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How can anyone be silent on this key civil rights question?

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan
Archbishop of the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese

Quite a while back, I concluded that it would be a full-time job trying to correct the misrepresentation of Catholic matters regularly showing up in the media and that, reluctantly, I would have to let most of it pass.

However, "Dead-end discussion" in the Sept. 21 Crossroads by Brian Smith demands a reply.

The hint of bishops "meddling" in politics always has been red meat in American history, from the notorious editorial cartoons of Thomas Nast in the Know-Nothing/Nativist era to those of Pat Oliphant today. So, Mr. Smith had our hackles up already as he opened his piece by referring to the recent corrective given by two American bishops to a couple of prominent politicians, both of whom happen to be Catholic, on the issue of abortion.

It was not the bishops who started this rhubarb but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), who took it upon themselves to explain Catholic teaching on abortion to the nation - and blundered badly.

Now, to be sure, church teaching highly respects the charism of civic responsibility and political leadership as belonging to the laity, not the clergy, a tenet especially strong in the writings of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and defends as well a properly understood separation of church and state, so clear in Pope Benedict's remarks in France just two weeks ago.

But church tradition is equally clear that bishops are the authentic teachers of the faith. So, when prominent Catholics publicly misrepresent timeless Church doctrine - as Biden and Pelosi regrettably did (to say nothing of erring in biology!) - a bishop has the duty to clarify. Cardinal Justin Rigali and Bishop William E. Lori were thus hardly acting as politicians, "telling people how to vote," but as teachers.

Even more significantly, when all is said and done, abortion is hardly a religious issue at all. Women and men of every religion, or none at all, express grave reservations about our abortion-on-demand culture, insisting that it is not a theological matter but a civil rights one.

Does the baby alive in the womb (a biological, not a doctrinal, fact) deserve the full protection of the law or not? Does one have the right to terminate the life of another at will? Can we consider one form of life - that of the innocent, fragile baby in the womb - inferior and expendable?

Or does the American proposition of certain self-evident truths mentioned in our foundational documents, the first of which is the right to life, have a say in all of this? Was Robert Kennedy correct in observing that the true test of a society's mettle is how it treats the most vulnerable among us, which has to include the tiny baby in the womb?

A half-century ago, a similar civil rights issue was fracturing our beloved nation: Do our black citizens have the right to full protection of the law, the freedom to live where they wish, to vote, to earn a fair wage, to expect fairness, justice and equality? Many argued then as Mr. Smith does now: This issue is way too complex! It deals with morals and conduct, with virtuous living. We can hardly legislate our way out of this, the Mr. Smiths of the era wrote. It's too complicated, too volatile an issue.

Thankfully, a bold pastor, who never hid his religious convictions, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., prophetically demanded that this was indeed an issue of life and death that had to be confronted by a nation committed to justice.

Thankfully, other religious leaders rose up, such as when the archbishop of my hometown of St. Louis, Joseph Ritter, integrated all the parochial schools way before it became law, such as when the archbishop of New Orleans, Joseph Rummel, publicly corrected prominent Catholic politicians who misrepresented Catholic teaching as approving racial segregation, and such as when Lawrence Sheehan, the archbishop of Baltimore, was hooted out of a city council meeting as he called for fair and open housing.

Mr. Smith is correct that abortion is a complex issue; he's on the mark that people of good will need to work creatively to create a just society where the poor have options to care for their babies, born and pre-born - a point powerfully made in many documents of the American bishops, including "Faithful Citizenship," the U.S. bishops' pastoral statement on political responsibility.

He's wrong, though, in implying that bishops are out of bounds in clarifying the truth of their faith on this issue and that the powerful arguments of the growing pro-life movement hinder helpful conversation and lead to a political dead end. We cannot be mute on this premier civil rights issue of our day.

 
                                                                     

 

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