Thomas Jefferson tailored the famous phrase “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in his development of the Declaration of Independence, borrowing it from the writings of the English philosopher John Locke. Jefferson actually used many of Locke’s political principles throughout that document. He employed that particular well-known phrase in detailing some of the inalienable rights that we enjoy as human beings. They are inalienable because they depend not upon the largesse of any human institution or individual but because they flow from the very nature of our humanity—and therefore they belong to a natural law that predates every explicit or written human law. They are not subject to anyone’s choice or opinion because they arise from our very dignity as human beings.
I suspect that over the past 35 years many people in the United States might well have wished that Thomas Jefferson would have borrowed some other phrase from John Locke or at least reordered this particular phrase so that Life did not appear first or even at all in this listing of inalienable rights. But just as Pilate was quoted after the death of Jesus—what I have written, I have written (John 19:22)—Life itself is the very first principle whenever we decide to consider those rights that that are listed as inalienable in the Declaration of Independence.
I have been asked by a number of people to comment upon the issues that we now face as a nation during this particular general election, and a few people (representing both sides of the political aisle) have even clamored for me to propose a candidate for whom all Catholics ought to vote—or to designate one they certainly must not elect. The Church wisely offers only ethical principles and a moral framework for people to consider and to evaluate when you are about to make your crucially important decisions regarding whom to vote for in this election.
Throughout the centuries, the Church has discovered that it is often perilous to align herself to a particular political party or individual leader. Rather we choose to recommend Gospel-based principles and social teachings to our people and to allow you to make appropriately informed decisions. These principles were carefully and adequately detailed in the most recent edition of the Bishops’ quadrennial statement: Faithful Citizenship. For some people these values were too complex, too nuanced and too oblique. They would much have desired a simple option.
According to the principles of Faithful Citizenship, Catholics must support the just care of the poor, the rights of workers, the dignity of people who immigrate to a new nation, the conservation of the environment; we must assess the very complex economic issues, seek to provide affordable health care for people who do not enjoy that security, and foster the more humane treatment of those who are imprisoned, to list only some of the issues that we now face. However, before and prior to all of those vitally important concerns, Faithful Citizenship places the issue of Life itself. All of those other matters are of immense and lasting significance, yet they remain of no consequence for those who are not granted the first right—the right to be born. For this reason, I want to remind all of you, my brothers and sisters, to remember those famous Jeffersonian words borrowed from Locke—and especially remember the order that he gave them.
On November 5, the social and ethical doctrines of the Catholic Church will be the same as they were on November 3. The dignity of human life will still be the foundational issue that we face in our society and in our world. Whoever is elected will hear the same policies from the Catholic Church that we have promoted not only during this election year but consistently about the sacredness of human life and the issues of social justice that necessarily flow from that leading concern. We will continue to challenge and urge all of our elected officials to enact laws that respect human life at each stage of its existence. These are not principles that we promote only during the election season but every day in season and out of season. Our social teaching is not a platform that can be adjusted to fit the mood of the moment or the sentiments of the day. Far longer than the Declaration of Independence, the Catholic Church has placed life first among those rights that are therein described as inalienable—no matter what some people may have recently suggested regarding the Church’s teaching on human life. We will also speak up for the other concerns that cannot be ignored or dismissed because they flow from the very human dignity that we all enjoy as God’s children.
Like most of you, I have sometimes felt oppressed by much of the election rhetoric and I am glad that the end is near. This has been a long political season. I deliberately chose to save this column until the final weekend before our election so that I could speak with you about these issues in those closing moments before you cast your ballots. Quite often the last words that we might hear are those that we tend to remember. I am utterly convinced that our people are well prepared to make informed decisions based upon our Catholic faith and its moral framework and the wisdom that you have gained in living our faith each day.