The Treatment of the Abortion Issue by the US Catholic Bishops from 1990-2000


Fr. Mark Clarke, CMF


Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of Oblate School of Theology

San Antonio, Texas

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for The Degree of Master of Arts in Theology

Project Director: Ronald Quillo, Th.D.

Second Reader: Rev. Leo Pérez, OMI; S.T.L., S.T.D.

Table of Contents

Part 1

Introduction and Historical Analysis: The Bishops Statements From 1990 Through 2000

- Family

- Health Care

- Justice and Peace

- Respect for Life

Part 2

A Catholic Theological Analysis of the Sanctity of Life and the Dignity of the Human Person

Part 3

The Life Issues: Abortion in Relation to Euthanasia and Capital Punishment     

Part 4

Synthesis: Theological and Pastoral Assessment                                            

Part 5

Works Cited and Bibliography                                                                         

Part 1: Introduction and Historical Analysis:

The Bishops Statements From 1990 Through 2000

Throughout history, the Catholic Church has taught and defended the sacredness and inviolability of human life, and our Christian faith obliges us to imitate Jesus who spoke and acted strongly and compassionately toward the most marginalized and vulnerable among us.  We further recognize that the mission of the Church to defend human life encompasses the entire breadth of human life from conception until natural death.  The Church continues to be a prophetic voice that calls attention to injustices against the human person.

Periodically throughout the nineteenth century and annually after 1919, the U.S. Catholic bishops have published statements and pastoral letters to the American people on a variety of issues (Carey 5).  The attention of the bishops mirrored that of society, and their statements reflected a greater awareness of social issues and the Church's mission to respond to the challenges of a changing society.  Rooted in a respect for the life and dignity of the human person, the bishops consistently addressed several life issues, and of those, abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment emerged as prominent, especially after the Second Vatican Council.

From 1990 to 2000, the bishops addressed a number of ecclesial, domestic, medical-moral, social, and political issues that reflect the status of Christian life in the United States.  During this decade, there is a clear emergence of the treatment of life issues, both by themselves and within the general context of the Church's evolving social teaching. 

The U.S. bishops defined the mission of Catholic social teaching and its indispensable place in the modern world in A Century of Social Teaching: A Common Heritage, A Continuing Challenge.  They remind us that rooted in our faith, we are called to work for justice, serve those in need, pursue peace, and to defend the life, dignity, and rights of all.  In the opening paragraphs they mention the Church's role in giving pregnant women and their unborn children life-giving alternatives, and how in the public arena believers must be advocates for human life wherever it is threatened.

In this pastoral, the bishops outline the six basic themes that have emerged within the Catholic social tradition: the Life and Dignity of the Human Person; the Rights and Responsibilities of the Human Person; the Call to Family, Community, and Participation; the Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers; the Option for the Poor and Vulnerable; and Solidarity.  By the end of the decade, a seventh theme, Care for God's Creation, would be incorporated into the general model of Catholic social teaching.  Regarding the Life and Dignity of the Human Person, the bishops note, "In the Catholic social vision, the human person is central…The test of every institution or policy is whether it enhances or threatens human life and human dignity" (Carey 217).

Throughout the pastoral, the bishops emphasize the fundamental themes of human life, human dignity, and human rights, and how all social structures must be instruments to protect the life, dignity, and rights of all persons.  At the end of the document, they acknowledge the continuing challenges to the human person, and condemn abortion and all threats to human life, while reaffirming the prophetic voice of the Church in defending the human person.

The bishops demonstrate a clear pastoral concern for the spiritual well-being of the Catholic people in the United States, and when considering the life and dignity of the human person, they especially apply their teaching to four general themes: family, health care, justice and peace, and respect for life.  Family life touches the human person in the reality of their daily existence, and the Church is called to be a prudent observer of the challenges and opportunities which face them.  The bishops frame their social concern for all persons by addressing these themes which have the most impact on the human person and their inherent rights, always within the context of human dignity.  Within the framework of these themes, the focus will be on the issue of abortion since the Church considers the right to life as the foundation of all other rights and the primary plank of Catholic moral and social thought.


The family is the basic unit of society, and the bishops addressed social concerns related to the family during the 1990's, recognizing that the spiritual and moral renewal of family life will bring about a much needed elevation of society in general.  In November of 1991, the USCC issued the statement, Putting Children and Families First: A Challenge for Our Church, Nation, and World emphasizing the role that family issues should play in economic, religious, and moral concerns as well as calling for broad support of children and families against the numerous threats posed to them from society.  This statement focused on the specific realities that children of both the U.S. and the world face, and develops a pastoral approach rooted in the Church's social tradition and a call to action to make the world a more decent and welcoming place for children and families.  In addressing the realities, the bishops acknowledge that "Every year 1.6 million of our children are destroyed by legalized abortion even before they are born.  They are denied their most basic right, the right to life itself" (Carey 367).  Addressing the lessons of Scripture, the bishops remind us that Jesus welcomed and blessed the children (Mt 19:12-15) and called us to serve the least among us and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, noting that today the least of these are "hungry and homeless children; unwanted, unborn children; crack babies; and children with AIDS" (Carey 372).

Drawing from the basic themes of Catholic social tradition and teaching on family, the bishops note that the Church has been deeply involved in meeting the human, pastoral, and educational needs of children, including counseling and alternatives to abortion.  They further acknowledge that our children's future is shaped by both the values of their families and the policies of the nation, so the bishops continue to call for supporting a variety of pro-family initiatives at both the national and international level, including pro-life legislation and alternatives to abortion.  They devote a section of the statement to national policy directed toward protecting the lives of unborn children, noting that unborn children are most at risk from the national policy of abortion on demand, and how the ultimate example of powerlessness is to be destroyed before birth, reiterating their strong opposition to abortion and government funding of abortion.

The Administrative Board of the United States Catholic Conference was compelled to apply the principles of Catholic Social teaching to the Welfare Reform debate and issued the statement Moral Principles and Policy Priorities for Welfare Reform in March of 1995.  They noted that while the focus was on welfare reform, they were equally concerned about other critical issues, including human life, budget priorities, housing, the rights of immigrants, and health care reform.  Outlining the six themes of Catholic social teaching, they emphasize that the fundamental criterion for all public policy is protection of human life and human dignity, and the need for a genuine welfare reform that strengthens families, encourages productive work, and protects vulnerable children.  They further encourage a system that relies on incentives instead of harsh penalties, citing the concern that denying benefits for children born to mothers on welfare can hurt the children and pressure their mothers toward abortion and sterilization.

Developing this theme, they note how state Catholic conferences have opposed proposals that deny benefits to children because of their mother's age or dependence on welfare, because these programs especially encourage abortions in states that pay for abortion but not assistance to these children.  They also express concern about sexual irresponsibility and the consequent out-of-wedlock births associated with it.  Summing up their concern, the bishops state:

For us, this is a matter of moral consistency.  Our faith requires us to protect the lives and dignity of the vulnerable children, whether they are born or unborn.  We cannot support policies which are likely to lead to more abortions.  Every child is precious to us.  We recognize that human life is also threatened and diminished by the failures of the current welfare system and our broader culture.  (Carey 664)

Health Care

While medicine has made great strides in the prevention and treatment of disease, new technologies have created serious moral problems in areas of procreation and prolongation of life consistent with respecting the life and dignity of the human person.  In addition, there was a renewed recognition of the Church's role concerning the social dimension of health care.  In June of 1993, the bishops released A Framework for Comprehensive Health Care Reform: Protecting Human Life, Promoting Human Dignity, Pursuing the Common Good in response to the political battle over health care reform.  In it, the bishops described how the current health care system was expensive and did not adequately serve all those in need, framing their approach to health care rooted in the Catholic social tradition: "Every person has a right to adequate health care.  This right flows from the sanctity of human life and the dignity that belongs to all human persons, who are made in the image of God" (Carey 519).

Recognizing that health care is a basic human right and an essential safeguard of human life and dignity, the bishops foundational criteria for reform is a respect for life which preserves and enhances the sanctity and dignity of human life from conception to natural death.  They note that, "Neither the violence of abortion and euthanasia nor the growing advocacy for assisted suicide is consistent with respect for human life.  When destructive practices such as abortion or euthanasia seek acceptance as aspects of 'health care' along side genuine elements of the healing art, the very meaning of health care is distorted and threatened" (Carey 524).  They continue by noting that, "it would be a great moral tragedy, a serious policy misjudgment, and a major political mistake to burden health care reform with abortion coverage that most Americans oppose and the Federal Government has not funded for the last seventeen years" (Carey 524).

Another important statement released in 1994 was Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services in which the bishops reaffirm the ethical standards of behavior that are rooted in the Church's teaching about the dignity of the human person and to provide authoritative moral guidance on contemporary issues facing Catholic health care.

After describing the Church's tradition of healing ministry, the bishops lay out the normative principles that define this ministry: "Catholic health care ministry is rooted in a commitment to promote and defend human dignity; this is the foundation of its concern to respect the sacredness of every human life from the moment of conception until death.  The first right of the human person, the right to life, entails a right to the means for the proper development of life, such as adequate health care" (Carey 625).

The bishops devote a section of their statement to issues of care relating to the beginning of life where they reaffirm the Catholic witness to the sanctity of life from conception until death, and how this defense of life encompasses the unborn and the care of women and their children during and after pregnancy.  In their specific directive addressing abortion, they state, "Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the direct destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted.  Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion, which, in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo" (Carey 635). 

In September of 1996, the NCCB Committee on Doctrine issued the statement, Moral Principles Concerning Infants with Anencephaly in which they state, "According to the well-established teaching of the Catholic Church, the rights of the mother and her unborn child deserve equal protection because they are based on the dignity of the human person whatever the condition of that person.  Consequently, it can never be morally justified directly to cause the death of an innocent person no matter the age or condition of that person" (Carey 811).  They emphasize that conditions of the human body, regardless of the severity, in no way compromise human dignity and human rights.  They also develop the notion that it is permitted to directly treat a pathology of the mother even when this has the unintended side effect of causing the death of her child, but only if the pathology left untreated would have life threatening effects on both mother and child.  It is not however permitted to terminate the child's life as a means of treating or protecting the mother.

Justice and Peace

The bishops clearly recognize that abortion is contrary to the prime goal of human society which is to protect human rights and secure basic justice for all members of society.  To mark the tenth anniversary of their groundbreaking peace pastoral, The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response in 1983, the bishops released The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, in which they renew their call for peacemaking in a dramatically different world.  They begin by outlining the major challenges peacemakers face in the new era, focusing first on the human toll of violence, singling out abortion and capital punishment: "In abortion and renewed dependence on capital punishment, we see the tragic consequences of a growing lack of respect for human life.  We cannot really be peacemakers around the world unless we seek to protect the lives and dignity of the vulnerable in our midst.  This is the essence of our consistent life ethic and the starting point for genuine peacemaking" (Carey 551).  The bishops make clear that the Church must foster communities where peaceable virtues can take root and be nourished in the midst of the violence of contemporary culture and the growing contempt for human life.

Addressing the three life issues, they continue, "We observe signs of this tragic trend in our domestic life where abortion is seen as a solution to difficult pregnancies, where capital punishment is embraced as a response to rising crime, and where euthanasia is advocated in the face of the burdens of age and illness" (Carey 584).  The bishops stress that a world at peace will be a world that respects the life, dignity, and rights of the human person.

The bishops again felt obligated to respond to the of continuing threat of violence in their 1994 pastoral Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action, recognizing that beyond the violence in the streets is the violence in our hearts.  They acknowledge that we can turn away from violence and build communities of greater peace by having the clear conviction that we must respect life: "Respect for life is not just a slogan or a program; it is a fundamental moral principle flowing from our teaching on the dignity of the human person…Respect for life must guide the choices we make as individuals and as a society…Respect for human life is the starting point for confronting a culture of violence" (Carey 646).

Rooted in the pastoral's strong respect life theme is a firm condemnation of abortion, noting that the violence of abortion has destroyed more than 30 million unborn children since 1973: "A nation destroying more than one and a half million unborn children every year contributes to the pervasive culture of violence in our nation.  We must affirm and protect all life, especially the most vulnerable in our midst" (Carey 649). 

Respect for Life

The Catholic Church has always strived to be a prophetic voice, speaking out to protest injustices and indignities against the human person.  In June of 1995, the NCCB approved one of the most important documents to date that synthesized their teaching on respect life issues within the context of social justice.  Released to the public in September in preparation for Respect Life Sunday, Faithful for Life: A Moral Reflection reflects the bishops realization that their highest priority in the abortion issue was helping to form the consciences of the Catholic people (Carey 25).

The bishop begin by reflecting on how they have historically spoken out in defense of human life, but chose to specifically address abortion and euthanasia at this time because each attacks human life itself and each has broader implications for our fidelity to God and one another.  They also mention that the very heart of our respect for human life is a special and persistent advocacy for those who depend on others for survival, noting that the most dependent persons are on the opposite extremes of their life's journey, at the beginning or near the end.  Because they are helpless to provide for or defend themselves, they are at the mercy of those closest to them who are ultimately responsible for their care.

They conclude their statement by calling on Christians to follow Christ and his Gospel, and to be courageous in their beliefs even in the midst of persecution, pledging the heart and hands of the Church to help mothers and fathers in need.  They also strongly condemn Catholics who willfully reject the Gospel of Life:

The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his or her life is always morally wrong; it can never be a licit means to a good end (Evangelium Vitae, no. 57).  In speaking about this basic teaching, we must also make known from every pulpit the Church's sincere and open welcome to those who seek reconciliation with the Lord and peace with his Church.  But let us be clear: No person who subverts this teaching privately or publicly speaks in the name of Catholicism.  Nor can anyone who seeks to promote the cause of life through hatred or violence have any part with us.  (no. 22)

In September of 1995, the Administrative Board of the USCC released Political Responsibility: Proclaiming the Gospel of Life, Protecting the Least Among Us, and Pursuing the Common Good, their traditional statement on political responsibility preceding the national general election, but with a more prominent respect life theme.  In the Fall of that year, John Paul II visited the United States and made a powerful call to American Catholics to use our freedom in the service of truth, to protect human life and human dignity, and to stand up for unborn children, poor families, and immigrants.  In several of his homilies he made specific references to how America's deepest traditions are undermined by abortion and euthanasia and how democracy must serve what is true and right.  Inspired by the popes words and quoting extensively from Evangelium Vitae which was released six months earlier and already referred to in Faithful for Life, the bishops recognized that the 1996 election would be a time of important choices for the country.

After reflecting on citizenship and the common good, the bishops focus on a number of critical questions related to respecting the life, dignity, and rights of the human person that needed to be addressed in the coming campaign.  They again advance the notion that all public policies must be measured by how they touch the human person, whether they enhance or diminish human life, human dignity, and human rights, as well as how they advance the common good.

In this statement, the bishops assert their role as moral teachers and strongly develop the notion of the consistent ethic of life and how the abortion issue is fundamental but often overlooked: "We also work with groups to defend the poor and to seek greater economic justice.  At the same time, we ask some of those who claim to stand for the weak why they protect the eggs of endangered species but fail to defend the lives of unborn children.  A key criterion is consistency; we are called to stand up for human life whenever it is threatened; to stand with the weak and vulnerable whatever their age or condition" (no. 6).  They go on to describe how their religious teaching provides a moral framework that can guide policy choices and that they advocate a consistent commitment to the human person for all issues:

We stand with the unborn and the undocumented when many politicians seem to be abandoning them.  We defend children in the womb and on welfare.  We oppose the violence of abortion and the vengeance of capital punishment.  We oppose assault weapons on our streets and condoms in our schools.  Our agenda is sometimes counter-cultural, but it reflects our consistent concern for human life.  (no. 8)

Next the bishops outline the familiar six themes of Catholic social teaching, then specifically address twenty individual issues, beginning with abortion: "Abortion has become the fundamental human rights issue of our day because it is the deliberate destruction of a human being before birth" (no. 14).

In response to their 1998 Ad Limina visits, the bishops issued Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics in December, a strong pro-life statement in which they acknowledge their responsibility as teachers and pastors to proclaim the Gospel of life.  Building on the inherent value of human life and inalienable rights of all, the bishops state, "As Americans, as Catholics and as pastors of our people, we write therefore today to call our fellow citizens back to our country's founding principles, and most especially to renew our national respect for the rights of those unborn, weak, disabled, and terminally ill.  Real freedom rests on the inviolability of every person as a child of God" (no. 6).  They also call on Catholic political leaders to be authentic leaders in a renewal of American respect for the sanctity of life and remind them that they cannot rightly claim to share fully and practically the Catholic faith while in public acting in a way contrary to that faith.

The bishops devote a section of their statement to Roe vs. Wade describing how that erroneous decision has degraded public thought and behavior rooted in a distorted "right to privacy" and how it effectively rendered the definition of human person as flexible and negotiable.  Drawing from the self-evident principles of the Declaration of Independence, the bishops note that human slavery and other social injustices have historically contradicted the ideals of our nations Founders, and in a similar way observe the heightening tension between our nation's founding principle and the political reality, specifically, the diminishing respect for the inalienable right to life and the elimination of legal protection for the most vulnerable.

Recognizing that the foundational principle must be a commitment to never intentionally kill or collude in the killing of any innocent human life, the bishops then strongly condemn abortion: "Direct abortion is never a morally tolerable option.  It is always a grave act of violence against a woman and her unborn child" (no. 21).

Addressing the notion of the consistent ethic of life, the bishops move away from the terminology of Cardinal Bernardin's "seamless garment" notion which was his comprehensive ethical system that links together various life issues by focusing attention on the fundamental value of life.  Through this consistent ethic, the Church promotes a broad spectrum of life issues that advocate a Christian response to the weak and marginalized, where we are reminded that 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.   The bishops observe:

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.  (no.23)

In September of 1999, the Administrative Board of the U.S. Catholic bishops released their latest statement on political responsibility, Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium, noting how the Jubilee year marked a great spiritual milestone and offered important civic challenges and opportunities for our democracy to shape a society more respectful of human life and dignity and more committed to justice and peace.  They immediately note that we are still falling short of the American pledge of "liberty and justice for all" when the inalienable rights of so many are being violated through the 1.4 million abortions every year, and challenge all parties and every candidate to defend human life and dignity.

In March of 1996, the NCCB Committee on Science and Human Values drafted a statement that was approved by the Administrative Committee addressing genetic testing.  The statement, Critical Decisions: Genetic Testing and Its Implications, touches upon the moral issues that arise from these emerging technologies and affirms the responsibility of the Church to offer insights and inform consciences in order to assist in the formation of wise public policy.  Recognizing that genetic techniques are frequently utilized for eugenic purposes where selective abortions are encouraged, the statement notes, "The Church condemns and will never cease condemning the taking of innocent unborn life, surely the saddest aggression of our violent time" (Carey 804).

In June of the same year, Bishop Anthony Pilla, then president of the NCCB/USCC, issued a statement on behalf of the bishops condemning President Bill Clinton's veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.  The Statement on Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Veto noted that the "culture of death" continues to promote the freedom of the strong over the weak, referring to two recent federal court rulings that excluded seriously ill people from the protection of laws against assisted suicide.  In a similar way, children who are almost completely born alive are also denied their legal protection.  Bishop Pilla offers hope that through prayer and action, the innocent lives of all may be protected, respected, and nurtured, and that the culture of death can be transformed by a civilization of love.

In November of 1997, the bishops released a statement, Light and Shadows: Our Nation 25 Years After Roe v. Wade.  Reflecting on over two decades of abortion on demand, they note the over 35 million babies who have been killed as well as the many women who have lost their lives in abortions clinics and the countless others who survive with physical, emotional, and spiritual scars.  They particularly decry the abortion mentality that has made the act of killing one's own child into something that is now fiercely defended as a good and promoted as a right.

They clearly restate their consistent condemnation of abortion: "To all our fellow citizens we say: Abortion is an assault on human dignity, an act of violence against both mother and child and the whole human family.  Legal protection for unborn life must be restored to our nation."  Framing the issue in the context of justice, the bishops note, "As we strive to assure peace and justice, too often it is forgotten that the common good can only be served when the right to life, the right on which all other inalienable rights of the individual rest and from which they develop, is acknowledged and defended."  They go on to praise the work of pregnancy care centers who offer care and counseling for both mothers and babies, and call on Catholics to support respect life efforts at all levels in society.

At the bishops November 2000 meeting, they issued the statement Abortion and the Supreme Court: Advancing a Culture of Death, in which they briefly reviewed some of the Supreme Court decisions that have advanced an abortion culture in the country.  They note how Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton eliminated the most fundamental human right - the right to life- and while the 1992 Casey decision implicitly acknowledged that Roe and Doe were wrong, they must still stand because Americans have now fashioned their way of life around the availability of abortion.  They also noted how this anti-life mentality was advanced by the 1997 Stenberg v. Carhart decision which ruled that even the killing of a child mostly born alive is protected by "the woman's right to choose."  The bishops rededicate their pastoral efforts in reversing the Supreme Court's abortion decisions, including a constitutional amendment, and renew their action plan outlined in the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities.

Part 2: A Catholic Theological Analysis of the Sanctity of Life and the Dignity of the Human Person

The Church's attitude toward life reflects the attitude and actions of Christ himself.  The Word became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so for Christians, the womb has always been a holy and sacred place.  God's decision to begin his saving work of redemption in the womb teaches us that all life in the womb is precious and worthy of the highest dignity, respect, and protection.

The Gospels describe Jesus' concern and attention for the weakest and most marginalized in society.   In the beatitudes, he called the poor and lowly blessed, and welcomes children as well as proclaiming that his disciples must become like little children in order to share in his kingdom.  He also gave a firm prohibition against killing by recalling the fifth commandment and moving beyond the Old Covenant law, calling us to adhere to the spirit of the Law and recognizing that anger and judgment against our neighbor is the root of violence against them.  This notion is also revealed in the account of Abel's murder by his brother Cain.  From the beginning of human history we observe how anger and envy are the consequence of original sin, but Christ's response to anger, hatred and vengeance is to turn the other cheek and love our enemies.

This Christian view of respect for life is affirmed in the biblical accounts of creation which defines the human being in his essence, that is, created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26).  The second creation account develops this profound and sacred character describing how God blew into man's nostrils the divine breath of life (Gen 2:7).  It is by this divine life force that an essential feature of man's being is his immediacy with God.

The other dimension taken from the creation account is the recognition that all human beings are one because they come from a single set of parents, and it is the oneness of the human race that defines our equality and establishes the same basic human rights for all.  Therefore, the divine dignity of the human race and the oneness of its origin and destiny are fulfilled in our vocation to divine happiness.  This theological foundation for respecting human life and dignity is articulated well in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1987 Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day :

From the moment of conception, the life of every human being is to be respected in an absolute way because man is the only creature on earth that God has wished for himself and the spiritual soul of each man is immediately created by God; his whole being bears the image of the creator.  Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the creator, who is its sole end.  God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can, in any circumstance, claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human being.  (no. 5)

Any such act is gravely contrary to the dignity of the person, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the creator.

The Church has maintained this teaching for respecting the life and dignity of the human person, but in opposition to the morals of the Greco-Roman world, has especially recognized abortion as a serious violation against human life.  As early as the first century, the teaching of the Didache bears witness to the practice and teaching of the early Church: "The second commandment of the teaching: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not corrupt boys; do not fornicate; do not steal, do not practice magic; do not go in for sorcery; do not murder a child by abortion or kill a new-born infant" (Richardson 172).  The early Church Fathers also strongly condemned abortion as the killing of innocent human life.  For example, Athenagoras in his 177 A.D. A Plea for Christians wrote :

When we say that those women who use drugs to bring on an abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder?  For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God's care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it.  (no. 35) 

In St. Basil's First Canonical Letter dated 374 A.D., he writes "A woman who has deliberately destroyed a fetus must pay the penalty for murder" (can. 2).  The philosophical and theological discussion during this time centered around the distinction between the formed and the unformed fetus, particularly in reference to the time of animation and the beginning of life (Connery 63).  Although the medical knowledge concerning the life and formation of the fetus was often erroneous, the Church did not waver in her condemnation of abortion.  Even in the middle ages when it was generally held that the spiritual soul was not present until after the first few weeks, there was a distinction made in the evaluation of the sin and the gravity of the penal sanctions, but a directly procured abortion was always considered an objectively grave fault.

This understanding was maintained throughout the first millennium of Christianity and was articulated by conciliar teaching and papal decrees, and continued to be developed further from the Scholastic period onward.  In the twentieth century, Pius XI's 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii called abortion a grave crime and noted that even the imperiled life of the mother could not justify the direct killing of an innocent life rooted in the notion that both the life of the mother and baby are equally sacred according to the precept of God and natural law.  In a similar way, John XXIII in his 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra recalled the teaching of the Fathers on the sacred character of life which from its beginning demands the action of God (no. 194).

It was at the Second Vatican Council that the Church most severely condemned abortion rooted in the theological understanding of the inherent dignity of the human person.  Gaudium et Spes addressed abortion in two sections.  Under the heading of Respect for the Human Person, the council Fathers observed, "The varieties of crime are numerous: all offenses against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and willful suicide…[A]ll these and the like are criminal: they poison civilization; and they debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honor of the creator" (no. 27).  Under the heading of Married Love and Respect for Human Life, they write:

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves.  Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes…Let all be convinced that human life and its transmission are realities whose meaning is not limited by the horizons of this life only: their true evaluation and full meaning can only be understood in reference to man's eternal destiny.  (no. 51)

Prompted by the increasingly permissive attitudes towards abortion and the trends for its legalization, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released Declaration on Procured Abortion in 1974 which further developed the theological foundation for respecting life and dignity in light of reason and faith.  Drawing from natural law and the notion of the common good, the Declaration notes that society is at the service of the person because the person will not fulfill his destiny except in God: "The law is not obliged to sanction everything, but it cannot act contrary to a law which is deeper and more majestic than any human law: the natural law engraved in men's hearts by the creator as a norm which reason clarifies and strives to formulate properly, and which one must always struggle to understand better, but which it is always wrong to contradict" (no. 21).  The Declaration then notes that human law cannot declare to be right anything that would be opposed to the natural law: "It must in any case be clearly understood that whatever may be laid down by civil law in this matter, man can never obey a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle the liceity of abortion.  Nor can he take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it.  Moreover, he may not collaborate in its application" (no. 22).

The Declaration stresses that inalienable rights come from God and not the social order, yet society has the function of preserving and enforcing these fundamental human rights, recognizing that the life of the child takes precedence over all opinions: "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 others.  Hence, it must be protected above all others…This right is antecedent to its recognition; it demands recognition and it is strictly unjust to refuse it" (no. 11). 

Addressing the issue of when human life begins, the Declaration notes, "In reality, respect for human life is called for from the time that the process of generation begins.  From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth.  It would never be made human if it were not already human" (no. 12).  In the book, Abortion: A New Generation of Catholic Responses, editor Stephen J. Heaney included an essay titled Divine Revelation and Abortion by Richard R. Roach, S.J. who observes:

With regard to the beginning of human life, I do not find it surprising that some would think that God's creation of the soul does not take place in an instant, but rather over time concomitant with physical development.  The same, I suspect, may be true of the dying.  The soul may not depart in an instant, but slowly.  Reflecting on this, I find a profound reason why we are forbidden to kill the unborn.  Killing the unborn is like 'killing' God at work.  At least, it is like killing his work while it is in his hands and still unfinished.  While he is creating a soul, that is, turning a new human life into a person, we kill what he is working on.  (Heaney 98)

The Declaration also notes that it is not up to the biological sciences to make a definitive judgment on philosophical and moral questions: "From a moral point of view this is certain: even if a doubt existed concerning whether the fruit of conception is already a human person, it is objectively a grave sin to dare to risk murder…Divine law and natural reason, therefore, exclude all right to the direct killing of an innocent man" (no.'s 13, 14).

The Church's condemnation of abortion is serious enough to include it among the offenses that warrant the penalty of excommunication as noted in canon 1398 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law: "A person who procures a completed abortion incurs an automatic (latae sentenitiae) excommunication."  According to canons 1323 and 1324, excommunication would not be automatically incurred if a person was truly ignorant of the penalty attached to procuring an abortion, was under the age of sixteen, thought that the law applied only to the person having the abortion and not to her accomplices, acted out of serious fear about parental or societal reaction to the pregnancy, or erroneously believed that the abortion was necessary and permissible to preserve the mother's life (Hayes 129).

In 1980, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Declaration on Euthanasia in which they affirmed the theological foundation for respecting the life and dignity of the human person, but developed it from a perspective of love:

Human life is the basis of all goods, and is the necessary source and condition of every human activity and of all society.  Most people regard life as something sacred and hold that no one may dispose of it at will, but believers see in life something greater, namely a gift of God's love, which they are called upon to preserve and make fruitful…No one can make an attempt on the life of an innocent person without opposing God's love for that person, without violating a fundamental human right, and therefore without committing a crime of the utmost gravity.  (no. 1)

As eluded to above, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1987 Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day represents an important delineation of the Church's theology of respecting the life and dignity of the human person.  It outlines the fundamental anthropological and moral principles concerning the uniquely human origin and dignity of human procreation, noting that procreation is a personal act so it is both biological and spiritual at the same time, and therefore an expression of what it means to be a human person.  As such, procreation is an act in which human persons collaborate with God's creative power which is the only true origin of personhood: "The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life" (no. 13).

This Christian view of personhood stands in stark contrast to the secular notion derived from philosophical ethics and represented by authors such as Tristram Engelhardt and Joseph Fletcher who argue that personhood is not inherent but is achieved by the acquisition of certain traits or qualities.  They also advocate a pro-choice position by diminishing the claim that the fetus is fully human (Vaux 83).  Peter Singer, head of the bioethics department at Princeton University, advocates a similar view of personhood.  In his 1979 book Practical Ethics, he stated, "When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed…[T]he main point is clear: killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person.  Very often it is not wrong at all" (Freedman 26).

The Declaration also develops the notion that human beings "assist" in the emergence of new human persons, and through this assistance, men and women exercise the dominion over creation which is part of their vocation.  These principles are the foundation for the social teaching of the Church, and recognize that the social order is at the service of this human dominion over creation and can only be utilized in ways that respect human personhood.

In 1993, John Paul II developed this theological notion of personhood in his encyclical The Splendor of Truth within the context of moral theology, noting that the relationship between human freedom and truth is the fundamental question of moral theology.  The pope teaches that human freedom is an essential part of our creaturely nature and is the basis for the dignity of the person which is directed toward communion with God.  He also notes that the human person is not a duality of freedom versus nature, but a unity of body and soul, therefore we must respect the physical dimensions of our existence as well as the spiritual.  Thus, respect for human life is not merely an instinct for self-preservation but instead affirms our recognition that life reflects the Creator and the inherent worth of all persons in their bodily and spiritual dimensions.  The pope also recognizes that our contemporary culture emphasizes human freedom, individuality, and the uniqueness of the person; yet if each individual is allowed to determine what is good and evil without reference to God's law, the strong often abuse the weak, as is the case with abortion (no. 86).

The pope and his predecessors clearly teach that there are some human acts that are intrinsically evil and that corresponding to them are moral absolutes.  Moral absolutes are understood as "moral norms that identify certain types of action, which are possible objects of human choice, as always morally bad, and they specify these types of action without using in their description any morally evaluative terms" (May 108).  These norms are called "absolute" because they unconditionally and definitively exclude specific kinds of human actions as morally justifiable objects of choice, and among the absolutes taught by the Magisterium is the norm forbidding direct abortion.

In spite of this clear teaching, some moral theologians have challenged the Church's position on the direct killing of an innocent human being based on the ethical theory of proportionalism.  Rooted in the subjective nature of human acts, proportionalism requires a person to judge a course of action by weighing various goods and evils which may result from a given action, compelling the person to select an action which brings about more good effects, or at least what is the "lesser evil" in a given situation.  Authors Magda Denes, Linda Bird Francke, and David Reardon have documented subjective factors that compelled women to have abortions and in good faith believed that not to have an abortion would do more harm than to have one (Ashley 258).  Since Catholic moral theology insists on the importance of each individual moral act, there is a concern with this notion that looks only to the consequences or results of individual acts.  Specifically, if we look only at the result or consequences of our actions we can easily come to believe that the end justifies the means as long as some good results.  Taken to its logical conclusion, we may come to believe that as long as some personal good can be achieved, we can directly do and intend an act which is morally wrong.  This is an erroneous notion because objectively we recognize that more is required than merely good results and sincerity, that is, a wrong or evil does not change because of our good intentions.  Instead, we must respect the very nature of the act itself and in addition to looking at the consequences and having good intentions, we must do what leads us to God and avoid actions which violate God's will.  In his 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life, John Paul II pastorally addresses this reality: "Decisions against life sometimes arise from difficult or even tragic situations of profound suffering, loneliness, depression and anxiety about the future.  Such circumstances can mitigate, even to a notable degree, subjective responsibility and the consequent culpability of those who make the choices which in themselves are evil" (no. 19).

The Gospel of Life is the most articulate delineation of the Church's theology of life, and in it the pope highlights the ongoing struggle between the sanctity of life and the culture of death.  The central point of the encyclical is that Jesus came to give us life in abundance, and that the Gospel of salvation proclaims the dignity of the human person and the total commitment of God's love for each person.  Therefore any direct attack on innocent human life is an affront to the Lord of all life.

Paragraphs 58-62 specifically address abortion, and after treating the Church's consistent historical condemnation of abortion, the pope concludes:

Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the bishops - who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation (Extraordinary Consistory of Cardinals on Threats to Life, April 1991), albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.  (no. 62) 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the Church's theology of life in Part Three: Life in Christ.  Synthesizing the body of Catholic teaching, this section addresses the dignity of the human person, the human community and our role in society, and God's salvation in the context of natural law and grace.  The second section addresses the ten commandments and treats in detail the fifth commandment and the Christian call to respect human life and dignity.  In the same section, the Catechism also addresses peace, noting that when we recall the commandment "You shall not kill," Christ asks for peace of heart and denounces murderous anger and hatred as immoral (CCC 2302).  There is also the recognition that "Respect for and development of human life requires peace" (CCC 2304).  John Paul II acknowledges this theme at the beginning of The Gospel of Life when he says, "Respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life!  Only in this direction will you find justice, development, true freedom, peace and happiness!" (no. 5)

In addition to the many magisterial teachings, various Christian circles have addressed the issue of abortion and the theology of life.  Important among these was Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's comprehensive ethical system of the consistent ethic of life which he developed during his work on the U.S. bishops' 1983 Pastoral Letter The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response.  Joining the topics of abortion and nuclear war, he recognized that there were a variety of threats to human life.  In order to articulate a Christian response to these varied threats, it was necessary to emphasize the interconnection of the many efforts to defend human life, so the progress in the defense and protection of life in one arena could be applied to the defense and protection of life in all arenas.  The foundation for this notion is the recognition that all human life is sacred and we have a personal and social responsibility to protect and preserve the sanctity of life.  In The Challenge of Peace, this connection between life issues is articulated well:

When we accept violence in any form as commonplace, our sensitivities become dulled.  When we accept violence, war itself can be taken for granted.  Violence has many faces: oppression of the poor, deprivation of basic human rights, economic exploitation, sexual exploitation and pornography, neglect or abuse of the aged and the helpless, and innumerable other acts of inhumanity.  Abortion in particular blunts a sense of the sacredness of human life.  In a society where the innocent unborn are killed wantonly, how can we expect people to feel righteous revulsion at the act or threat of killing noncombatants in war? (no. 285)

In a 1986 address titled, The Consistent Ethic: What Sort of Framework,  Bernardin acknowledges that human life is both sacred and social:

The theological assertion that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God, the philosophical affirmation of the dignity of the human person, and the political principle that society and state exist to serve the person - all these themes stand behind the consistent ethic.  They also sustain the positions that the U.S. Catholic bishops have taken on issues as diverse as nuclear policy, social policy, and abortion.  These themes provide the basis for the moral perspective of the consistent ethic.  (348)

While acknowledging the variety of issues, Bernardin recognized that no individual or group can pursue all the life issues, but noted that the consistent ethic does not allow for contradictory moral positions about the unique value of human life.  James Kelly, a professor at Fordham University, addressed this in the April 1, 2000 issue of America when he noted that during the 1990's more Catholics became consistently against both abortion and capital punishment, partially reversing the trend of the 1980's when many Catholics were against abortion but supported capital punishment.  It is this interconnection of issues that calls us to respect the life in the womb, the life of the guilty criminal, the life of the homeless person, and the life of the dying.  We are thus continually challenged to reflect on our basic moral values.

In the preface of his book that was quoted above, Stephen J. Heaney observes, "The Catholic Church, in her tradition and teaching, is a Church driven by Christ's commandment to love one another.  But the Church's compassion for all human beings does not exist in a vacuum; it is wedded to the truth, the Truth who is Jesus, who is the truth about who we are as human beings, and about how we relate to each other, the world, and God" (xii).  He notes that the Church's consistent condemnation of abortion is accessible to both the mind and the heart, and is a truth taught in love.  In addressing the theological aspects of human life and dignity, it is important to include this pastoral dimension.

Another area where the Church's theology of the life and dignity of the human person has been both developed and applied is in the realm of health care.  This teaching is clearly rooted in the Church's commitment to promote and defend human life and dignity which flows from creation in the image of God, redemption by Jesus, and our common destiny to share a life with God beyond all corruption (Carey 627).  The Church further recognizes the biblical mandate to care for the poor and sick and to contribute to the common good.   This mandate promotes the responsible stewardship of health care resources which in turn contributes to a just health care system that respects the person's basic right to these services.

This theology is insightfully developed when considering the issues that effect care for the dying, where the Church reminds us that life is a precious gift from God and has profound implications concerning our responsibility for the stewardship over human life.  The USCCB's Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services which was revised in June of 2001 (Origins Vol. 31:No.9) indicates that we are not the owners of our lives and thus do not have absolute power over life.  While we do have a duty to preserve our life and use it for the greater glory of God, we also acknowledge that this duty is not absolute because we may reject life-prolonging procedures that would be excessively burdensome or not be sufficiently beneficial.  At the same time, we recognize that suicide and euthanasia are never morally acceptable options.  We are called to reflect on the innate dignity of human life in all its dimensions and on the foundational purpose of medical care in order to formulate a true moral judgment, where life-sustaining technology is judged in light of the Christian meaning of life, suffering, and death (160)

While the Church has drawn from two millennia of moral reflection based ultimately on divine revelation, there is also the recognition that Catholic theology and the Catholic moral tradition mostly predate the development of genetic technologies.  In spite of this reality, these technologies must ultimately serve the human person.  In an address to the Pontifical Academy for Life in November 1995, John Paul II noted:

Indeed, the biomedical sciences are currently experiencing a period of rapid and marvelous growth, especially with regard to new discoveries in the area of genetics…[B]ut if scientific research is to be directed toward respect for personal dignity and support of human life, its scientific validity according to the rules of each discipline is not enough.  It must also qualify positively from the ethical point of view, and this presupposes that from the outset it endeavors to promote the true good of human beings as individuals and as a community.(Carey 805)

Building on this general notion of community and common good, the Church promotes the important theological dimension of a social mission rooted in Christ's own prophetic mission.  In his 1987 encyclical On Social Concern, John Paul II writes:

The Church is an 'expert in humanity,' and this leads her necessarily to extend her religious mission to the various fields in which men and women expend their efforts…[I]n line with their dignity as persons…In doing so the Church fulfills her mission to evangelize… [W]hen she proclaims the truth about Christ, about herself and about man, applying this truth to a concrete situation.  The teaching and spreading of her social doctrine are part of the Church's evangelizing mission.  And since it is doctrine aimed at guiding people's behavior, it consequently gives rise to a commitment of justice, according to each individual's role, vocation, and circumstances. (no. 41)

In their 1989 statement Called to Compassion and Responsibility: A Response to the HIV/AIDS Crisis, the U.S. bishops apply this notion and develop the theological idea of a call to integrity that integrates a practical understanding of the dignity of the human person that respects the sexual order.  Drawing from John's Gospel and Jesus' prayer to the Father "that they may be one…[A]s we are one" (Jn 17:21-22), the bishops note that Jesus reveals that there is a likeness between the unity of the divine persons in the Trinity and the unity of human persons with one another.  From the model of the Trinity, we learn that we become most fully ourselves by giving ourselves to others, so an abuse of self is also an act of injustice to others, and the abuse of others is both an abuse of self and an abuse of our relationship with God.  We are called to recognize the basic goodness of our personhood as God has created it, and all people are obligated to honor the integrity of the human person by respecting themselves along with all other persons (Carey 172).

From this foundation, there is a recognition that the meaning of sexuality and personhood can only be understood within this framework of human integrity.  God created the human race in the complementarity of the sexes so that man and woman may find their fulfillment through a mutual union ordained by the Creator to the generation of human life.  It is in this complementarity that they are created as the image of God, and human sexuality is recognized as an emotional and spiritual potentiality which calls for free decision and personal commitment.  Respect for the sexual order established by God and confirmed by Christ is part of the Christian's conformity to the ideal of Christian love (Dupuis 897).  God's love is creative, so the marital act as a simultaneous expression of both human personhood and divine creative love is the only proper context for human reproduction of new persons.  Any other way compromises the dignity of personhood (Albacete 12).  It is through both this respect of self and mutual respect for others that we observe the generosity and fruitfulness of God's original plan.  It is also through the grace of redemption that we are endowed with a new dignity through the Holy Spirit which dwells within us and calls us to live as temples of the Spirit.

Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of body and soul, and the Church recognizes that the virtue of chastity integrates the internal powers of life and love.  This integrity ensures the unity of the person and opposes anything that would impair this unity.  Growth in chastity requires a cultural transformation on the part of society which respects the rights of others and recognizes the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life.

It is clear that the theology of respect for human life and dignity cannot be separated from the understanding of our integrated sexuality and the Church's missionary mandate to spread this Gospel message of truth and life.  It is this unique theological context that puts the Church's understanding of life and dignity into perspective.

John Paul II summed up this theology well in his 1999 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America: "It is important to recall that the foundation on which all human rights rests is the dignity of the human person…The human being's dignity as a child of God is the source of human rights and of corresponding duties.  For this reason, every offense against the dignity of man is an offense against God himself, in whose image man is made" (no. 57).

Part 3: The Life Issues: Abortion in Relation to Euthanasia and Capital Punishment

The office of The Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the USCCB works to teach respect for all human life and to organize for its protection, especially on behalf of the unborn, disabled, elderly and dying.  It is through this office that the resources for abortion and euthanasia are organized and the major pro-life programs of the Church are designed and implemented. On the other hand, the Department of Social Development and World Peace serves as the national public policy agency for the bishops and works to share and apply the Church's social teaching to both domestic and international issues.  It is through this office that resources for capital punishment are organized and disseminated.  While the three life issues are often treated together within the context of human life and dignity in the bishop's general social justice statements during the 1990's, there appears to be an ideological separation between the treatment of abortion and euthanasia and the treatment of capital punishment.

In their 1994 pastoral Confronting a Culture of Violence, the bishops articulately frame the three life issues within the social context of protecting human life and the promotion of human dignity against the distorted mentality of violence that perpetuates attacks on human life:

Increasingly, our society looks to violent measures to deal with some of our most difficult social problems - millions of abortions to address problem pregnancies, advocacy of euthanasia and assisted suicide to cope with the burdens of age and illness, and increased reliance on the death penalty to deal with crime…A society which destroys its children, abandons its old, and relies on vengeance fails fundamental moral tests.  Violence is not the solution; it is the most clear sign of failures.  We are losing our respect for human life.  How do we teach the young to curb their violence when we embrace it as the solution to our social problems? (Carey 648)

In their 1999 Statement Faithful Citizenship, the bishops again address the three life issues within the context of moral priorities for public life, restating their belief that abortion and euthanasia are the "preeminent threats to human life and dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental good and condition for all others" (16).  They go on to say that laws that legitimize abortion and euthanasia are profoundly wrong and unjust.  Likewise, they condemn the increasing use of the death penalty and claim that respect for human life must include respect for the lives of those who have taken the lives of others: "As part of our pro-life commitment, we encourage solutions to violent crime that reflect the dignity of the human person, urging our nation to abandon the use of capital punishment" (17).  In a general call to pursue social justice, the bishops remind us that all people are called to commit themselves to protect and promote the life and dignity of the human person and the common good of society as a whole.


When reviewing the bishops treatment of euthanasia, the idea that there is an inseparable relationship between abortion and euthanasia becomes clear.  As far back as June of 1974, the bishops released the statement A Review of the Principle Trends in the Life of the Catholic Church in the United States, where they observe:

There is now widespread, although by no means universal, acceptance of abortion on the grounds of convenience.  The right of each woman to exercise control over her body is frequently advanced as a total and self-evident justification for the destruction of unborn life. Similarly, self-centered and individualistic attitudes underlie the growing movement for legalized euthanasia.  Although "humane" arguments are generally put forward in favor of euthanasia, the reality is that many people now accept the idea that persons whose age, illness, or incapacity renders them burdensome have thereby forfeited the right to life.  (no. 7)

As mentioned in Part 1, the bishops' 1995 statement Faithful for Life was specifically written to address the inseparable relationship between abortion and euthanasia.  The bishops recognize that the choice of either is rooted in the mentality of choice, privacy, and autonomy that has pervaded our culture since the legalization of abortion in 1973:

As disciples of Christ, as bishops in his Church, our first concern for human life has to be for those who are unwanted - with fatal results - by their parents or their children, or by society itself.  Such as these fall victim to the ultimate abuse of abortion or euthanasia.  As human beings we are outraged at the cruel injustice of these acts of deliberate killing.  And our Christian faith gives an even sharper edge to our consciences in this matter, compelling us to call for courage and unconditional love in defense of those who are helpless.  (4)

The bishops continue to develop this relationship between abortion and euthanasia in their 1998 statement Living the Gospel of Life when they note that American culture is structured according to the ideals of utility, productivity, and cost-effectiveness, and that the unborn, infirm, and terminally ill do not meet this standard of utility and therefore have no voice.  They further note that the family and healing professions that have traditionally provided a safe haven for these weakest among us have also been undermined by the ideologies that fuel a culture of death.  Abortion and euthanasia are seen as the preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself; the most fundamental human good and condition for all others.

In September of 1991, the Administrative Committee of the NCCB issued Statement on Euthanasia in response to the current efforts to legalize euthanasia and the subsequent public interest in the legalization of assisted suicide.  In addressing those who advocate these efforts, the bishops note that, "Borrowing language from the abortion debate, they insist that the 'right to choose' must prevail over all other considerations" (Carey 291).  Drawing from the condemnation of euthanasia described in Gaudium et Spes no. 27 and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1980 Declaration on Euthanasia, the bishops remind us that, "Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person or one suffering from an incurable disease or a person who is dying" (Carey 291).

Recognizing the impact the legalization of abortion has had on respect for human life and dignity, the bishops appeal to our nations founding principles: "The Declaration of Independence proclaims our inalienable rights to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'  If our right to life is diminished in value, our other rights will have no meaning" (Carey 292).  They end by calling on all persons of good will to oppose any proposals that would legalize euthanasia, a call consistent with their efforts to undo Roe v. Wade and ongoing support of a human life amendment.

Apart from addressing euthanasia in relation to abortion, the bishops specifically treated euthanasia in two statements in 1976.  The first was Society and the Aged: Toward Reconciliation, in which they observe the paradox of an aging nation living within a culture that venerates youthfulness.  The bishops note that the right to life of the elderly is under both direct and indirect attack because of the "mercy killing" mentality of a society that ignores, rejects, and isolates the elderly.  They go on to urge continued opposition to euthanasia and "death with dignity" legislation.  In their general statement, To Live in Christ Jesus: A Pastoral Reflection on the Moral Life, they again condemn the increasing advocacy for "death with dignity" and call for a recognition of the moral difference between respecting the dying process and engaging in the direct killing of the innocent (no. 58).

Continuing their specific attention to euthanasia, in April of 1992 the Committee for Pro-Life Activities of the NCCB issued the statement, Nutrition and Hydration: Moral and Pastoral Reflections. In it, the bishops affirm the Catholic tradition of preserving human life by rejecting the withdrawal of nutrition and hydration necessary to sustain life, but also recognize the limits to that duty.  They acknowledge that their principles do not provide clear and final answers to all the moral questions that may arise with individual cases, but encourage Catholics to make such treatment decisions in accord with respect for God's gift of life.

The bishops articulately develop the basic Judeo-Christian moral principles related to respecting life, and quote the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith's 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion which reaffirms the fact that life is the first right of the human person and the condition for all others, as well as restating the Church's consistent opposition to all direct attacks on human life.  Defining the term "euthanasia," they state, "All crimes against life, including euthanasia or willful suicide, must be opposed.  Euthanasia is an action or an omission which of itself or by intention causes death, in order that all suffering may be eliminated" (Carey 430).  They also develop the notion that the Church's teaching provides a basis for just social order.

The remainder of the statement addresses specific questions regarding medically assisted nutrition and hydration; and the bishops offer insight into the decision making process: "Out of respect for the dignity of the human person, we are obliged to preserve our own lives, and help others preserve theirs, by the use of means that have a reasonable hope of sustaining life without imposing unreasonable burdens on those we seek to help, that is, on the patient and his or her family and community" (Carey 433).

When considering the Church's understanding of euthanasia, it is necessary to make an important moral distinction.  While euthanasia is an action or omission that directly and intentionally causes death for the purpose of eliminating all suffering, it is morally licit to forgo medical treatments which no longer correspond to the actual situation of the patient because they are disproportionate to the expected results or impose an excessive burden on the patient and family.  Part IV of the CDF's Declaration on Euthanasia deals with ordinary and extraordinary treatment.  In general, ordinary means of treatment are those medical procedures that are well established and not excessively burdensome due to expense or side effects.  Extraordinary means of treatment are those medical procedures that are considered exceptional because they are experimental, expensive, or have serious physical or psychological side effects.  Any means of treatment would depend on the patient's age, condition, and available technology.  From a Christian perspective, the forgoing of extraordinary or disproportionate means is considered an expression of acceptance of the human condition in the face of death.

While the terms "euthanasia" and "physician assisted suicide" are generally interchangeable in the sense that they both are the intentional killing of another human being, there is a more developed understanding within the Church that these practices are considered tantamount to murder.  In The Gospel of Life, John Paul II declares, "I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person…Depending on the circumstances, this practice involves the malice proper to suicide or murder" (no. 65).  The pope continues by calling euthanasia a "perversion of mercy," and notes that "True compassion leads to sharing another's pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear" (no. 66).

In his 1998 book Death as a Salesman, Brian Johnson examines the history of the euthanasia movement, and confirms that advocates claim that it is a way of "helping" individuals who are depressed about their terminal condition.  Johnson notes that in reality, "helping to kill a patient takes the least time and the least care of all the possible options.  On the contrary, hospice is an example of how society can empathize and care for these patients" (16).  He also notes that "putting an end to suffering" is one of the most frequently used reasons to justify killing the patient, but medical studies with terminal patients conclude that a request to die is often a strong indication that the pain is not being adequately treated.  When proper pain management techniques are used, patients are less likely to react with a request to die (24).

It is also interesting that proponents of euthanasia often present their case through emotional arguments that play on people's fears of suffering, loss of independence, and expensive but futile treatments that only drag out the dying process.  Proponents of abortion do the same when they try to justify abortion using emotional arguments that involve the "hard cases" of rape and incest, the loss of independence that a woman would experience from having a baby which would consequently alter her lifestyle, and the expense and inconvenience of raising a child.

Before Cardinal Joseph Bernardin died of cancer in 1996, he petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court not to create a right to assisted suicide.  Even in the midst of his own suffering and impending death, Bernardin eloquently recognized that assisted suicide is both an attack on innocent life and the common good.  He helped articulate the Church's opposition to assisted suicide, noting first and foremost that it is a violation of God's sovereignty over life.  It also is a rejection of God's gracious gift of life and contradicts our most basic natural instincts of self preservation, and is a clear violation of the Church's consistent teaching against directly taking innocent human life.  Finally, it injures the community by depriving society of one of its valuable members and often demoralizes those loved ones left behind (McCormick 3).

The present situation in Oregon demonstrates the Church's concern with the euthanasia movement.  Oregon legalized assisted suicide in 1997, and the legislation was advocated as a matter of personal choice under the heading of a person's "right to die."  Since that time, there has been a trend among those who died by physician-assisted suicide to choose it because they feared being a burden to their family.  What was advocated as a matter of personal choice has evolved into  vulnerable people's believing they now have a "duty to die" because the option is now available; yet suicide is never the only way out from physical or emotional pain.  The reality is that people facing end of life issues are vulnerable, but these situations also provide an opportunity for growth in both the one who is dependent and the one who ministers to that dependent person.

The Church's wisdom affirms that sanctioning the taking of innocent human life ultimately demeans the lives of the most vulnerable and exposes them to exploitation by those who are entrusted to their care.  It also contributes to the corruption of the medical profession because it violates the ethical code of healing by which physicians are called to serve.  Finally, there is the Catholic belief in redemptive suffering which recognizes that the suffering of Christ was not meaningless, and as his followers we embrace the cross and join our pain and suffering to his.  Ultimately we recognize that we do not solve problems by killing people with problems, but instead we address the problem.  In a similar way, while not every illness can be cured, every patient must be cared for.  Any failure to show reverence for or to safeguard a patient's life is an attack on that individual person, on the others involved, on the medical profession, on society, and on divinely established principles.

Capital Punishment

In North America, the Canadian bishops in 1960 were the first to advocate abolishing the death penalty spurred on by revisions in the Criminal Code that was adopted in 1961 (Melton 2).  In 1973, the U.S. bishops took up the issue of correctional facilities with the statement The Reform of Correctional Institutions in the 1970's.  There was no mention of capital punishment, but the following year they issued their first statement opposing capital punishment titled Resolution Against Capital Punishment.  The main point of the two paragraph statement said, "The U.S. Catholic Conference goes on record in opposition to capital punishment," and it was accepted by a vote of one hundred eight to sixty three (no. 2).

Prior to this resolution, the five bishops of Florida issued Statement on Capital Punishment in November of 1972 in response to the June decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that declared the death penalty unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the eighth amendment's exclusion of "cruel and unusual punishment."  The bishops were concerned because this ruling did not preclude the right of states to enact laws imposing the death penalty provided that such laws could be constitutionally defended.  While they expressed hope that capital punishment would be abolished altogether, they noted, "Many men of good will nevertheless remain convinced that the death penalty serves as a strong deterrent of the more heinous crimes.  For this reason alone it would be unrealistic to assume that capital punishment will not be restored on a very limited basis in Florida."  They go on to note that the law's application was characterized by unevenness and that those executed were primarily indigent and minorities.

In February of 1973, Bishop Joseph Green of Reno, Nevada issued his own statement, Statement of Bishop Joseph Green, Roman Catholic Bishop of Reno in which he noted, "In its official teaching the Catholic Church has not taken a position relative to the retention or abolition of capital punishment."  However, rooted in the Church's position on the preservation of human life, he urged the Governor and State Legislature to consider alternatives to capital punishment.

During this time when the bishops were studying the question of capital punishment, there was no clear consensus on the issue, and even some instances of public support for capital punishment by certain bishops.  In her book Dead Man Walking, Sr. Helen Prejean recounts her experience with Archbishop Philip Hannon who retired as archbishop of New Orleans in 1989.  In one capital case, Hannon sent two elderly priests to counter the testimony of a Jesuit priest, George Lundy, who urged the jury to vote for life.  When the pro-death penalty D.A. asked Hannon to give his official position on the death penalty in writing, the archbishop obliged him, "setting forth a pro-capital punishment position and assuring Catholics that they can in good conscience endorse capital punishment" (54).

In 1977, Archbishop Francis Furey of San Antonio, Texas issued a statement supporting the use of capital punishment after the execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah.  He noted that the Catholic Church did not have a specific position on capital punishment and has always supported the right of the state to impose the death penalty in order to protect its citizens.  As evidence that there was no clear consensus on the issue within the Church, he cited the bishops' 1974 Resolution Against Capital Punishment and noted that the original seven page statement was rejected.  It was only after the statement was revised to a single sentence and proposed as a simple motion needing only a majority vote that it was passed.

When examining the use of capital punishment in the United States, we observe that thirty eight states allow capital punishment.  Bishops from twelve of those states have spoken out against it on various occasions either through their state Catholic Conferences or within their individual dioceses.  Of the twelve states that do not allow capital punishment including the District of Columbia, bishops from four of those states have similarly spoken out against its use.  Most of the statements were issued during the 1990's and were drawn from the NCCB's 1980 Statement on Capital Punishment, their most comprehensive treatment of the issue to date.  With the notable exception of Bishops Hannon and Furey, the U.S. bishops' public opposition to capital punishment has been consistent since the late 1970's, although consensus among individual bishops in this regard developed over a longer period than opposition to abortion and euthanasia.

In their Statement on Capital Punishment, the bishops address the purposes of punishment in relation to the Christian values that compel them to oppose its use.  They acknowledge the need to seek a balance between the relevant issues that constitute the debate over capital punishment: "We should acknowledge that in the public debate over capital punishment we are dealing with values of the highest importance: respect for the sanctity of human life, the protection of human life, the preservation of order in society, and the achievement of justice through law" (no. 3).  They also note that Catholic teaching has accepted the principle that the state has the right both to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely serious crime and to take appropriate measures to protect itself and its citizens from grave harm.

Making an important reference to the relationship between capital punishment and abortion and euthanasia, the bishops state:

Abolition of the death penalty is further testimony to our conviction, a conviction which we share with the Judaic and Islamic traditions, that God is indeed the Lord of life.  It is a testimony which removes a certain ambiguity which might otherwise affect the witness that we wish to give to the sanctity of life in all stages.  We do not wish to equate the situation of criminals convicted of capital offenses with the condition of the innocent unborn or of the defenseless aged or infirm, but we do believe that the defense of life is strengthened by eliminating exercise of juridical authorization to take human life. (no. 12)

A decade later, the bishops make another reference to the relationship between abortion and capital punishment in The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace.  Focusing on the human toll of violence and the need for peace, they observe: "In abortion and renewed dependence on capital punishment, we see the tragic consequences of a growing lack of respect for human life.  We cannot really be peacemakers around the world unless we seek to protect the lives and dignity of the vulnerable in our midst" (Carey 551).

Throughout the 1990's there is a discernible shift in the bishops' treatment of capital punishment in response to The Gospel of Life and the revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to reflect the pope's call to end the death penalty.  While the Church continues to maintain that legitimate state authorities have an obligation to protect society from aggressors, which includes the use of capital punishment, other available options make the carrying out of such a punishment "very rare if not practically nonexistent" (CCC 2267).

When the pope visited the United States in January of 1999 and called for an end to the death penalty, the Administrative Board of the U.S. Catholic Conference issued the statement, A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty.  They reaffirmed their opposition to the death penalty and called for all people of good will and especially Catholics to work to end the death penalty.  Echoing the words of the pope, the bishops call the death penalty both cruel and unnecessary and a perpetuation of violence.  They also encourage greater efforts within the Catholic community to support victims of crime and their families and to support all other efforts to uphold the dignity of all human life.

At their November 2000 meeting, the bishops approved a statement developed by the Committee on Domestic Policy.  In Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, they called for a new national dialogue on crime and correction, justice and mercy, and responsibility and treatment, in order to restore a sense of civility and promote genuine rehabilitation.  The statement addressed a number of important issues, framing them within the principles of Catholic social teaching, and noting that "both the most wounded victim and the most callous criminal retain their humanity" (21).

In a special section, the bishops acknowledge that this statement does not focus on the death penalty, but they do renew their strong and principled opposition to it joining with those working to end the death penalty and supporting calls for a moratorium on executions.  Quoting their earlier statements including Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty, and the revised Catechism of the Catholic Church, they note:

We know this is not an easy matter.  Catholic teaching has developed over time and there have been diverse views on the application of these principles.  However, as we begin this new millennium, Pope John Paul II, the U.S. Catholic bishops, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church together express the strong conviction that capital punishment should no longer be used since there are better ways to protect society, and the death penalty diminishes respect for human life. (33)

They appeal to pastors, catechists, educators, and parishioners to join them in rethinking the issue of capital punishment and to commit themselves to pursuing justice without vengeance.

In the bishops' new Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities released in December of 2001, capital punishment is highlighted as an issue of particular concern under its own heading.  For the first time, it specifically lists support for efforts to end the death penalty among the bishops' recommended public policy goals.

When reviewing the U.S. bishops treatment of the three life issues, there is a clear recognition of the connection between abortion and euthanasia.  While respecting the life and dignity of the human person is foundational to all the life issues, this connection between abortion and euthanasia is rooted in the Church's pastoral compassion for the weakest in our midst.  Because the Church repeatedly condemns abortion and euthanasia as the "preeminent threats to human life and dignity," the bishops have devoted substantial attention to pastorally educating the faithful on these issues through their statements and letters.  It is also clear that the bishops have been consistent and universal in their condemnation of abortion and euthanasia; a position that reflects not only the historic teaching of the Church but a strong theme of Catholic teaching since the Second Vatican Council.

This theme is evident in John Paul II's 1991 letter to the world's bishops, On Combating Abortion and Euthanasia, which was written to lay the foundation for his encyclical The Gospel of Life.  The pope used an analogy related to the encyclical Rerum Novarum which addressed the oppression of the fundamental rights of the working class and recalled how the Church courageously came to their defense by proclaiming their sacrosanct rights as persons.  In the same way, the pope recognized that in our present time, the fundamental right to life of persons in another category is being oppressed, and that the Church is obligated to speak out courageously on the behalf of those who have no voice, specifically the unborn and aged.

Similarly, in an address commemorating the fifth anniversary of the release of The Gospel of Life in February 2000, the pope strongly condemned abortion and euthanasia, equating them to legalized crimes that corrupt society because any policy or law that opposes life ultimately leads to the degradation of society.  There is a clear recognition by the Church that both abortion and euthanasia make helpless people die.

While the bishops' consistent and universal condemnation of capital punishment has evolved in a more nuanced manner since the 1970's, the foundational aspect that links it to abortion and euthanasia are the themes of violence and loss of respect for life.

Since 1994, the Department of Social Development and World Peace has offered a "Stand Against Violence" resource package through the National Catholic Anti-Violence Working Group.  In the year 2002, they especially recognize the human cost of violence and see a world losing respect for human life after the September 11th terrorist attacks and the spate of anthrax-laced letters in 2001.  In the introduction of the resource packet, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick notes that in the face of such violence and lack of respect for life, we must "rely on the principles of our Christian faith and turn to those whose lives are examples of love, forgiveness and understanding."  He also notes that as long as over 1.4 million children are never allowed to see the day of their birth, a culture of life will not be realized.

The policy agenda for 2002 includes resources on crime and the Catholic community and on the death penalty, focusing on the fact that in spite of the individual circumstances of convicted criminals, their lives and dignity should be protected and respected.  There is a strong call to seek justice instead of vengeance, and that punishment should have the dual purpose of protecting society and rehabilitating those who violate the law, challenging the culture of violence and encouraging a culture of life.

While respecting life and dignity and opposing violence are universal Christian themes, there still seems to be a tension among some groups that advocate opposition to abortion and euthanasia and opposition to capital punishment.  The National Catholic Reporter regularly runs a feature called "Death Watch" which lists the names of those persons executed over the previous week and keeps a running count of the number of executions since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.  In the February 23, 2001 issue, a letter to the editor requested that the NCR include in "Death Watch" the number of babies killed each week by abortion and keep a running count of the number of deaths since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973.  In the April 27, 2001 issue, two letters were printed in response to the request.  One letter opposed the idea claiming that pro-life advocates exaggerate the number of abortion deaths in order to magnify their anti-abortion agenda.  The other letter supported the idea noting that our Christian commitment to life, justice, equality and peace is without meaning if we ignore the foundational issue of abortion.

There is a similar paradox concerning those who oppose capital punishment but support euthanasia.  In Dead Man Walking, Sr. Helen Prejean points out that execution of a prisoner costs more than life imprisonment because of the substantial additional trial costs associated with capital cases.  She estimates that each death sentence costs approximately $3.18 million, compared to the cost of life imprisonment (40 years) of about $516,000 (130).  Many people oppose capital punishment on the grounds that it is unjust and flawed, citing recent cases of prosecutorial misconduct, incompetent counsel, and inadmissible but exculpatory evidence such as DNA.  These circumstances can lead to the execution of an innocent person whose life can never be restored.  Yet, those who support euthanasia are not willing to spend $516,000 to keep an innocent comatose or ill person alive even if there is hope for recovery, but they are willing to spend that same amount to keep a convicted criminal behind bars for the rest of his life.

When considering the three life issues, we recognize the wisdom of the Church in adopting a consistent ethic of life that promotes a broad spectrum of issues that seeks to protect all human life and promote human dignity from conception until natural death.  The bishops remind us in Political Responsibility that "opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not exclude indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence, and injustice" (no.23).  In response to their faith in Christ, Catholics are especially called to be advocates for the weak and marginalized in all areas affecting human life and dignity.

Part 4: Synthesis: Theological and Pastoral Assessment

In the 1998 public television documentary Bernardin, journalist James Castelli insightfully describes the impact the legalization of abortion had on the bishops in 1973.  He noted that the action by the Supreme Court "traumatized" the bishops and as a result, they felt "alienated from the culture" because abortion was something they opposed so automatically that it was incomprehensible to them that it could be legal on such a wide scale.  It was this blatant violation of  respect for human life that best characterized the bishops sense of urgency and subsequent reaction to the legalization of abortion.

On the same day the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion, John Cardinal Krol who was the president of the NCCB at the time, issued Statement on Abortion calling the decision "an unspeakable tragedy for this nation" (no. 1).  Less than a month later, the Administrative Committee of the NCCB issued Pastoral Message on Abortion which rejected the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court as "erroneous, unjust, and immoral" (no. 7), and stated that Catholics are not obligated to obey any civil law that may require abortion.  They reaffirmed the gravity and evil of abortion and praised and encouraged the efforts of pro-life groups.

On September 18, 1973, the Administrative Committee issued Statement on the Anti-Abortion Amendment reaffirming its commitment to a constitutional amendment in defense of unborn life.  In November of the same year, the bishops passed A Resolution on the Pro-Life Constitutional Amendment again denouncing the Supreme Court's decision and condemning abortion as morally wrong, as well as endorsing a constitutional amendment to protect the life of the unborn.

Twenty three years later in Political Responsibility, the bishops state that "abortion has become the fundamental human rights issue of our day" (14).  In their 2001 Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, the bishops declare "Among important issues involving the dignity of human life with which the Church is concerned, abortion necessarily plays a central role" (2).

It is clear that abortion has emerged as the single most prominent issue for the U.S. bishops since the Second Vatican Council, both by itself and within the context of Catholic social teaching.  This prominence is rooted in the fact that abortion negates two of the most fundamental moral imperatives: respect for human life and preferential concern for the weak and defenseless.  When addressing issues as diverse as racism and debt forgiveness, the Church has consistently made references to abortion in order to emphasize the foundational importance of protecting human life and respecting human dignity and rights.

This is most profoundly demonstrated in the bishops peace pastoral The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response.  One must consider the fact that in the middle of the Cold War, the bishops dedicated a section of their peace pastoral to reverence for life and abortion that compared the taking of human life in warfare to the taking of human life through abortion (284-289).  The bishops conclude that nothing can justify direct attack on innocent human life, in or out of warfare.  They also address the inconsistency of those who oppose the killing of innocent human life through nuclear war, yet do not oppose the killing of innocent human life through abortion which they consider "war" on human life in the womb.

Many socially conscious Catholics have used Paul VI quote, "If you want peace, work for justice," but in his 1977 World Day of Peace Message he also said, "If you wish peace, defend life."  Likewise, in his January 1999 visit to the U.S., John Paul II noted "If you want justice, defend life.  If you want life, embrace the truth - the truth revealed in God."  It is in this context that the bishops' peace pastoral and their general understanding of the relationship between all life issues makes the most profound sense.

The bishops have also treated abortion so prominently in their teaching because of the detrimental impact that the "pro-choice" mentality has had on society and our culture.  As noted in Part 1, they marked the 25th anniversary of the legalization of abortion with a statement, Light and Shadows: Our Nation 25 Years After Roe v. Wade.  In it, they reflected on the consequences of this legalized violence that assaults both mother and child and the whole human family.  Because society is saturated by the cultural claims of privacy and individualism, many people have become blinded to the reality that innocent human life deserves respect and acceptance.

They continued to develop this theme in their November 2000 statement, Abortion and the Supreme Court: Advancing a Culture of Death which reviewed the Supreme Court decisions that perpetuate the abortion culture.  They insightfully describe the "coarsening effects of Roe on our national character" which accepts the killing of human life as an answer to personal, social and economic problems.  They stress how men have lost their sense of responsibility toward the children they helped to create and have no loyalty to their child's mother.  Other men who do feel responsibility for their children are often left helpless to protect them when the mother chooses abortion.  They also acknowledge the emotional scars that many women experience after abortion.  This pain can impact them for many years, and the bishops recognize that the loss of a child profoundly effects the whole family which in turn effects our culture and society.  While the bishops only briefly touched upon the consequences of the Supreme Court decisions and the abortion culture, it is instructive to examine one particular decision in order to fully appreciate the Church's wisdom in addressing this issue so prominently within the context of culture and society.

In 1992, the Supreme Court had an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.  In this case, the Court was asked to consider the constitutionality of five provisions of the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act of 1982 dealing with informed consent and medical reporting requirements for abortion facilities.  In a 5 to 4 decision, the Court upheld and reaffirmed what it considered Roe's three parts: 1) a recognition of a woman's right to choose to have an abortion before fetal viability and to obtain it without undue interference from the state; 2) a confirmation of the state's power to restrict abortions after viability; and 3) the state's legitimate interest from the outset of the pregnancy in protecting the health of the woman and the life of the fetus (Beckwith 35).  The Court upheld four of the five provisions as constitutional, but claimed that the provision requiring a married woman to notify her husband about her abortion was unconstitutional.  It should also be noted that the Court upheld Roe's view that the unborn are not persons until they pass through the birth canal.  Throughout the majority opinion the unborn are referred to as "potential persons" (Beckwith 36).

What is most interesting about the Casey decision is the Court's candid admission that even though the constitutionality of Roe is questionable, the Court's integrity and respect for legal precedent would make it difficult to overturn it.  In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Rehnquist noted, "Roe continues to exist, but only in the way a storefront on a western movie set exists: a mere façade to give the illusion of reality" (Beckwith 36).  In part III section 2 of the Casey decision, Justices O'Connor, Kennedy and Souter wrote:

Abortion is customarily chosen as an unplanned response to the consequences of an unplanned activity or to the failure of conventional birth control…[F]or two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their place in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail. (Beckwith 190)

It is clear that the controlling opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court believes that abortion is necessary so that we can continue our contraceptive lifestyle, even if Roe is fundamentally wrong.  In spite of the fact that Americans have fashioned their way of life around the availability of abortion, the bishops continue to courageously speak out against the culture of death.

Another important consideration in the bishops prominent treatment of abortion has been the influence of John Paul II.  Throughout his pontificate, the pope has been an outspoken and consistent advocate for life and social justice, addressing these themes from every level of his teaching authority.  His encyclical The Gospel of Life was the consummate synthesis and articulation of his teaching, and it received substantial international secular press coverage when it was released.  The April 10, 1995 issue of Newsweek even featured the pope on the cover and called The Gospel of Life "the clearest, most impassioned, and most commanding encyclical of his 16-year reign" (Lawler 43).  As noted above in Parts 1 and 2, the bishops responded to the encyclical by releasing a number of important statements on life issues that were shaped by the pope's moral vision for respecting life and dignity.  The bishops embraced the clear call for a new degree of Catholic commitment to the struggle against abortion that is rooted in the popes understanding that Christianity is a countercultural force and that Catholics can expect to suffer for their beliefs.

Another significant influence on the bishops by the pope was his January 1999 visit to St. Louis, Missouri.  In each of his public addresses, he developed the theme of respecting life within a culture of death that is so prominent in the U.S.; and it was during his homily at the Mass in the Trans World Dome that he appealed for an end to the death penalty.  Three months later, the bishops quoted his words at the beginning of their statement, A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty.  The pope's plea to end the death penalty inspired the bishops to speak out more forcefully against the death penalty both collegially and in their individual dioceses, particularly in relation to the execution of Timothy McVeigh in 2001.

While the pope's notion of a "culture of death" has been developed widely within the Church and applied to our contemporary Western society, there are some within the Church that are critical of the general notion and its application.  At the 2001 meeting of the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership, Jesuit Fr. John A. Coleman said that the labeling of an entire culture as a "culture of death" is simplistic and unworthy of Christians, because no culture is ever fully a culture of life or of death.  As reported in the June 1, 2001 issue of the National Catholic Reporter, he noted that in the Church's mission to critique and transform culture, it must take into account the intertwining of culture and the Gospel, and avoid using gross terms to characterize a whole culture.

Another contemporary example of this tension within the Church over the abortion issue involves the Catholic peace movement, Pax Christi USA (  Founded in 1972, Pax Christi USA is committed to the transformation of society through nonviolence and advocates peacemaking as a priority in the Catholic Church in the U.S.  An important part of their mission has been to speak out against institutional structures within society that promote injustice, including the Catholic Church which the group perceives as being patriarchal and unjust toward women.  Pax Christi USA has a close association with the Chicago-based Call to Action organization and supported the 1997 "We Are Church" referendum calling for a more inclusive and democratic structure for the Church.

In June of 2001, Pax Christi USA canceled its National Assembly because of controversy involving the keynote speaker.  The host of the conference, Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee, refused to permit United Methodist minister and civil rights activist Rev. James Lawson to appear on campus grounds because of his outspoken public support for abortion.  In a June 29 statement, national coordinator Nancy Small did not blame the University but indicated that the underlying problem is the divisiveness that surrounds the way the Catholic Church deals with the abortion issue.  She believed that the university feared a backlash of protests by abortion foes during the assembly, but felt that the cancellation of the event would be supported by most members.

Subsequent press coverage indicated that the abortion issue is a serious cause of division within Pax Christi USA because abortion has always been greatly subordinated to traditionally higher profile issues such as human rights violations, war, capital punishment and racism.  Pax Christi USA member Julianne Wiley noted, "Not only do I doubt the top leadership of Pax Christi has a serious commitment to the unborn, I wonder whether they have a serious commitment to Catholicism" (O'Neill 9).  Another member said, "I might add that I have been more than a little curious at times why Pax Christi USA has not addressed the abortion issue with the vigor with which it has addressed other issues" (O'Neill 9).  Other members were disappointed with the decision to cancel the assembly and were critical of the Church for always using abortion as the single issue litmus test at the expense of every other issue.  They noted that Lawson's lifelong experience with nonviolence and involvement in the civil rights movement as an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. made him an eminently qualified speaker, and that his contribution to peace and justice should not be discounted simply because he supports abortion.

Pax Christi USA national council chairperson Tom Cordaro indicated that a majority of members have determined that the best way to address abortion is to focus on the hardships faced by women who find it difficult to bring children into the world.  Such difficulties, he contended, are rooted in the second-class status of women in society and are reinforced by the Church.  He also noted that the Church has allocated enormous resources to the abortion issue and because of that, the majority of Pax Christi USA members do not see a need to be as involved with this issue.

Another contemporary example of the broadening understanding of the abortion issue within the Church is the Seamless Garment Network (  Formed in 1987, the SGN's mission statement says in part, "We are committed to the protection of life which is threatened in today's world by war, the arms race, abortion, poverty, racism, capital punishment, and euthanasia.  We believe that these issues are linked under a 'consistent ethic of life.'"  At a time when pro-life Catholics are generally stereotyped as politically conservative, as proponents of the death penalty, and as single issue voters only interested in making abortion illegal again, there is a growing realization that Catholics groups as diverse as the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, Catholic Charities U.S.A., and the Conference of Religious Superiors of Men have a common goal in addressing life issues.  This is also evident from the growing number of feminists who are embracing a pro-life view after being involved in civil rights and peace and justice movements and then recognizing the link that abortion has to the  violence that pervades U.S. society.  The SGN is a coalition of such diverse groups that oppose all forms of violence, although the coalition members differ on the question of the legality of abortion.

Before she was the director of the SGN from 1992 to 1998, Carol Crossed was a peace activist and strong feminist who initially refused to get involved in the anti-abortion cause.  She began to see support for abortion rights as an inconsistency in the peace and justice movement rooted in the violence that she so strongly opposed everywhere else.  She notes, "How can you say you believe in conflict resolution when in abortion you are actually destroying one of the parties to the conflict?  I couldn't lie to myself like that anymore" (Schaeffer 3).  Crossed believes that the way to reduce abortions is to help and support women with pregnancies and problems.  Conscious of her liberal ideology, she notes, "I see a liberal as one who embraces life, whether it's women, the poor, gays and lesbians, the people on death row or the unborn.  It is antithetical for liberals to exclude a class of persons from our embrace" (Schaeffer 4).

An extreme example of a Catholic group that completely contradicts the Church's teaching on abortion is Catholics For a Free Choice ( Founded by Frances Kissling in 1970, CFFC popularized the saying, "If men became pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament." Kissling has worked hard to create confusion among Catholics regarding what the Church teaches about abortion, trying to persuade people that abortion is fundamentally linked with religious freedom.  She also emphasizes that you can support abortion and still be a good Catholic, even going so far as saying that every Catholic hospital must provide abortions and every insurance plan must pay for them (Clowes 214).  In 1984, 1993, and 2000, the U.S. bishops released statements condemning CFFC and repudiating any claim the group had to using the name "Catholic," clearly stating that CFFC had no affiliation with the Catholic Church and in fact promotes teaching that is contrary to the Church.  In 1996, CFFC was one of the groups that Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska included in his edict of excommunication for Catholics who remained members of such groups.

In 1999, Kissling and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) led an effort to downgrade the Vatican status in the United Nations from "permanent nonmember state observer" to a more modest "nongovernmental organization" in order to prevent the Vatican from participating in U.N. policy-setting conferences and to vote on the recommendations.  Kissling noted, "It's time to challenge the Vatican's pretense to be a state.  Why should a few acres of office space and tourist attractions in the center of Rome have a voice in making United Nations policy?" (Lewis 18A)  The unsuccessful campaign against the Vatican by these and other pro-abortion groups was rooted in the view that the Church harms women by opposing their rights to reproductive health, which can only be realized if family planning, understood as contraception and abortion, are widely available to women throughout the world.

In 2001, CFFC launched an ad campaign targeting the Church's position on contraception and attacking the U.S. bishops.  The ad read in part, "Catholic people care.  Do our bishops?  Catholic bishops preach sanctity of life. But their ban on condoms contributes to millions of people around the world dying.  The bishops' opposition to condoms in the developing world hurts the poorest of the poor.  Aren't these the very people the church calls on the world to help?"  (Brown 2) Several pro-life groups launched counter ads and pointed out that CFFC and its anti-Catholic agenda is getting financial support from pro-abortion groups such as the Playboy Foundation and the Turner Foundation.

While CFFC represents an extreme and cannot even be properly considered Catholic according to the bishops, there are also some effective Christian pro-life groups with ties to the Church that represent another dimension of the abortion issue: Christian pro-life groups that disagree over methods of communicating the abortion message.

Gregg Cunningham is the founder and Executive Director of the California based Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (  Founded in 1990, CBR operates on the principle that abortion represents an inexpressible evil that must be seen in order to be understood.  Their  projects generally involve publicly displaying large photos comparing Holocaust victims, blacks killed by racist lynchings and aborted unborn babies in order to show the conceptual similarity between abortion and the more widely recognized forms of genocide.  CBR also has a spiritually based project that uses biblically based arguments and is directed to Christian churches that trivialize or ignore the abortion issue.  Fr. Frank Pavone, the National Director of Priests for Life, is a member of their Board of Directors.

In June of 2001, CBR launched the Reproductive Choice Campaign which utilizes a large fleet of box-body trucks that display bill-board sized color photos depicting aborted human embryos and early stage fetuses on the sides of the trucks.  The trucks are driven during rush hour traffic in large metropolitan cities throughout the U.S. in order to communicate the reality of abortion to a large number of people who would otherwise not be exposed to these graphic images.

The February 2002 issue of The Catholic World Report focused on several pro-life themes, and featured an article on the success and controversy of the Reproductive Choice Campaign.  In the article, Cunningham asserted that the principle reason the pro-life movement has made such little progress is that conservatives have not embraced social reform and mistakenly imagine that in order to be effective they have to be liked.  He goes on to say that the Church suppresses the use of abortion photos, which is the best evidence for exposing the reality and violence of abortion, and specifically admonishes the U.S. bishops for their lack of effort to fight abortion in this regard : 

The US bishops just bought an ad campaign whose operating principle is subtlety.  Well, Martin Luther King didn't win equality for African Americans with subtle pictures.  He used pictures of black people being torn limb from limb by police dogs, knocked down by water canons and hampered down by nightsticks.  Those were ugly, ugly pictures and the people who were making America look at those pictures invited a great deal of persecution, because people didn't want to see those pictures…[T]he bishops want to win this on the cheap.  They are laboring under the misconception that in order to be effective you have to be liked.  They need to go back to the Old Testament and note the consistency with which they were persecuted and even martyred…[W]ell, they're not persecuting the bishops because the bishops have been careful to avoid any behavior that invites persecution. (Kumpel 30)

Cunningham is referring to the bishops 2001 "Second Look Project," an ad campaign that provides basic factual information about abortion so that people that consider themselves pro-choice might take a "second look" at what they think about abortion (  This project uses radio and transit ads to present legal and statistical information about abortion, and the website features the ads and supporting information.  One of the transit ads depicts a woman with a nine month calendar superimposed over her image.  The text reads, "9 months.  The amount of time the Supreme Court says it's legal to have an abortion.  Abortion. Have we gone too far?"  The bishops previous ad campaign in 2000 focused on Project Rachel Outreach that called attention to the Church's post-abortion ministry of hope and healing.

On the Priests for Life website (, the home page features a link to Cunningham's CBR website under the heading, "America Will Not Reject Abortion Until America Sees Abortion."  Fr. Frank Pavone has long advocated the use of abortion pictures as a means of communicating the reality of abortion in a way that words cannot convey.  He too considers the pro-life movement within the context of other social reform movements.  Speaking directly to the issue of graphic images, Pavone notes that neither Priests for Life or CBR maintains that using graphic images is the only pro-life project that should be utilized, and that various pro-life organization effectively use a broad range of projects to communicate the same reality.  Like Cunningham, Pavone contends that part of the resistance to the use of graphic images involves the idea that you have to be liked to be successful, noting that success in the pro-life movement depends more on whether they are respected than liked.  He also draws from Scripture the reality that fidelity to Christ will guarantee persecution: "You will be hated by all because of my name…" (Mt 10:22).  Criticism of the bishops by groups such as CFFC and NARAL clearly indicate a level of persecution that reflects this Gospel reality.

Pavone has a close association with the USCCB.  He consistently praises the bishops for their respect life efforts and utilizes their statements throughout his ministry.  He even offers the bishops statements free of charge through his website and makes available homily resources to priests, including  some based on his analysis and commentary on their statements.  Cunningham's criticism of the U.S. bishops and Priests for Life's association with CBR creates an interesting quandary for both organizations.  Pavone recognizes that the pro-life movement has a gamut of supporters whose common goal is to save the lives of the unborn and foster respect for all life.  In a sense, both Cunningham's "in your face" approach and the bishops more subtle approach ultimately compliment each other in the overall context of the pro-life movement.  While many people may be put off by Cunningham's approach, these same people may be more receptive to the bishops more pastoral approach.  This is evident from their ongoing concern with post-abortion reconciliation programs that offer forgiveness, healing and hope.  At the same time, there is an unmistakable value in exposing the violent reality of abortion and the pro-choice mentality; and the shock value of graphic pictures may be the only way to communicate this reality to the general public in a practical and convincing way.

Another general criticism of the bishops' efforts in the struggle against abortion is the fact that their condemnation of abortion and analysis of American culture does not really cover any new ground or achieve any tangible transformation within the culture.  Since the early 1970's, the bishops have set out both moral principles and a political strategy, yet in spite of their considerable effort and increasing attention to political policy, practical political gains have been minimal.  In addition, while Catholics may consider abortion immoral, they generally do not make any discernable political effort to make it illegal when the opportunity presents itself during elections.

Related to the politics of abortion, the bishops' Political Responsibility statements have generally been met with criticism in secular circles because of their strong condemnation of abortion and attention to pro-choice candidates.  While the bishops articulate that all life issues are connected, there is still the perception that the only issue that matters in the voting booth is abortion.

In the past, when the bishops addressed nuclear war and the economy, the preparation of the statements were marked with considerable collaboration and consultation; this sense of dialogue and the accompanying publicity were beneficial to their efforts.  While collaboration and dialogue will not change the conclusion of the bishops regarding the immorality of abortion, there is the possibility that a greater attention to collaboration and consultation could effect the way people view the process.  The bishops and the pro-life movement in general are now reflecting greater awareness of the complexity of emotions and opinions on the issue.  There now seems to be more of an emphasis on moral persuasion rather than legal change.  This new strategy seeks ways to reduce abortions by addressing the complex problems that lead women to abortions; it also seeks to make resources available to pregnant women.  This is evident from the January 22-29, 2001 issue of America magazine that highlighted the Church's pro-life strategy and response to post-abortion suffering.  Regarding the Church's more inclusive approach to the abortion issue, the magazine noted: "To be effective, pro-lifers must advance solid arguments for the life of the unborn, but also affirm the legitimate liberties and equality of women" (Byrne 12).

Groups such as Feminists for Life ( have successfully argued that abortion advocates and clinics are actually anti-woman because they fail to give women the full information about the potential physical and psychological risks of abortion.  FFL stresses that  women need to know about the available alternatives to abortion and be offered resources that give them real choices.  In their Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, the bishops likewise reaffirm their commitment to helping women and to providing morally acceptable alternatives to abortion.  This represents the contemporary pro-life ideology which underscores the moral and spiritual dimensions of opposition to abortion and provides compassionate support for women facing difficult life decisions.

This overall focus on both the mother and baby is most evident in the evolution of Dr. J.C. Willke's 1997 book Why Can't We Love Them Both.  Willke is a renowned international expert in the field of human sexuality and abortion, and wrote Handbook on Abortion in 1971 that presented all the arguments for abortion and answered them in a rational, medical, and scientific way.  In 1985, he revised and renamed his book  Abortion: Questions and Answers to take into account the numerous medical advances and legislative considerations.  Finally in 1997, he revised, updated and renamed his 1985 work, noting in the preface: "It is now 26 years since we entered the struggle.  We view this field of battle with mixed emotions - dismay that the slaughter still continues, elated at the great progress the pro-life movement has made…[L]ove Them Both proclaims the new theme that our research has shown is the way to turn the tide as we move into the 21st century" (v).

When considering the issue of abortion, it is important to understand the attitudes of the American people on this issue.  A recent survey was conducted by the Wirthlin Group ( that asked people about specific circumstances in which they thought abortion should be legal.  Approximately 12% said that abortion should be illegal and prohibited in all circumstances, while approximately 8% said it should be legal through all nine months of pregnancy without restrictions.  These two views represent the extremes of the abortion issue, and proponents of these views are not likely to be persuaded by one another's arguments.  If these statistics hold true, then approximately 80% of Americans are somewhere in the middle, believing that abortion should be available in cases of rape and incest, and to save the life of the mother, but should also be restricted in certain circumstances.  These restrictions would be directed toward late-term abortions and would call for certain legislative measures including parental consent laws and the regulation of abortion facilities.  It should be noted that the recent and ongoing national debate over the late-term abortion procedure known as "partial-birth abortion" has helped shift public opinion against abortion.

Reviewing the abortion issue since 1973, there does appear to be a movement toward a culture of life.  In recent years, more states have passed laws restricting or regulating abortion as well as national legislative efforts to protect the unborn.  Pro-abortion groups such as Planned Parenthood have indicated that fewer doctors are performing abortions, and medical advances in neonatal technology have silenced the dispute over whether the unborn are human beings.  There is also a new generation of young people becoming involved in the pro-life movement, and more people are identifying themselves as pro-life.  Even some feminist groups are questioning the impact that decades of abortion on demand has had on women.  The clearest indication of this shift toward respecting life is the fact that the number of abortions has steadily declined since 1990 according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute (, the research arm of Planned Parenthood.   There has also been a more conscious effort to reach out to women through crisis pregnancy centers that provide a range of medical and social services to pregnant women.  Pastoral efforts such as Project Rachel focus on post-abortion healing.

The U.S. bishops recognize that respecting the dignity of the human person demands a commitment to human rights across a broad spectrum, yet their attention to abortion cannot really be seen as focusing on a single issue.  Even if such a focus were verifiable, what other "issue" destroys over four thousand innocent human lives every day?  What disease? What war? What natural or unnatural calamity? What injustice?  Public policy controversies of our day address questions of how best to secure the rights of others whose basic personhood is recognized.  In the case of abortion, the rights of the unborn are not even acknowledged; so while there are many tragedies that take human life, abortion denies the existence of human life.  That is why abortion is seen as the fundamental issue.  Since the legalization of abortion, "choice" has become more important than life, and after so many lives lost and so many more lives effected by the consequences of abortion, the connection between abortion and so many other problems has become clear.  That is why some of the bishops' most profound condemnations of abortion are often in their statements that focus on violence or social issues like welfare reform.

This connection was not lost on Mother Teresa who at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. said, "If we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?" (60)  Every human being has an inherent right to life, and if we take that away from someone else, that right is weakened for everyone.  Therefore, to argue for the priority of the abortion issue argues for the critical importance of every effort to promote human life, dignity and rights in every circumstance.  The bishops recognize that 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 commitment to the Gospel of Life is clear in the conclusion of their 2001 Pastoral Plan: "Our own commitment will not waver.  Our efforts will not cease.  We will speak out on behalf of the sanctity of life wherever and whenever it is threatened" (43).

Part 5: Works Cited and Bibliography

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