Various Reflections on the Political Responsibility of
I. Religion is not disconnected from politics.
Nature of prayer
Example of Mary
Interrelation between this world and the next
Religious life and spiritual life
Bishops' Pastoral Plan and other exhortations
Every vote counts
II. Caesar Must Obey God
Separation of God and state
Church Teaches not only revealed truths
Political but not partisan: free to follow the Gospel
"Can't Legislate Morality"
III. The right to Life is Fundamental
Declaration of Independence and purpose of Government
Single Issue person
Consistent Ethic of Life
Sierra Club vs. Morton
Personally opposed but…
The ministry of Priests for Life is to assist the clergy and the entire
Church to respond to the tragedy of abortion. One of the many and varied modes
of such a response is the effort to change public policy, and one of the ways to
change public policy is to participate in national elections in an informed and
This booklet contains a series of brief reflections about how and why we as
believers should exercise political responsibility. The reflections draw from
the teachings of Scripture, the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II, and
the United States Catholic Bishops. This is not an exhaustive analysis of these
themes, but rather a "pastoral glance" at them, in order to overcome some of the
common misunderstandings and slogans that can too easily lull us into apathy
regarding our civic responsibilities, or into the fallacy that religious life
and political life are somehow disconnected.
Priests for Life makes available a series of educational materials on this
theme, including camera-ready bulletin inserts for parishes. Please contact us
to obtain your set of such materials.
Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director
I. Religion is not disconnected from politics.
Every Christian has political responsibility in this world, according to
his or her vocation in life.
Scripture provides the perspective for a proper understanding of our
political responsibility. St. Paul writes to the Philippians, "As you well know,
we have our citizenship in heaven; it is from there that we eagerly await the
coming of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:20). St. Peter writes,
"You, however, are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people he
claims as his own" (1Pt.2:9). The Letter to the Hebrews states, "Here we have no
lasting city; we are seeking one which is to come" (Heb. 13:14).
In other words, we belong to Christ. The word "Church" (ecclesia in
Latin and Greek) means "called out." We have been called out, called together,
by the word of God. We have actually been entrusted to that word, and we
belong to the One who speaks it.
Yet we continue to be citizens of this world. Jesus prayed the
following words for His apostles -- and for us -- on the night before He died:
"I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but to guard them from the evil
one. They are not of the world any more that I belong to the world. Consecrate
them by means of truth -- Your word is truth" (Jn.17:15-17). We are citizens of
heaven, living in this world and bearing witness in this world to the truths of
God. When speaking before Pilate, Jesus said that his own kingdom did not belong
to this world, but that He came into this world to bear witness to the truth
(see Jn.18:33-38). We are called to do the same.
Nature of prayer
The foundation of all the good that we can accomplish is prayer. "Without
me," Christ said, "you can do nothing" (Jn. 15:5). Jesus does not merely "help"
us, as if we work on our own and He comes along to ease the burden. Rather, we
cannot even begin a good work without His saving action within us. All we do is
His gift. We need to pray more, and with greater fervor.
But be careful not to misuse a good thing. Even prayer can become an excuse,
a refuge from our responsibility to take action. The temptation can be
especially strong when the action is political. Nevertheless, we are called to
For the very same reason we are called to pray! Does God really need us to
pray? Does He need to be reminded of His duties, or told to do His job? Of
course not. Yet He calls us to pray, because He wants us to be involved in what
He is doing. If, therefore, He calls us to pray, even when He could act without
our prayers, it is reasonable that He calls us to action, even when He could act
without our works. God calls us not because He needs us but because He chooses
to use us.
Prayer is not just asking God to do something. That’s part of it, but it's
more. Prayer is union with God. Prayer means we open ourselves so wide to
God that He comes in and does something through us! Prayer and action are
not two separate options, but rather two aspects of the same reality: union with
God. When we come to prayer, we come to the living God, a consuming fire, and
the source of all activity. When we come away from prayer we should not feel
rested but restless. We should not feel that we’ve done our duty, but that we’ve
been given our duty.
Be careful when you ask God to end injustice. His response may very well be
to reach down from heaven, lift you up by the back of the neck, and throw you
into the battle! God is not going to rip open the sky, come down, and tell our
nation to stop injustice. Instead, He is going to put conviction in your heart
and words on your lips and command you to speak and act! Let us never use prayer
to escape from action. Instead, let us immerse ourselves in true prayer, which
enables us to act in union with God, who destroys death and restores life!
Prayer helps us grow in the virtue of charity, and one aspect of charity is
that we care about how people actually get on in life. We try to make life
better for them. It's not enough just to pray.
Example from Mary
This truth is made clear in the life of the woman who had the deepest
prayer life and the most intimate relationship with God -- the Virgin Mary.
At the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel told Mary that she would be the
mother of God (see Lk. 1:26-38). Mary received Gabriel's message and was
certainly astonished. Yet the angel also told her that her cousin Elizabeth was
pregnant. Despite the high calling Mary had just received, she did not lose
sight of the pressing needs of her kinswoman Elizabeth. She undertook the
arduous journey to the hill country, and tended to Elizabeth's needs for three
months. Mary kept in touch with both heavenly and earthly reality. The truth of
her new status did not distract her from Elizabeth's needs. Mary responded to
those needs in a very practical way. She resisted any temptation to become
absorbed in herself or her own religious experiences.
We see her give the same example at Cana. The celebration there in company
with Christ and the Apostles did not blind her to the real needs of the
newlyweds. The wine had run out, and she responded.
There is an axiom in psychiatry that says, "Believe behavior." See what the
speaker does. If we believe the world needs to be changed, and that God calls us
to do so, that conviction must be translated into action.
Interrelation between this world and the next
To understand our political responsibility, we need to understand the
nature of heaven, eternal life, our activity in the next world, and the
relationship such activity has with our activity in this world.
Some people are afraid to go to heaven. They are more afraid, of course, of
the alternative -- as they should be. But a fear of heaven, perhaps, can spring
from a misunderstanding of the common phrases "eternal rest" and "forever and
ever." We rest in this world, but for a while. Then we want to get up and
do something. We are not inclined to want to rest forever.
Fortunately, that is not what "eternal rest" means. Eternal rest is not the
same as inactivity. Rather, it is the attaining of the purpose for which one was
made. When someone pursues an educational degree, for example, he or she is "at
rest" when the degree is awarded. That hardly means inactivity, however; in
fact, the degree was likely obtained with a view to taking on new activities in
which one uses the knowledge and skills which the degree represents. In the life
to come, we will be active. In fact, our capacity for activity will be far
greater than it is now. We will have attained the very purpose for which we were
created, namely, union with God. Yet we will not be bored. Every moment of
heaven will be new and surprising, for we will always be seeing and knowing more
of God than we saw or knew before.
In the next life, we will not be angels. We believe in the resurrection of
the body; in fact, the resurrection of the entire universe. "What we await are
new heavens and a new earth…" (2Pt.3:13). God made us as human beings, a unity
of body and soul. The next life will be physical as well as spiritual. We are
reminded of this by the fact that the Lord ate a piece of cooked fish after he
rose from the dead (see Lk.24:36-43).
The organization of society in its political dynamics is a good, not an evil.
Good often has evil intermingled with it, but in His saving activity, God
purifies the good; He does not destroy it. In the life to come, all
the good in God's creation will be purified. That world is not disconnected
from this one. The good we receive and cultivate here will be found again on the
other side of the grave.
The Second Vatican Council, in the Constitution on the Church in the
Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) speaks of the relationship between our
activity in this world and the world to come in the following words:
"We know neither the moment of the consummation of the earth and of man
nor the way the universe will be transformed. The form of this world, distorted
by sin, is passing away, and we are taught that God is preparing a new dwelling
and a new earth in which righteousness dwells, whose happiness will fill and
surpass all the desires of peace arising in the hearts of men. Then with death
conquered the sons of God will be raised in Christ and what was sown in weakness
and dishonor will put on the imperishable: charity and its works will remain and
all of creation, which God made for man, will be set free from its bondage to
"We have been warned, of course, that it profits man nothing if he gains the
whole world and loses or forfeits himself. Far from diminishing our concern to
develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is
here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the
age which is to come. That is why, although we must be careful to distinguish
earthly progress clearly from the increase of the kingdom of Christ, such
progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God, insofar as it can contribute
to the better ordering of human society.
"When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and our enterprise --
human dignity, brotherly communion, and freedom -- according to the command of
the Lord and in his Spirit, we will find them once again, cleansed this time
from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his
Father an eternal and universal kingdom "of truth and life, a kingdom of
holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace." Here on earth the
kingdom is mysteriously present; when the Lord comes it will enter into its
perfection" (GS 39).
Religion has sometimes been criticized for making people focus so much on
the promise of the world to come that they neglect to develop and improve this
world. But the passage above indicates that our belief in heaven is to make us
all the more concerned with earth. The fact that we know human beings will
live forever means we need to take better care of them now. The good we
accomplish in the earthly society becomes, as it were, the building blocks of
the world to come. It is all God's gift, brought to perfection at Christ's
coming, and yet we have a real role to play in preparing that reality.
Religious life and spiritual life
This same document, Gaudium et Spes, laments the disconnection between
faith and practical life. Some people do not adequately distinguish spiritual
life from religious life. One's "religious life" consists in
explicitly religious practices carried out at specific times -- such as one's
Sunday worship or private devotions -- whereas one's "spiritual life" means
one's relationship with God, and union with His will, at all times and
places. To do one's work -- which for most people is not specifically
religious -- is an opportunity for union with God if the work is done in
accordance with His will. Every choice we make, in fact, either brings us closer
to God or further away. There is no standing still in the spiritual life. We are
called to do everything for the Lord and in the Lord.
In the first chapter of Isaiah, we see that God is quite upset with His
people. Although He had prescribed for them the rituals and sacrifices, He says
He is tired of them and wants them no more. In fact, He says He will no longer
even hear their prayers. The problem, as the Lord then explains, is that the
people have blood on their hands. They are busy worshipping God, but they are
ignoring the injustice around them. God commands them to do something to
stop it. It is not enough that they are carrying out their religious practices.
Those very acts of worship are displeasing to God if they are not leading us
to be more concerned about what is going on in this world.
Any religion, of any time or place, that allows us to ignore injustice
and bloodshed, is not authentic religion and will not save us or anyone else.
Our political responsibility flows from that fact.
Bishops' Pastoral Plan and other exhortations
The US Bishops' Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities (1985
Reaffirmation) contains, as an integral part of its structure, a section on
public policy. The bishops state,
"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."
Every four years, when our nation faces a major national election, the
Administrative Board of the United States Catholic Conference issues a statement
on political responsibility. In their 1995 statement, Political
Responsibility, the bishops declared, "In the Catholic tradition,
citizenship is a virtue; participation in the political process is an
obligation. We are not a sect fleeing the world, but a community of faith called
to renew the earth." We are not in this world by accident. Nor are we here
in order to leave it the way it is. We are here in the world to change the world
for the better.
In their 1999 statement, the bishops reiterate this theme with the following
"Sometimes it seems few candidates and no party fully reflect our values. But
now is not a time for retreat. The new millennium should be an opportunity for
renewed participation. We must challenge all parties and every candidate to
defend human life and dignity, to pursue greater justice and peace, to uphold
family life, and to advance the common good" (Administrative Board, US Bishops,
Faithful Citizenship, 1999, p.5).
"For Catholics, public virtue is as important as private virtue in building
up the common good. In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a
virtue; participation in the political process is a moral obligation. Every
believer is called to faithful citizenship, to become an informed, active, and
responsible participant in the political process" (p.9).
Every vote counts
The bishops gathered for the Second Vatican Council explicitly
taught, in the document Gaudium et Spes, that we have an obligation to
Now if a priest tells you that you need to do something, you will presumably
take that seriously. If a bishop tells you, you will take it even more
seriously. What if a few thousand bishops tell you that you need to do
something? That is the case here!
We don't tell you whom to vote for…We shouldn’t have to! Our job as ministers
of the Gospel is to form people in the principles and to call forth their
ability to evaluate the situation they face in each election.
Some people feel their vote does not count, does not make a difference. Let's
ask a question. How many people do you suppose think that way? And how many
people thinking that way is too many? If there are too many people
thinking that way, the best thing you can do to start changing that is to not
think that way yourself!
Another document which is central to these considerations is the US Bishops'
1998 statement Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics.
The bishops exhort us, "We encourage all citizens, particularly
Catholics, to embrace their citizenship not merely as a duty and privilege, but
as an opportunity meaningfully to participate in building the culture of life.
Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts. Every act of
responsible citizenship is an exercise of significant individual power. We must
exercise that power in ways that defend human life, especially those of God's
children who are unborn, disabled or otherwise vulnerable" (US Bishops,
Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 34).
II. Caesar Must Obey God
An important theme of Old Testament history is the way in which God’s people
Israel related to the other nations surrounding them. The people of the covenant
were not to follow the idolatrous practices of those nations. Israel, after all,
had the benefit of God’s revealed law. The other nations did not.
One thing that the Israelites wanted to imitate, however, was the fact
that other nations had a king. At one point they demanded of Samuel the prophet,
"Give us a king!" Upon consulting the Lord, Samuel was told, "They have asked
for a king---Give them a king." But God also gave this essential warning: both
the people and their king have a king in heaven! The well-being of the entire
nation depends on the obedience which both the king and his people give to the
King of heaven. (See 1 Samuel 8:1-22 and 12:13-15.)
The Lord Jesus expressed the same theme in Matthew 22: 15-22. When asked
whether taxes should be paid to Caesar, Jesus asked whose image and inscription
was on the coin. "Caesar’s," came the answer. The Lord then said, "Then give to
Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" (Mt. 22:21).
The coin belongs to Caesar, for it bears Caesar’s image. Human beings belong
to God, for they bear God’s image! The implication of the passage is that "What
belongs to God" includes Caesar himself! Caesar must obey God.
Separation of God and state
Both the passage from 1Samuel and from Matthew’s Gospel teach what the
Second Vatican Council commented upon at length, namely, that
separation of Church and state does not mean separation of God and state. If you
separate the state from God, the State disintegrates. While the Church does not
have a political mission, she nevertheless has a political responsibility: to
bear witness to those moral truths without which the common good---which is the
very purpose for which governments are instituted---cannot survive. These moral
truths are basic and go beyond the bounds of any denominational beliefs. Because
they are truths, they must shape public policy.
Not only do individuals have a duty to obey God, but so do governments.
Christians have a duty to be politically active, to register and vote, to
lobby and educate candidates and elected officials, and to speak up about the
issues that affect the common good. The Church does not set up the voting
booths, but when we go into the voting booths, we don’t cease to be members of
the Church! If we don’t shape public policy according to moral truths, why do we
believe that moral truth at all?
Now is the time, now is the challenge. No longer are we to think of our
religion as a purely "private matter." Christ taught in public and He was
crucified in public. Now risen from the dead, He places us in the public arena,
with the commission to make disciples of all nations (See Mt. 28:18-20). May we
not fail Him or our nation.
"The Gospel of Life must be proclaimed, and human life defended, in all
places and all times. The arena for moral responsibility includes not only the
halls of government, but the voting booth as well. Laws that permit abortion,
euthanasia and assisted suicide are profoundly unjust, and we should work
peacefully and tirelessly to oppose and change them. Because they are unjust
they cannot bind citizens in conscience, be supported, acquiesced in, or
recognized as valid" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n.
"There seems to be some apprehension today that a close association between
human activity and religion will endanger the autonomy of man, of organizations
and of science. If by the autonomy of earthly affairs is meant the gradual
discovery, exploitation, and ordering of the laws and values of matter and
society, then the demand for autonomy is perfectly in order: it is at once the
claim of modern man and the desire of the creator….However, if by the term 'the
autonomy of earthly affairs' is meant that material being does not depend on God
and that man can use it as if it had no relation to its creator, then the
falsity of such a claim will be obvious to anyone who believes in God. Without a
creator there can be no creature. In any case, believers, no matter what their
religion, have always recognized the voice and the revelation of God in the
language of creatures. Besides, once God is forgotten, the creature is lost
sight of as well." (Gaudium et Spes, 65)
John Paul II has written in his Encyclical letter The Gospel of Life,
"Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for
morality or a panacea for immorality. Fundamentally, democracy is a "system" and
as such is a means and not an end. Its "moral" value is not automatic, but
depends on conformity to the moral law to which it, like every other form of
human behavior, must be subject: in other words, its morality depends on the
morality of the ends which it pursues and of the means which it employs. If
today we see an almost universal consensus with regard to the value of
democracy, this is to be considered a positive "sign of the times", as the
Church's Magisterium has frequently noted. But the value of democracy stands or
falls with the values which it embodies and promotes. Of course, values such as
the dignity of every human person, respect for inviolable and inalienable human
rights, and the adoption of the "common good" as the end and criterion
regulating political life are certainly fundamental and not to be ignored" (EV
In other words, certain things need to be beyond the reach of the
majority, precisely because they embody values that a society needs to
survive, and that nobody has the right to ignore or shun. No majority can make
what is wrong into something that is right.
This nation is an experiment in self-governance. Whether this experiment will
succeed or fail depends on our faithfulness to this principle. People cannot
govern themselves if they have lost the sense of what is right and what is
wrong. We govern the country. If we exempt ourselves from that admittedly
challenging process, then we are letting someone else govern us!
Some call our teaching on the right to life "divisive." Our country was
founded on the recognition of certain basic moral principles, among which is
that the right to life is unalienable, is bestowed by the Creator, and is to be
protected by the government. The very greatness of America depends on her
adherence to this truth. How, then, can one consider "divisive" the very
principle on which our unity as a nation stands?
Some speak of "a pluralistic society." There are many forms of legitimate
pluralism in our society: there are varieties of cultures, of art, of races, of
schools of thought. Yet the very phrase "a pluralistic society" indicates that
it is one. The word "pluralistic" here is modifying a singular noun. What
holds this "pluralistic society" together, keeping it from becoming a
disconnected chaos? There need to be certain basic, foundational principles to
which everyone in the society adheres if it is to survive. The right to life is
the first among them.
The confusion that exists regarding the relationship between religion,
politics, and the right to life, is evident in the many discussions I have with
those who perform abortions. When I begin talking to them about science,
they talk to me about faith.
The pattern begins when I ask the question, "Does an abortion destroy a
human life?" The answer I hear is, "I don't know when the child receives a
soul." In one breath, the topic of discussion was an observable procedure from
the perspective of verifiable science. In the next breath, the topic was
spiritual and invisible: when do children receive souls?
This twist in the discussion is not limited to those who provide
abortions. It also happens with many others who favor the availability of legal
abortion. After all, they argue, since we have religious freedom in this
country, people should be allowed to believe what they want about when the soul
begins to exist. It would be wrong to impose by law one particular religious or
theological position on this matter.
The truth is, however, that the pro-life movement does not seek to
impose by law any religious or theological belief, whether about the soul or
anything else. Such an effort is both misguided and unnecessary.
Suppose, for example, that I do not believe that you have a soul. Does that
give me the right to kill you? No, it does not. Your life is still protected by
the law, despite my beliefs. Does the law that protects your life require
me to believe that you have a soul? No it does not. It doesn't even require me
to believe that souls exist at all. What it requires is that whatever I
believe, I refrain from taking your life. The law protects both the right to
believe and the life of the believer.
That is what the pro-life movement wants. We are simply calling for the
protection of all human beings.
If someone does not believe the child in the womb has a soul, that is his
or her business. But to go on and say that because one doesn't believe
that, it should be legal to kill the child, is equally as unjust as to say that
because one doesn't believe you have a soul, it should be legal to kill you. The
law doesn't care about the belief; it regulates the action.
The law's criterion for who receives protection should be the
verifiable evidence of science, rather that the subjective criterion of
religious belief. There is such a thing as religious truth. But whether a baby
lives or dies should not depend on whether or not everyone in society has
acknowledged that truth. Human life needs protection now. The freedom "not to
believe" should never be confused with freedom to destroy others.
Church Teaches not only revealed truths
Religious freedom is a key value in American life, and a human right
which the Church defends vigorously. This liberty means that religious beliefs
should be embraced freely, not imposed by law. Yet one cannot legitimately
invoke religious freedom in order to trample the rights of others. To invoke
religious liberty to destroy another's life is an intolerable abuse. No religion
would be allowed to have as part of its worship service a ritual that tortures
and kills a child.
Religion does not only protect revealed truths; it also protects fundamental
truths about the human person and society that transcend denominational
differences. For example, a basic tenet of civilized society is that stealing is
wrong. This is also a religious teaching, revealed to Moses in the Commandments
and pronounced by our Lord. Yet nobody complains that laws against stealing are
an imposition of religious beliefs by the state. Similarly with the right to
life. many defend their "belief" in abortion under the rubric of religious
freedom, and seek to relativize the "belief" of pro-life people that abortion is
wrong or that life begins at conception. Yet to call for the equal protection of
every life that is demonstrably human is not any more an imposition of "belief"
than to call for the protection of everyone's possessions from stealing.
In an abortion-related argument, one US Senator once reasoned in words
similar to these: "Some people believe life begins at conception, some believe
life begins at birth and others believe life begins sometime in between. We
should allow people in this country the freedom to hold their own beliefs,
without government bodies imposing one or another philosophical or theological
I pointed out to the Senator, however, that he had forgotten a group of
people, namely, those who believe life begins sometime after birth. Are
we not to let them believe as they want, also? Certainly, we should. Yet that
does not give them the right to kill the born.
The question here, again, is not whether we will permit beliefs, but
rather, whether we will permit actions which destroy fundamental human
rights. Laws protecting life actually protect one from the beliefs of those
who refuse to recognize them as full members of the human community.
In another exchange on the Senate floor (NY Times, August 6, 1995), one
pro-abortion senator remarked to a pro-life senator in response to a question
about whether human life begins at conception, "One enters prayer when one comes
to this decision…It might surprise the Senator to know that he is not my God."
So now a basic fact of science is subject to the conclusions one comes to in
prayer! It is a wonder that those who conceived the first test-tube baby did not
gather around the petri dish and have a prayer service! And what would happen if
someone came back from his prayer time and told you he had just decided that
you are not human!
The separation of Church and state is not the separation of God and
state. Without God, the state itself collapses. Without responsibility to God,
what is to prevent those in power from saying that whatever they think is right
is right? No human law can make an act of violence right.
It is helpful to recall in this context that one of the reasons that God's
people in the Old Testament were overtaken by their enemies was that the
practice of child sacrifice was tolerated among them!
Political but not partisan: free to follow the
Believers are not second-class citizens. Just because people have
convictions which flow from their faith does not mean they have less of a voice
in the shaping of public policy. In fact, a primary purpose of the Church is
precisely to influence the culture through advocacy of moral issues.
Churches are unique among § 501(c)(3) organizations in that their involvement
in politics is inevitable due to the promulgation of a moral code by every major
religion. As one commentator declared: "Religion and politics have been
intertwined since the birth of our nation. In a democracy created to reflect the
social fabric of its citizens, religious groups have always advocated moral
positions to further or impede political causes and political campaigns" (Judy
The mission of the Church is a religious one. As the Second Vatican Council
teaches, our Lord did not give the Church a mission in the political order. Yet
this does not mean that the Church has nothing to say about political matters.
The Church has much to say, precisely because of her religious mission. The
Church is to be a source of vigor for us to establish the human community
according to the law of God. The Church, in fact, is the breaking in of the
Kingdom of God among us, though its fulfillment remains in the future.
The Church does not formulate policies; the Church gives witness to the
truths of God with which policies should conform!
Those truths do not easily fit the categories of liberal or conservative,
Republican or Democrat. All policies have to be evaluated according to how they
touch the human person, how they affirm human life, human dignity, human rights,
and the common good. When we speak of whether the Church has a political
responsibility, we are not speaking about endorsing particular candidates,
conducting partisan campaigns, or representing any party or platform. What we
are doing instead is clarifying the mission of the Church, and applying the
teachings of the Church about human life and behavior to the circumstances under
which we organize ourselves as a society.
No party line perfectly conforms to the Gospel. We have to be free to
follow the Gospel -- free not only in the sense that the law does not interfere
with the Church's proclamation of the truth, but also free interiorly to
be able to vote on principle rather than by party loyalty. The bishops' 1995
statement Political Responsibility states that we need to be political
without being partisan, civil without being soft, involved without being used.
In the parishes, there are many things we are able to do, such as to educate
candidates and voters, and conduct voter-registration drives. In short, we must
be involved. Being religious people does not mean we don't get involved in these
The bishops speak about the freedom that Christians must have to profess
their faith publicly and to make that faith the object of their highest
"We get the public officials we deserve. Their virtue -- or lack thereof --
is a judgment not only on them, but on us. Because of this, we urge our fellow
citizens to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric
critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not
party affiliation or mere self-interest.." (US Bishops, Living the Gospel
of Life, 1998, n. 34).
"One of our greatest blessings in the United States is our right and
responsibility to participate in civic life. The Constitution protects the right
of individuals and of religious bodies to speak out without governmental
interference, endorsement, or sanction. It is increasingly apparent that major
public issues have clear moral dimensions and that religious values have
significant public consequences. Our nation is enriched and our tradition of
pluralism enhanced when religious groups contribute to the debate over the
policies that guide the nation" (Administrative Board, US Bishops, Faithful
Citizenship, 1999, p.8).
"Catholics are called to be a community of conscience within the larger
society and to test public life by the moral wisdom anchored in Scripture and
consistent with the best of our nation's founding ideals. Our moral framework
does not easily fit the categories of right or left, Democrat or Republican. Our
responsibility is to measure every party and platform by how its agenda touches
human life and dignity" (Administrative Board, US Bishops, Faithful
Citizenship, 1999, p.8).
"Every Catholic is a missionary of the Good News of human dignity redeemed
through the cross. While our personal vocation may determine the form and style
of our witness, Jesus calls each of us to be a leaven in society, and we will be
judged by our actions. No one, least of all someone who exercises leadership in
society, can rightfully claim to share fully and practically the Catholic faith
and yet act publicly in a way contrary to that faith" (US Bishops, Living the
Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 7).
"We believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a "Gospel of life."… We cannot
simultaneously commit ourselves to human rights and progress while eliminating
or marginalizing the weakest among us. Nor can we practice the Gospel of life
only as a private piety. American Catholics must live it vigorously and
publicly, as a matter of national leadership and witness, or we will not live it
at all" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 20).
"American Catholics have long sought to assimilate into U.S. cultural life.
But in assimilating, we have too often been digested. We have been changed by
our culture too much, and we have changed it not enough. If we are leaven, we
must bring to our culture the whole Gospel, which is a Gospel of life and joy.
That is our vocation as believers. And there is no better place to start than
promoting the beauty and sanctity of human life" (US Bishops, Living the
Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 25).
"Can't Legislate Morality"
Some declare that "you can't legislate morality." Let's look more closely
at what that statement means.
If it means the law is not sufficient to make everyone morally responsible,
that is certainly true. We need more than laws to make people good. Their hearts
and minds need to be converted. Laws do have both a teaching and restraining
function, however, that actually keep people within the bounds of moral
behavior, even if unwillingly. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, the
law can't make my brother love me, but it can keep him from lynching me.
If the phrase means the law is not the source of morality, that is
also true. Morality comes not from law, but from the nature of the human person,
which ultimately flows from the nature of God.
If the phrase means laws have nothing to do with morality, as if there
is a total separation between one's "moral life" -- understood as private -- and
one's "social life" -- as lived within the boundaries set by the human
community, this is patently false. This is the idea that whatever a law says is
OK is OK. In reality, however, majorities can be wrong. Furthermore, both
morality and law deal with human behavior. Any time you legislate the boundaries
of human behavior, you are legislating morality.
III. The right to Life is Fundamental
Declaration of Independence and purpose of
Aristotle wrote, "The state comes into existence that man may live."
The Declaration of Independence states, "We hold these truths to be
self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are
instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the
governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these
ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it…"
"Self-evident" means you don't have to prove it. You just say it, and it's
obvious. According to this document, therefore, we should not have to "prove"
that the right to life is possessed by every human being, prior to and
independent of the decisions of anyone in government positions. The danger
faced by a person who says, "I don't believe you are human" is that someone else
can say it to them. How would one prove it?
Life comes first among our rights. Freedom of choice is great if you have
life. Destroy life, and you destroy liberty and the pursuit of happiness at the
same time. To help us evaluate the hierarchy of issues, it helps to ask what a
person still has if you take away the rights in question. Many are deprived of
various rights but remain persons protected by the law. But when personhood and
protection of the law are removed, no other rights stand either. In fact, the
very reason we have other rights is that we have the right to life.
If our government becomes destructive of the purpose of securing the right to
life, we the people must no longer consent to that. John Adams, Second President
of the United States, declared, "You have rights antecedent to all earthy
governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights
derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe."
What is the first responsibility of those in government? It is to recognize
their place. They are guardians of rights which pre-exist them and the
government itself. Some say the government should not be involved in the
abortion decision. They do not realize how right they are. The government got
"too involved" in the issue when it decided in Roe vs. Wade that it could
deprive the unborn of their right to life. Now, the government's duty is to step
back from that position by realizing that it does not have the authority to
either bestow or take away the unalienable right to life. The goal here is not
simply to have all abide by the norm. It is, rather, to recognize that the norm
is beyond the power of a government to change. The right to life is not an issue
that can be resolved temporarily, until some further threat to it comes
Government leaders, furthermore, must lead. While forging a consensus is a
key part of political activity, there are some fundamental issues of justice
that cannot wait for a consensus. When a segment of the human family is being
put to death legally, the leaders cannot wait for enough people to agree that
the victims should be protected.
The Declaration of Independence recognizes the existence of a higher law that
that written by humans. This is the natural law. Oliver Wendell Holmes was a key
influence in our law's departure from the recognition of natural law. He held
that the norm was that which is "convenient" and "expedient for the community
The Holy Father and our bishops have commented on the responsibility and
destiny of America in this regard:
"Every human person - no matter how vulnerable or helpless, no matter how
young or how old, no matter how healthy, handicapped or sick, no matter how
useful or productive for society - is a being of inestimable worth created in
the image and likeness of God. This is the dignity of America, the reason she
exists, the condition for her survival - yes, the ultimate test of her
greatness: to respect every human person, especially the weakest and most
defenseless ones, those as yet unborn." - Pope John Paul II at the Detroit
Airport on 19 September, 1987
"As we tinker with the beginning, the end and even the intimate cell
structure of life, we tinker with our own identity as a free nation dedicated to
the dignity of the human person. When American political life becomes an
experiment on people rather than for and by them, it will no longer be worth
conducting. We are arguably moving closer to that day. Today, when the
inviolable rights of the human person are proclaimed and the value of life
publicly affirmed, the most basic human right, 'the right to life, is being
denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of
existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death' (Pope John Paul II, The
Gospel of Life [Evangelium Vitae], 18)" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of
Life, 1998, n. 4).
"In a striking way, we see today a heightening of the tension between our
nation's founding principles and political reality. We see this in diminishing
respect for the inalienable right to life and in the elimination of legal
protections for those who are most vulnerable. There can be no genuine justice
in our society until the truths on which our nation was founded are more
perfectly realized in our culture and law" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of
Life, 1998, n. 14).
"Virtual reality and genetic science may give us the illusion of power, but
we are not gods. We are not our own, or anyone else's, creator. Nor, for our own
safety, should we ever seek to be. Even parents, entrusted with a special
guardianship over new life, do not "own" their children any more than one adult
can own another. And therein lies our only security. No one but the Creator is
the sovereign of basic human rights -- beginning with the right to life" (US
Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 15).
Single Issue person
Begin speaking and acting against abortion, and it won't be long
before you'll be called a "single-issue" person.
What the phrase means isn't exactly clear. Certainly, pro-lifers know
that other "issues" besides abortion exist, and pro-lifers everywhere are in
fact actively involved in addressing a host of other issues. But precisely why
do "other issues" exist and what is their importance? Other issues exist because
people exist. If there were no people, there would be no issues and nobody to
discuss them. The bottom line, in other words, is life. Any issue is important
because life is important. Why should we be concerned about unemployment? It is
a concern because people have a right to make a living. Why do they have a right
to make a living? Because they have a right to live! Why is poverty also an
important issue? It is important because people have a right to food, clothing
and shelter. Why do they have a right to these things? Because they have a right
to live! It all comes down to life. That's why abortion is the key issue.
Deny that a person has the right to live, and you undercut the importance of
every other issue. It is impossible to coherently speak up about any issue
impacting human life if you are allowing the life itself to become a disposable
item. Abortion is more than abortion.
The fact that abortion is a non-issue for many people is what makes the
‘single-issue’ accusation so misplaced. It adds insult to the injury already
inflicted upon the children (a fatal injury) and their mothers. "Why don't you
take care of people already born?" we are asked. Our response is, "Why are you
making the distinction in the first place? We speak more often of the pre-born
precisely because we are trying to undo the unfair distinction made
between them and the born. The pre-born have equal rights with the born, and we
demand that those rights be respected in the same way." To accuse pro-lifers of
not having concern for the born is as unfair as accusing prison chaplains of not
having concern for those who are free, or helpers of the blind of not having
concern for those who see! Having a universal concern for human rights never
excludes a person from having a specific focus on one group of people in need.
The pre-born, furthermore, are most in need. Is any other group of people
killed at the alarming rate of 4400 a day, at set times and places, accompanied
by the indifference of so many and by the efforts of others to make it seem so
legitimate? These deaths are not accidents; these deaths are authorized by the
government. Is there really another issue gushing forth such contempt of human
lives, or another group of human lives so unable to defend themselves? What
would happen if tomorrow a policy were announced whereby 14 year olds could be
put to death at the discretion of their mothers? Would the policy last until
sunset? Wouldn’t people rise up in revolt? Then suppose those who had set the
policy said, "0K. We're sorry... That was a bad policy. We will push it back
seven years. Only 7-year olds may be put to death, at the discretion of their
mothers." Would that policy be any different? Would it be any better? Then
suppose the policy-makers said, "OK. We were wrong again. This time we'll push
the age back another seven years. Boys and girls in the womb may be killed at
the discretion of their mothers." The first two cases were fantasy, but
now--welcome to reality. Here's the key question: Is this policy any different,
any better? No; yet where is the outcry? Why do those who do cry out get
accused of being "single-issue" people? Have we somehow believed the lie that
abortion is morally better than killing a 7-year-old? If 7-year olds were
systematically, legally, killed, would those who speak up be called "single
Because of the prayerful action of pro-lifers, many children have been saved
from abortion. Ask those children if they think that being saved from abortion
is a "single issue." No, for each of them it is every issue; it is life
itself. For us, it is every issue regarding that child and everything that will
ever touch his/her life. The child lives. The issue is his/her every
need, blessing, mission, interaction, and contribution to this world! The issue
is no less than the living image of God Himself. Yes, in the end there is only
one issue. The issue is life. And ultimately, life defended and affirmed
is identical with that single issue called love.
Archbishop Eusebius Beltran wrote the following words,
which were published in The Sooner Catholic in 1994: "Several years
ago, I remember being criticized for urging people to vote pro-life. I was
accused of being a "single issue voter." On reflection, that's not a bad
designation. If one issue is big enough and important enough and capable of
overshadowing other issues, then it should be addressed. If one issue is so
fundamental that it affects every other issue, then it should be given
prominence. If one issue perpetrates a grave injustice to anyone, then it has to
be stopped. If one issue is a matter of life or death, then life has to be
chosen. The one issue that is reflected in each of these situations is abortion.
Therefore I am proud to be called a "single issue voter" in this regard for
there is no other issue as basic, as fundamental and as urgent."
Consistent Ethic of Life
Because my ministry is focused on abortion, I am sometimes asked
whether I believe in the consistent ethic of life. But consistency is not just
something we "believe" in; it is something we are all obliged to!
Consistency demands that we recognize the sanctity of the human person, whoever
and wherever that person may be, and whatever evil is threatening that dignity.
So the answer to the question is a resounding Yes!
The "consistent ethic of life" is a critically important but widely
misunderstood teaching. Though he did not invent it, the late Joseph Cardinal
Bernardin of Chicago was the most visible proponent of this teaching, often
popularly referred to as the "seamless garment" philosophy.
Cardinal Bernardin began his public reflections on this theme in the context
of the work he did on the US Bishops' pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace,
and of his position as Chairman of the Pro-life Committee of the National
Conference of Catholic Bishops. He saw that in order to effectively articulate
the Christian response to a wide range of menacing threats to human life,
brought about by a new kind of interconnection between the forces of destruction
made possible by modern technologies, it was necessary to highlight the
interconnection of the many and varied efforts to defend human life. He noted
that progress in the defense and protection of life in one arena meant progress
for the defense of life in all arenas.
Some object to the idea of the consistent ethic because they interpret
"consistency" to mean "of equal importance or urgency." That is a common
misunderstanding of the teaching; that is not what it means. What links the many
issues of human life is that such life is sacred: it comes from God, it belongs
to God, it returns to God. All human beings have equal dignity, and nobody may
ever directly destroy the innocent. These principles apply whether we are
talking about abortion, capital punishment, war, poverty, drug abuse, street
violence, or any other of the multitude of problems we face in society.
But that does not mean that these issues are morally equivalent. Each issue,
along with the overall principles which we have already stated, has its own
particular principles and moral considerations which need to be brought into the
discussions whenever one treats of that particular issue. These particularities
could conceivably result in divergent opinions about what specific policies
should be implemented, while at the same time those who disagree acknowledge the
same essential principles.
Nor do all of these issues constitute an emergency of equal gravity and
urgency. Some do more damage and claim more victims than others.
We need to understand the consistent ethic of life in the context of what the
United States bishops have said about it on more than one occasion. In the 1985
Reaffirmation of the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, the bishops wrote,
"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….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"(p.3-4).
Furthermore, in their 1989 Resolution on Abortion, the bishops
declared, "Abortion has become the fundamental human rights issue for all men
and women of good will."
The fundamental nature of the abortion tragedy was again stressed in the
Bishops' 1998 document, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American
Catholics: "Respect for the dignity of the human person demands a
commitment to human rights across a broad spectrum…Yet abortion and euthanasia
have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack
life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others.
They are committed against those who are weakest and most defenseless, those who
are genuinely 'the poorest of the poor'" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life,
1998, n. 5).
"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" (US Bishops, Living the
Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 21).
"Adopting a consistent ethic of life, the Catholic Church promotes a broad
spectrum of issues…. Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse
indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. 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" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 23).
In their 1999 statement "Faithful Citizenship," the Administrative Committee
of the USCC stated, "We are convinced that a consistent ethic of life should be
the moral framework from which to address all issues in the political arena."
The consistent ethic acknowledges that human dignity is threatened by many
things in our society, and that while individual issues are unique, they are
interrelated to the point where progress on one front affects progress on all
fronts. The statement "Faithful Citizenship" outlines the moral framework of the
Church's approach to society, and some of the key questions that need to be
asked as we face another election. Some of its other pertinent quotes follow:
"Catholic teaching offers a consistent set of moral principles for assessing
issues, platforms, and campaigns. Because of our faith in Jesus Christ, we start
with the dignity of the human person. Our teaching calls us to protect human
life from conception to natural death, to defend the poor and vulnerable, and to
work toward a more just society and a more peaceful world" (Administrative
Board, US Bishops, Faithful Citizenship, 1999, p.11).
"Every human person is created in the image and likeness of God. The
conviction that human life is sacred and that each person has inherent dignity
that must be respected in society lies at the heart of Catholic social teaching.
Calls to advance human rights are illusions if the right to life itself is
subject to attack. We believe that every human life is sacred from conception to
natural death; that people are more important than things; and that the measure
of every institution is whether or not it enhances the life and dignity of the
human person" (Administrative Board, US Bishops, Faithful Citizenship,
"Because every human person is created in the image and likeness of God, we
have a duty to defend human life in all its stages and in every condition. Our
world does not lack for threats to human life. We watch with horror the deadly
violence of war, genocide and massive starvation in other lands, and children
dying from lack of adequate health care. Yet as we wrote in our 1998 statement,
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." Abortion, the
deliberate killing of a human being before birth, is never morally acceptable"
(Administrative Board, US Bishops, Faithful Citizenship, 1999, p.16).
"Faithful Citizenship" is the latest in a line of statements on political
responsibility issued every four years since the mid-1970's. In 1984, Joseph
Cardinal Bernardin, the most well-known spokesperson regarding the consistent
ethic of life, had this to say about the role of such statements: "The
purpose is surely not to tell citizens how to vote, but to help shape the public
debate and form personal conscience so that every citizen will vote thoughtfully
and responsibly. 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. Both the Statement and the Respect Life program have
direct relevance to the political order, but they are applied concretely by the
choice of citizens. This is as it should be. In the political order the Church
is primarily a teacher; it possesses a carefully cultivated tradition of moral
analysis of personal and public issues. It makes that tradition available in a
special manner for the community of the Church, but it offers it also to all who
find meaning and guidance in its moral teaching" (A Consistent Ethic of
Life: Continuing the Dialogue, The William Wade Lecture Series, St. Louis
University, March 11, 1984).
Notice that the Cardinal stated that not all issues are qualitatively equal
from a moral perspective. A consistent ethic recognizes that there is
justification for placing priority emphasis on certain issues at certain times.
To ignore the priority attention that the problems of abortion and euthanasia
demand is to misunderstand both the consistent ethic and the nature of the
threats that these evils pose. To again quote Cardinal Bernardin, "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). "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."
The Cardinal was also clear in his teaching that having a consistent
ethic certainly cannot mean that every group must try to do something about
every issue that impacts on human life. Such an approach is simply impossible.
What it does mean, however, is that in the marvelous unity of the Body of
Christ, each part does the work assigned to it, while rejoicing in and affirming
the work of all the other parts.
Further quotes of Cardinal Bernardin follow:
"Some of the responses I have received on the Fordham address correctly
say that abortion and capital punishment are not identical issues. The principle
which protects innocent life distinguishes the unborn child from the convicted
Other letters stress that while nuclear war is a threat to life, abortion
involves the actual taking of life, here and now. I accept both of these
distinctions, of course, but I also find compelling the need to relate the cases
while keeping them in distinct categories" (A Consistent Ethic of Life:
Continuing the Dialogue, The William Wade Lecture Series, St. Louis University,
March 11, 1984).
"Surely we can all agree that the taking of human life in abortion is not
the same as failing to protect human dignity against hunger. But having made
that distinction, let us not fail to make the point that both are moral issues
requiring a response of the Catholic community and of our society as a whole.
"The logic of a consistent ethic is to press the moral meaning of both
issues. The consequences of a consistent ethic is to bring under review the
position of every group in the Church which sees the moral meaning in one place
but not the other. The ethic cuts two ways, not one: It challenges prolife
groups, and it challenges justice and peace groups. The meaning of a consistent
ethic is to say in the Catholic community that our moral tradition calls us
beyond the split so evident in the wider society between moral witness to life
before and after birth.
"The taking of life presents itself as a moral problem all along the spectrum
of life, but there are distinguishing characteristics between abortion and war,
as well as elements which radically differentiate war from decisions made about
care of a terminally ill patient. The differences among these cases are
universally acknowledged; a consistent ethic seeks to highlight the fact the
differences do not destroy the elements of a common moral challenge.
"In essence the consistent ethic is a moral argument, and, therefore, its
principles and perspective must be constantly measured and tested. The
consistent ethic rejects collapsing all issues into one, and it rejects
isolating our moral vision and insulating our social concern on one issue"
(Address at Seattle University, March 2, 1986).
"We are now witnessing the gradual restructuring of American culture
according to ideals of utility, productivity and cost-effectiveness. It is a
culture where moral questions are submerged by a river of goods and services and
where the misuse of marketing and public relations subverts public life…The
losers in this ethical sea change will be those who are elderly, poor, disabled
and politically marginalized. None of these pass the utility test; and yet, they
at least have a presence. They at least have the possibility of organizing to be
heard. Those who are unborn, infirm and terminally ill have no such advantage.
They have no "utility," and worse, they have no voice" (US Bishops, Living
the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 3-4).
"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. As Pope John Paul II reminds us,
the command never to kill establishes a minimum which we must respect and from
which we must start out "in order to say 'yes' over and over again, a 'yes'
which will gradually embrace the entire horizon of the good" (Evangelium
Vitae, 75)" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 23).
"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 . . . " (John Paul II, The
Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World,
Sierra Club vs. Morton
The 14th amendment to the Constitution states in part, "nor shall any State
deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor
deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
The fact that the law does not protect children in the womb from abortion is
rooted in the words of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, "the word person
as used in the Fourteenth Amendment does not include the unborn."
What is less widely known is the decision handed down eight months before
Roe vs. Wade, in which personhood was also discussed in relation to protecting
the environment. In the decision, Sierra Club vs. Morton, Justice Douglas
gave argued in the following words:
The ordinary corporation is a "person" for purposes of the adjudicatory
process….So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes,
estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels
the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life…With all respect,
the problem is to make certain that the inanimate objects, which are the very
core of America's beauty, have spokesmen before they are destroyed….The voice of
the inanimate object, therefore, should not be stilled….That is why these
environmental issues should be tendered by the inanimate object itself. Then
there will be assurances that all of the forms of life which it represents will
stand before the court -- the pileated wookpecker as well as the coyote and
bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the streams. Those inarticulate
members of the ecological group cannot speak….
Eight months later, he ruled with the majority in Roe vs. Wade that "the
word person …does not include the unborn."
There is a stunning arbitrariness to this decision, and a stunning
implication about the power of the government. To support Roe vs. Wade is not
merely to allow the existence of the most common surgical procedure in America.
It is to acknowledge that the government has the power to say who is a person
and who is not. And if the government is to have that say, then who is to
limit the groups to whom it is applied?
This is one of the facts that makes the controversy over abortion
fundamentally different from other political controversies. There are many
injustices in society, and many bad policies which are inconsistent with the
human dignity of the victims. But abortion is the only instance in which the
victims have been legally defined out of existence; they are legally annihilated
before they are physically annihilated. This is why the bishops have called Roe
vs. Wade a "poison" in our national life (see Living the Gospel of Life,
1998, n. 9).
Supporters of Roe vs. Wade can ask, "Could the government ever declare my
teenage daughter to be a non-person? Could it ever say I am not a
person?" If the answer is no, then such a person has not understood the full
implication of Roe vs. Wade.
Such supporters say the government "should not be involved it the
abortion decision." How true! In fact, the government got too involved in it
when, in 1973, it presumed to have the power to deprive some of the right to
live! The government should indeed back away from the abortion decision by
recognizing that it does not have the power to permit the lives of the innocent
to be taken.
Those who govern are to govern all the people. All includes
the smallest and weakest, the persons yet unborn.
Now suppose your choices in an election aren't that great. One helpful
question to ask is, "How fundamental is the issue on which the candidate is
off-base? Does the candidate embrace any disqualifying positions?" Such
positions are those that are so fundamentally wrong that nothing else they do
can make up for it.
Some disagreements with candidates are legitimate; others are not.
Some positions are so fundamentally wrong that they should be beyond the realm
of the optional. Should someone who would permit race riots have responsibility
for the human community? Should a candidate who would say that he thinks
shootings in schools are OK be permitted to make any decisions regarding public
Abortion is an act of violence, and the approval of it on the part of a
candidate should raise the same concerns regarding whether such a person is
qualified for public office.
We sometimes see pro-abortion public officials speaking up for animal rights.
It is as though they have to do something to soothe their conscience, which
tells them they have to protect the vulnerable.
When we try to figure out whether we should vote for a given candidate, we
need to look at that person's character. We know what issues that person has to
deal with today, but we do not know what issues he may confront during the years
of his public term of office. What gives us any idea as to how he may respond to
issues arising in the future? Signs of moral character are helpful measures. And
one's position regarding violence against innocent babies is a pretty good
signal of one's moral judgment and conscience. As someone once said to me,
"Father, if those elected officials can’t respect the life of a little baby, how
are they supposed to respect mine?"
Another question is, "Can I make a bad situation a little bit better?" When
we vote for a candidate, we are not casting a simple up and down vote on
an issue. The candidate needs to be right on the fundamentals (such as the right
to life itself), but sometimes the candidate with whom we agree the most does
not have a realistic likelihood to win. (It is true that we need to create
such a likelihood, but this is more realistically done in a period of years
before an election rather than months or weeks before.)
May we vote for one who, free of disqualifying faults, is better than the
alternative even if not right on everything? Of course. This is not choosing
"the lesser of two evils" (because we may never choose any evil). Rather, this
is a case of choosing good even if evil is mixed in (as it usually is in
this world). I may vote someone into office who offers hope of improving the
current situation as much as possible.
Personally opposed but…
Public officials sometimes claim that they are opposed to certain moral
evils personally, but cannot express that opposition publicly or
bring it to bear on public policies. It is true that not every moral norm can or
should be translated into a civil law. It is also true, however, that the
defense of fundamental human rights -- the most fundamental being the right to
life -- is an obligation that public officials are not free to push aside, no
matter how difficult it may be to secure protection of those rights. This is
precisely one of the key challenges of public service and leadership.
"Some Catholic elected officials have adopted the argument that, while they
personally oppose evils like abortion, they cannot force their religious views
onto the wider society. This is seriously mistaken on several key counts. First,
regarding abortion, the point when human life begins is not a religious belief
but a scientific fact -- a fact on which there is clear agreement even among
leading abortion advocates. Second, the sanctity of human life is not merely
Catholic doctrine but part of humanity's global ethical heritage, and our
nation's founding principle. Finally, democracy is not served by silence. Most
Americans would recognize the contradiction in the statement, "While I am
personally opposed to slavery or racism or sexism I cannot force my personal
view on the rest of society." Real pluralism depends on people of conviction
struggling vigorously to advance their beliefs by every ethical and legal means
at their disposal" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n.
"As chief teachers in the Church, we must therefore explain, persuade,
correct and admonish those in leadership positions who contradict the Gospel of
life through their actions and policies. Catholic public officials who disregard
Church teaching on the inviolability of the human person indirectly collude in
the taking of innocent life" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life,
1998, n. 29).
"Catholics who are privileged to serve in public leadership positions have an
obligation to place their faith at the heart of their public service,
particularly on issues regarding the sanctity and dignity of human life. Thomas
More, the former chancellor of England who preferred to give his life rather
than betray his Catholic convictions, went to his execution with the words, 'I
die the king's good servant, but God's first'" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel
of Life, 1998, n. 31).
"In an age of artifice, many voters are hungry for substance. They admire and
support political figures who speak out sincerely for their moral convictions.
For our part we commend Catholic and other public officials who, with courage
and determination, use their positions of leadership to promote respect for all
human life" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 31).
"We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching
on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the
consequences for their own spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they
risk by leading others into serious sin. We call on them to reflect on the grave
contradiction of assuming public roles and presenting themselves as credible
Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in
agreement with Church teaching. No public official, especially one claiming to
be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively
support direct attacks on innocent human life" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel
of Life, 1998, n. 32).
"No appeal to policy, procedure, majority will or pluralism ever excuses a
public official from defending life to the greatest extent possible. As is true
of leaders in all walks of life, no political leader can evade accountability
for his or her exercise of power (Evangelium Vitae, 73-4). Those who justify
their inaction on the grounds that abortion is the law of the land need to
recognize that there is a higher law, the law of God. No human law can validly
contradict the Commandment: 'Thou shalt not kill'" (US Bishops, Living the
Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 32).
"All mankind is grass, and all their glory like the flower of the field;
the grass withers, the flower wilts…but the word of our God stands forever"
The Christian is called to live and work in such a way that the kingdom of
this world may be more like the Kingdom of God. Yet the Christian does not put
his ultimate trust in human beings or in political processes. His trust is in
Nations rise and nations fall. The kingdoms of this earth are a blink of the
eye in the perspective of eternity.
Yet again, what we do in that "blink" has eternal consequences.
The battle for life is too fundamental to be ignored. In the end, God will
have His way; His will shall be fulfilled and the victory of life will be fully
manifest. Our task is to labor so that as many people and nations as possible
will be on the right side of the victory when it does unfold, and that there
will be as few casualties as possible in the meantime.
If, in the passing winds and waves of time, some battles in this monumental
effort are lost, we do not cease to labor on. The battle of life is such that if
lost, it must be fought again. And if some battles are successful, we are to
keep ever vigilant, for our trust is not in human beings or the things of this
world. If human life has been attacked in the past, it will be attacked in new
ways in the future. May we be faithful to the task of proclaiming, celebrating,
and serving the Gospel of Life until the Lord returns!
"So be it, Lord, Thy Throne shall never
Like Earth's proud Empires, pass away;
Thy Kingdom stands, and grows Forever,
Till all Thy Creatures own Thy sway."