Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director, Priests for Life
We seem to have a major problem in the Church in the area of reading
comprehension. The problem is most obvious when the reading material asserts
the primacy of abortion among issues that voters have to consider in elections.
Statements of the Pope, various Vatican officials, committees and officials
of the USCCB, and the entire body of US bishops, all point to abortion as the
fundamental human rights issue of our day. Even Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who
during his life was a key spokesperson for the "consistent ethic of life,"
pointed out repeatedly that the fundamental right is the right to life.
To illustrate how profound the reading comprehension problem is, just take a
look at the list of quotes I have added at the end of these remarks. Then
determine for yourself whether they are clear or not.
Meanwhile, we have people in various positions within the Church saying that
all the issues are equal. Excuse me, but not only does that violate Catholic
teaching, it violates common sense. Ask any parent whether, among their daily
activities caring for their children, all issues are of equal importance. In
fact, you can ask the children themselves. They seem to know the answer better
than some Church officials do.
I’ve been acquiring a whole file of letters sent out, often from offices of
"social ministry" in various dioceses, which state that voters have to consider
a wide range of issues. So far, so good. But then these letters say that no
issue is more important than another. And that’s where the lack of reading
comprehension reveals itself. Either they have never seen the quotes below, or
they are deliberately ignoring them. And neither is appropriate for a person who
has the responsibility to convey Church teaching.
Two explanations can be offered for why some would distort the teaching.
The first is simply loyalty to the Democratic party. The problem has
to be faced honestly that the loyalty of some Church ministers to the Democratic
Party is deeper than their loyalty to Catholic teaching. There is nothing wrong
with belonging to a political party and being loyal to it. But when that party
promotes the widespread, daily, legal killing of children, the voice of protest
must be heard. Silence is not an option, neither for Democrats, Republicans, or
anyone else – most certainly Catholics.
The second explanation for the reading comprehension problem is a legal
concern. Unfortunately, the Church has been fed for decades with legal advice
which is far more restrictive of the Church’s freedom than the IRS or the FEC
has ever been. And this is wrong. Not only are the IRS/FEC restrictions on the
Church minimal, but the enforcement policy is even looser. No Church has ever
lost its tax exemption by teaching about abortion, or the primacy of the right
to life, or the duty of public officials and voters to advance the Culture of
Life by voting. No Church has ever lost its tax exemption for doing what it
exists to do, namely, convey the teachings of the Church. No Church has ever
lost its tax exemption for distributing materials that did not cover a
wide-enough range of issues; in fact, no Church has lost its tax exemption for
distributing voter guides, period.
Despite all this, various Church officials will go into all kinds of
contortions to protect their assets from legal problems that they think will
arise if the Church says that the right to life is primary among all the issues.
Of course, the problem here is that this kind of legal advice, if it were
accurate, would prove too much. Statements of the US Bishops themselves, like
"Living the Gospel of Life" (1998), would constitute illegal activity under such
an erroneous framework. The best way to describe the current problem with some
of our attorneys is the bumpersticker that says "I Brake for Hallucinations."
The solution to all of this is for all of us, clergy and laity alike, to bear
faithful witness to the teachings of the Church, no matter what the political
implications may be. Bear witness to the consistent ethic of life, and to that
which makes it consistent – the right to life. Proclaim that there are many
rights, and proclaim the foundational right.
And be sure to keep your reading skills in top shape!
Abortion: The Primary Issue
According to Statements from the Pope and Bishops
The 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion published by the Vatican's
Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated, "The first right of
the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but
this one is fundamental - the condition of all the others."
Pope John Paul II elaborates on this theme in his 1988 apostolic
exhortation, The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the
Church and in the World (Christifideles Laici) in the following passage:
"The inviolability of the person, which is a reflection of the absolute
inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the
inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly
made on behalf of human rights -- for example, the right to health, to home,
to work, to family, to culture -- is false and illusory if the right to
life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition of all other
personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination . . . "
In 1989, in their Resolution on Abortion, the US bishops stated,
"At this particular time, abortion has become the fundamental human rights issue
for all men and women of good will. …. For us abortion is of overriding concern
because it negates two of our most fundamental moral imperatives: respect for
innocent life, and preferential concern for the weak and defenseless."
In The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae, 1995), Pope John Paul II
pointed out that there is a wide array of life issues and attacks on human
dignity about which we must be actively concerned. He then, however, points to
abortion and euthanasia as attacks of "another category" and of "extraordinary
seriousness." He explains what he means as follows:
"It is not only that in generalized opinion these attacks tend no longer
to be considered as "crimes"; paradoxically they assume the nature of "rights",
to the point that the State is called upon to give them legal recognition and to
make them available through the free services of health-care personnel. Such
attacks strike human life at the time of its greatest frailty, when it lacks any
means of self-defence. Even more serious is the fact that, most often, those
attacks are carried out in the very heart of and with the complicity of the
family—the family which by its nature is called to be the 'sanctuary of life'
In 1998, the US Bishops issued Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to
American Catholics. Paragraphs 21-23 of that document discuss the relative
importance of various issues as follows:
21. "Bringing a respect for human dignity to practical politics can be a
daunting task. There is such a wide spectrum of issues involving the
protection of human life and the promotion of human dignity. Good people
frequently disagree on which problems to address, which policies to adopt
and how best to apply them. But for citizens and elected officials alike,
the basic principle is simple: We must begin with a commitment never to
intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life,
no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate that life may seem. In
other words, the choice of certain ways of acting is always and radically
incompatible with the love of God and the dignity of the human person
created in His image. Direct abortion is never a morally tolerable option.
It is always a grave act of violence against a woman and her unborn child.
This is so even when a woman does not see the truth because of the pressures
she may be subjected to, often by the child's father, her parents or
friends. Similarly, euthanasia and assisted suicide are never acceptable
acts of mercy. They always gravely exploit the suffering and desperate,
extinguishing life in the name of the "quality of life" itself. This same
teaching against direct killing of the innocent condemns all direct attacks
on innocent civilians in time of war.
22. "Pope John Paul II has reminded us that we must respect every life, even
that of criminals and unjust aggressors. It is increasingly clear in modern
society that capital punishment is unnecessary to protect people's safety
and the public order, so that cases where it may be justified are "very
rare, if not practically non-existent." No matter how serious the crime,
punishment that does not take life is "more in conformity with the dignity
of the human person" (Evangelium Vitae, 56-7). Our witness to respect for
life shines most brightly when we demand respect for each and every human
life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others.
The antidote to violence is love, not more violence.
23. "Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of
war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity
must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment,
education, housing, and health care. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly
involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these
areas. Catholic public officials are obliged to address each of these issues
as they seek to build consistent policies which promote respect for the
human person at all stages of life. But being 'right' in such matters can
never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life.
Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages
renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions in other matters
affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. If we
understand the human person as the "temple of the Holy Spirit" -- the living
house of God -- then these latter issues fall logically into place as the
crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human
life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house's foundation.
These directly and immediately violate the human person's most fundamental
right -- the right to life. Neglect of these issues is the equivalent of
building our house on sand. Such attacks cannot help but lull the social
conscience in ways ultimately destructive of other human rights."
The Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities of the US Bishops has always
pointed out the priority of abortion, and the most recent version of the plan
(2001: A Campaign in Support of Life) explains it this way:
"Among important issues involving the dignity of human life with which the
Church is concerned, abortion necessarily plays a central role. Abortion,
the direct killing of an innocent human being, is always gravely immoral
(The Gospel of Life, no. 57); its victims are the most vulnerable and
defenseless members of the human family. It is imperative that those who are
called to serve the least among us give urgent attention and priority to
this issue of justice.
"This focus and the Church's commitment to a consistent ethic of life
complement one another. A consistent ethic of life, which explains the
Church's teaching at the level of moral principle—far from diminishing
concern for abortion and euthanasia or equating all issues touching on the
dignity of human life—recognizes instead the distinctive character of each
issue while giving each its proper place within a coherent moral vision."
Faithful Citizenship (2003) quotes Living the Gospel of Life 5 as
follows: "As we wrote in Living the Gospel of Life, "Abortion and
euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human life and dignity because
they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental good and the condition
for all others".28 Abortion, the deliberate killing of a human being
before birth, is never morally acceptable."
Bishop Elio Sgreccia, Vice-President of the Pontifical Academy for Life,
said the following in an interview conducted in May, 2004: "Without
respect for life, without respect for the family, society simply does not
exist…all [other] rights presuppose the right to life. If the right to life
is not defended, the defense of all these other rights is useless. It
becomes a lie, because it would mean that the defense to the right to work,
to society, etc. applies only to some, and not to all."
Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for
Justice and Peace, said the following in an interview conducted in May,
2004: "The Holy Father speaks of the protection of life as the
fundamental realization and respect for human rights. Without that
realization, without that respect for the right to life, no other discussion
of human rights can continue; it must be based upon the foundation of human
dignity and the right to life."
Archbishop John Foley, President of the Pontifical Council for Social
Communications at the Vatican, said the following in an interview
conducted in May, 2004: "Generally, law is needed to protect the weakest
members of society because strong members of society, the rich, the
powerful, the strong can usually take care of themselves but the weakest
members of society need the protections of society itself and the help of
society itself. That is why we need laws to protect the weak against
violence form outside. The weakest members of society are the unborn. They
have no other spokespersons except, you might say, society itself. So we
must defend the rights of the innocent unborn...If we don't have life
we don't have anything."
In July, 2004, Priests for Life also interviewed representatives of
the United States Bishops’ Conference and asked whether, in the view of the
bishops, it was true to say that abortion is the number one most urgent
Cathleen Cleaver Ruse, Director of Planning and Information for the Pro-life
Secretariat of the US Bishops’ Conference, responded, "Sure,
that's absolutely true. The church has taught on this issue of abortion and its
immorality since the Apostolic Age. It's one of our longest standing moral
public policy issues and it is not like any other issue really. It is, some
might say, it's non-negotiable. There are no instances where it is morally licit
or justifiable. That sets is apart from other issues like capital punishment,
like just war theory and many other social issues that are very, very important
but don't have that kind of no exceptions policy. So, the way the Church looks
at abortion - abortion is one of those fundamental issues. If that right is
taken away, if the very right to life is taken away then no other right matters.
You don't have the ability to hold another right or to have another right taken
away. So, while health care, the right to a good education, housing all of these
issues are very, very important, they are meaningless if the right to life is
not first protected."
"If social issues are like a house then the foundation is the right to life.
An abortion takes away or rips out the foundation. The many other social issues
can be considered the walls of that house but they can't be built unless there's
Richard Doerflinger, Deputy Director of the Pro-life Secretariat of
the US Bishops’ Conference, echoed the same theme:
"What the Church has said is that because it is the first gift from a
loving God and the condition for all other human goods, all our other rights
- life itself has to be a top priority it is the most basic gift and if we
lose the right to live we lose everything else. Now within the whole network
of issues about life, the first priority has to be the right of each
individual at every stage simply to exist at all. To be inviolable. To be
free from direct attacks. So the church has said that issues that involve
direct attacks on innocent human life - and in our society today, obviously
abortion which takes over a million lives in the United States every year -
issues like euthanasia for the terminally ill are primary. They are the most
basic threats to human life because they are direct attacks on life because
they attack innocent life that's not doing anybody else harm or attacking
anybody else and because they are attacking life at its most vulnerable and
defenseless - the very stages where children and the elderly should be able
to expect the respect and protection of their families because it is where
they are weakest and most vulnerable.
"What the Bishop's said in their 1998 document Living the Gospel of Life, was
that this whole edifice of human goods and ways of enhancing human life are like
a house but the other issues that enhance the quality of life for everyone are
like the walls of the house and protecting the inviolability of life itself from
attack is like the foundation. You cannot have a house anymore if you don't have
a foundation. It's meaningless to say we are going to enhance all these
qualities of human life and say that human life itself has no inherent worth.
Those have to primary. Everything else grows from that. We promote a consistent
ethic of life and at the same time there are priorities, some things are more
fundamental than others."
Following are some statements by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who was one
of the key spokespersons on the "consistent ethic of life."
In 1984, Cardinal Bernardin wrote: "Our "Statement on Political
Responsibility" has always been, like our "Respect Life Program," a multi-issue
approach to public morality. The fact that this Statement sets forth a spectrum
of issues of current concern to the Church and society should not be understood
as implying that all issues are qualitatively equal from a moral perspective…As
I indicated earlier, each of the life issues—while related to all the others—is
distinct and calls for its own specific moral analysis. " (A Consistent
Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue, The William Wade Lecture Series, St.
Louis University, March 11, 1984).
"A consistent ethic of life does not equate the problem of taking life
(e.g., through abortion and in war) with the problem of promoting human
dignity (through humane programs of nutrition, health care, and housing).
But a consistent ethic identifies both the protection of life and its
promotion as moral questions" (Wade lecture, as above).
A year later, he declared, "The fundamental human right is to life—from
the moment of conception until death. It is the source of all other rights,
including the right to health care" (The Consistent Ethic of Life and Health
Care Systems, Foster McGaw Triennial Conference, Loyola University of
Chicago, May 8, 1985).
On Respect Life Sunday, 1 October 1989, Cardinal Bernardin issued a statement
entitled "Deciding for Life," in which he said, "Not all values, however, are
of equal weight. Some are more fundamental than others. On this Respect Life
Sunday, I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human
life itself. Human life is the condition for enjoying freedom and all other
values. Consequently, if one must choose between protecting or serving lesser
human values that depend upon life for their existence and life itself, human
life must take precedence. Today the recognition of human life as a fundamental
value is threatened. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of elective
abortion. At present in our country this procedure takes the lives of over 4,000
unborn children every day and over 1.5 million each year."
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