range of action extends to a variety of efforts calculated to enhance respect for human life. Moreover, it is an organization of Catholic and non-Catholic citizens, operated, controlled and financed by these same citizens. It is not an agency of the Church, nor is it operated, controlled or financed by the Church. The congressional district action committee should be nonpartisan, nonsectarian and dedicated to influencing public policy. It is complementary to groups primarily involved in educational and pastoral care efforts.

      The objectives of a congressional district action committee may include:

      1. educating fellow citizens on the destructiveness of abortion to society and the need for a constitutional amendment and other pro-life legislation;

      2. helping pro-life citizens to organize more effectively, so that their views will be heard and taken into account by party officials and elected representatives; and

      3. lobbying elected officials and candidates for public of to support effective legal protection of human life from conception on.

      These goals can be effectively pursued by a small, dedicated and politically alert group. It merits financial support from other pro-life groups and individuals. Its greatest need, however, is for encouragement from those who recognize its potential and are prepared to work with it to achieve such goals.


As a result of the judicial and legislative endorsement of abortion, American society today faces enormous challenges. So do the Church and individual Catholics. But this is nothing new, for every age confronts the Church with challenges. In our time and nation, restoring respect for human life and reestablishing a system of justice which protects the most basic of human rights constitute not just a challenge, but an opportunity for the Church to proclaim anew its commitment to Christ's teaching concerning human dignity. This emphasis on restoring protection to the lives of the unborn is part of our commitment to a consistent ethic of life. The special urgency of addressing and ending the evil of abortion is evident in our nation today; our determination to pursue this goal until it is achieved also reinforces our determination to speak and act on behalf of the sanctity of life whenever and wherever it is threatened. Demanding and prolonged as it will be, this work, as it applies to abortion and to the other life-related issues of our times, fully merits our unstinting courage, patience and determination.

In the ten years since the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities was first issued, much progress has been made. This is due in large part to the dedication and hard work of many women and men of faith who, operating with limited resources, have devoted themselves to its implementation at the parish and diocesan levels. We commend these tireless workers and urge them to recommit themselves to this effort. At the same time, we renew our appeal to the entire Catholic community to join them in fostering respect for human life in our society. For our part, we reaffirm our commitment as expressed in this Pastoral Plan, and we pledge all possible support to its continued implementation and ultimate success.

Prayer and sacrifice are essential to every aspect of this program. Without God's merciful assistance, we labor in vain. We, therefore, invoke that assistance today by entrusting this plan to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ and of all who have life through him, and we ask all the faithful to pray the Hail Mary daily for the success of this effort.

"I came that you might have life and have it to the full." John 10:10

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Priests for Life
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