There is no question I receive more often than, "Why don't our priests speak out more about abortion?"
Having directed the Priests for Life movement for the last eight years and spoken every weekend in a different parish on the subject of abortion, I have had more opportunity than most to directly observe how people in the pews respond to the Church's pro-life message. I have also had more opportunity than most to speak to my brother priests about it.
One of the questions that many priests (and others who have a ministry in the Church) wrestle with is, "How can I be compassionate to my people and also forthright with them about the truth?"
The answer to this contains much of the answer to the question about preaching on abortion. The abortion issue involves pain -- not only the pain experienced by those who have been directly responsible for one or more abortions, but also the pain of those who, watching abortion from a distance, know that they should do more to help stop it, but don't want to pay the price. That's a pain we all share.
So how do you balance truth and compassion?
You start by realizing that they are not things that have to be "balanced," as thought they have some intrinsic opposition to each other. Rather, truth and compassion are aspects of the very same reality. God, who is One, is both Truth and Compassion. To represent God, to speak for Him, to somehow mediate Him, is to respond to the values of truth and compassion precisely as aspects of each other.
In other words, to have compassion for another human being is precisely to bear witness to the truth of who God is and who that person is. A failure in compassion is essentially false witness against our neighbor, because such a failure eclipses the infinite tenderness and mercy of the Lord.
At the same time, to withhold truth is to fail in compassion. It is to fail to meet a human need which is as real as food and shelter. Truth nourishes. Truth sets us free. A witness to truth truly ministers to his brothers and sisters.
We can err in the way we extend both truth and compassion. Truth is sometimes spoken harshly, and with a tunnel-vision that fails to understand where our audience really stands. Compassion is sometimes bestowed carelessly, failing to challenge the one we love to become all he or she is called to be, and failing to distinguish mercy from permission.
A key to more effective ministry regarding abortion, therefore, is more understanding about the relationship between truth and compassion, and a deeper examination of conscience regarding how we fail in bearing witness to both. The heart of the Christian, and in particular of the priest, must be the meeting place of a clear and prophetic stand against injustice, and a profound tenderness to those who have committed it.