ON THE U.S. BISHOPS’ STATEMENT
Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics
BY THE MOST REVEREND DONALD W. TRAUTMAN, S.T.D., S.S.L.
JANUARY 22, 1999
HYATT-REGENCY, WASHINGTON, DC
Colleagues and Friends of the Pro-Life Movement:
Today we have marched for life. Our feet may be sore and cold and tired, but
I remind you of what St. Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans: "How beautiful
are the feet of those who bring the good news" (Romans 10, 15). In typical
Hebrew fashion, Paul praises the messenger by singling out parts of the body –
the feet – that enable the messenger to bring the good news. With Paul I say:
Pro-Lifers have beautiful feet. You are the messengers of God’s truth that all
life is sacred from the womb to the tomb. You are the voice of the unborn and
infirm and terminally ill. You have proclaimed and defended the most basic human
right – the right to life. You are the messengers of the Gospel of Life. You
have marched and marched since Roe vs. Wade in 1973, and you have not been
"afraid to engage in the good fight" for the sake of life (1Timothy 6,12).
There is one here who has always been a leader "in the good fight", one who
has always been in the forefront of the march, witnessing and motivating and
inspiring others to join the march – Nellie Gray. She has not only beautiful
feet but also a beautiful heart.
My purpose this evening is to share with you some insights on the Pastoral
Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops entitled: Living the Gospel of Life: A
Challenge to American Catholics. The Bishops write as Americans and Pastors
of the Church to their fellow citizens urging them to reclaim the founding
principles that gave birth to this nation – especially the inalienable,
God-given right to life. The Document has 39 Paragraphs divided into 4 Chapters.
The first three chapters lay the foundation, the rationale, for the high point
of the Statement in the final chapter, which focuses especially on Catholics in
political life. The bishops want the record to be clear where the Church stands.
First, the Bishops address those political leaders who so often advocate for
the poor and marginalized but not for the unborn. The Bishops clearly state that
"any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty,
hunger, employment, education, housing and healthcare", but being right in these
matters can never, never, never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks
against innocent human life (Paragraph 23). Let no Catholic office-holder hide
behind a record of doing good for the poor and marginalized in society, but then
vote in favor of abortion, partial birth abortion, or euthanasia. "The failure
to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any
claims to the "rightness of position" in helping the poor (Paragraph 23).
Secondly, the Bishops note that some Catholic elected officials have argued
that, while they personally oppose evils like abortion, they cannot force their
religious views on society. The Bishops forcefully respond that when human life
begins is not simply a religious belief but a scientific, medical, biological
fact. Human life at all stages of development is sacred. The right to life is a
person’s most fundamental right. Our cherished Declaration of Independence
declares: All people are created equal, all are "endowed by their Creator with
certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness". The right to life is a basic human right that
comes from our sovereign God and no one can take it away. Elected officials
cannot simultaneously commit themselves to human rights while eliminating the
weakest among us. No one can collude in the killing of innocent life.
We all know the political mantra: "I am personally opposed, but abortion is
legal; I can’t force my views on society". What if we lived when slavery was
legal. Would we have said: "I am personally opposed to slavery, but I can’t
force my views on society"? Thank God some people had the courage to work to
abolish slavery. Thank God some people were opposed and marched and struggled to
convince others. The Supreme Court in 1857 in the Dred Scott Case said black
people were not citizens. This court decision was overturned by the 13th
and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. Thank God for the people who
brought this about.
As Christians we have an obligation to be a leaven in our culture, to give
witness to the truth. Public officials must be people of conscience who put
their beliefs into action. Recall in the history of this great nation the many
examples of courageous public servants who went beyond "living with" intolerable
legal situations such as slavery and segregation. They succeeded in overthrowing
bad law and restoring human rights. Let us learn this lesson of history and have
"the courage and honesty to speak the truth about human life". The Bishops
remind all public officials: "No appeal to policy, procedure, majority will, or
pluralism ever excuses a public official from defending life to the greatest
extent possible" (Paragraph 32).
As the chief teachers in the Church, the Bishops have a serious obligation to
"explain, persuade, correct, and admonish those in leadership positions who
contradict the Gospel of Life through their actions and policies" (Paragraph
29). For those Catholic public officials, who disregard Church teaching on life
issues, "a private call to conversion should always be the first step in dealing
with these leaders" (Paragraph 29). The Bishops believe that personal
explanation, exhortation, and education must come first.
The Bishops’ Statement declares that these political leaders have a duty to
exercise moral leadership in society. "They do this not by unthinking adherence
to public opinion polls or by repeating empty pro-choice slogans" (Paragraph
In cases where some Catholic political leaders refuse to give witness,
"Bishops have the duty and pastoral responsibility to continue to challenge
those officials…and persistently call them to a change of heart" (Paragraph 29).
The Bishops’ Statement slowly and methodically builds to a crescendo with
Paragraph 32, which is its strongest declaration. This paragraph states that
those Catholic officials who refuse to adhere to Church teaching on the
sacredness of human life must consider "the consequences for their own spiritual
well-being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious
sin". That is a powerful statement that calls for a careful examination of
conscience. Such individuals are "to reflect on the grave contradiction of
assuming public roles and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their
actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with Church
There will be some Catholic political leaders who will pay the price for
giving witness to pro-life issues. They may lose some constituents, but they
will "save lives through their witness, and God and history will not forget
them" (Paragraph 31). The Bishops praise Catholic and non-Catholic public
officials who have used their leadership roles to advance respect for all human
The Bishops summarize their position in these words:
"No political leader can evade accountability for his
or her exercise of power. Those who justify their inaction on the
grounds that abortion is the law of the land need to recognize that
there is a higher law, the law of God. No human law can validly
contradict the commandment: "Thou shalt not kill." (Paragraph 32)
These are the highlights of Chapter Four. We have needed such a statement for
a long time. It is now in place and we all have reason to be proud of it.
Permit me to close with a personal observation.
A few years ago Mother Teresa of Calcutta attended a National Prayer
Breakfast in Washington. She delivered a message of truth with great boldness.
Before an audience of 3,000 that included President Clinton and his wife, Vice
President and Mrs. Gore, and congressional leaders, this aged, wrinkled,
stooped, frail little nun said that America, once known for generosity to the
world, had become selfish. She said the proof of that selfishness is abortion.
Mother Teresa reasoned that "if we accept that a mother can kill even her own
child, how can we tell other people not to kill each other…Any country that
accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use violence to get
what they want".
At that line most of those in attendance jumped to their feet and gave Mother
Teresa a standing ovation. President Clinton reached for his water glass. He did
not applaud. Mother Teresa went on to deliver the knockout line: "The greatest
destroyer of peace today [is] abortion, which brings people to such blindness".
The circumstances that have led to the present trial in the Senate are an
example of that moral blindness – the blindness of the abortion mentality.
When President Clinton several weeks ago spoke to the nation regarding his
involvement with Monica Lewinsky, he used the standard pro-abortion language. He
argued it was a private matter. His defense lawyers have continued to argue:
"It’s a private matter." Pro-lifers know well that pro-abortionists define
abortion as a private matter in order to obscure its moral implications and to
deny responsibility for its consequences. It should not be surprising that Mr.
Clinton, who has upheld even partial-birth abortion, should use the standard
pro-abortion rhetoric in defending himself. This is another example of the moral
blindness of the abortion mentality.
Let us recall the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who protested the Nazi regime:
"Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will
not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."
We have the American Bishops Statement. Now let us speak; let us act.
Statements of Other Bishops on Abortion