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The Role of the Priest in Promoting the Culture of Life

An Address to the Great Jubilee and the Culture of Life (Excerpted)

Queens College, Cambridge (England)

July 5, 2000

By

(Rev.) Richard M. Hogan

I would like to begin with a story.

It is not generally known, but Mikhail Gorbachev was not the first Soviet Premier to visit a Pope at the Vatican. Actually, one day in the early sixties, Nikita Khruschev arrived in Rome and was taken secretly to the Papal apartments in the Vatican for a luncheon meeting with Pope John XXIII. The luncheon was far more elaborate than most luncheons. Seated at two ends of a very long Renaissance table with engraved woods, the head of the Soviet Union, dedicated to the destruction of the Church, and the Pope, the head of the Church to be destroyed, shared first the antipasti, then the soup course, followed by several varieties of pasta, the fish course, the meat course, dessert which consisted of bread, cheese and fruit. Of course, with all the courses, there were fine choices of Italian wines. With the coffee came a very wide assortment of brandies and chocolates. The "luncheon" had been leisurely, taking over two hours with nothing of substance discussed. Finally, with the coffee, chocolates and brandies, Khruschev began to make his points. He told Pope John that it was useless to continue as head of the Church, that the Soviet Empire would certainly arrange for the destruction of the Church within ten years, that the Pope and his priests might as well give up now, surrender to the Soviet Empire, because otherwise there would be great difficulty and greater harshness. To emphasize his point, Khruschev began to raise his voice. He even took off his shoes and pounded them on the beautiful table.

At this point [so the story goes], Pope John rose and walked the full length of the table towards Khruschev. (This was contrary to protocol because the Pope never stood while others were seated, but John did it anyway.) Pope John reached the other end of the table and bent down over the seated Khruschev, putting one arm around the neck of the Soviet Premier. John said, "Niki! Oh, may I call you Niki?" Khruschev looked up rather quizzically into the smiling face of the Pope. (This is not the reaction he had expected!) Rather unsure how to respond, Khruschev said, "I guess so." "Niki," said John XXIII, "Don’t try it. Don’t try to destroy the Church. I am thinking only of you and your Empire, not the Church. You will not be able to destroy the Church and you and your Empire will be seriously harmed. You see, our priests have been trying to destroy the Church for two thousand years, and if they can’t do it, no one can!"

Of course, the story is just that, a story. It never happened. But there is a certain truth in Pope John XXIII’s supposed comment to Khruschev. At times in the Church’s history, it has seemed that the have been trying to destroy it. Many in the pro-life movement in the U.S. today believe that the Church’s position on the sanctity of life, which to quote Pope John Paul II in the first line of the Gospel Of Life encyclical, is the Gospel of Jesus, continues to be put before the public in spite of the priests. In other words, members of the pro-life movement argue that the priests no longer preach the Gospel! In part, they are correct!

Preaching on life is at the heart of the priesthood because it is at the heart of the Gospel. But it is not being done as regularly or as often as it should be. On one occasion, a priest told me that in his parish he preferred to preach on the Scriptures rather than on the life issues. (Unfortunately, I thought of the proper and effective response to this only eight hours later while falling asleep!) The response to the remark is that from Genesis (the account of Creation—the gift of life to all human beings by God) to Revelation (the vision of St. John of the end times and the Second Coming when, God willing, we all will be brought to the fullness of the divine life in heaven) is about life. To preach on the Scriptures, to preach on the Gospels, is identical to preaching on life and vice-versa. If priests do not do it, they not only betray the Church, but they are false to their own calling, to their own vocation. They risk the warning of Paul, "Woe to me" if I do not preach the Gospel. (See 1 Cor. 9:16.)

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Gospel. But He is also Life. "I am the way and the truth and the life." (See John 14:6.) The priest stands in the place of Christ. He is an alter Christus. He is a living sign of the Gospel, of Christ and therefore of life. If the priest as an alter Christus fails to stand for life, he fails himself (as one who is called to stand in the place of Christ), the Church (because he does not fulfill the office given to him by the Church), and the world (because it does not receive the witness to the Gospel it desperately needs). It is not too much to say that there is a crisis in the priesthood. Part of that crisis (certainly not all of it) can be attributed to the widespread failure of priests to be faithful to themselves as other Christs in the full meaning of that very high and sacred calling.

Another way of saying the same thing is that a priest exists to offer the sacrifice of Christ to the Father. But before he can offer the sacrifice of Christ, he must himself become a sacrifice. The priest is called to offer his life to the Lord. In return, he receives life from God in abundant graces through his priesthood. Through his self-sacrifice and the supernatural life-giving graces he receives from God in return, he is able to offer the sacrifice of Christ at the altar and receive from that sacrifice the sustaining strength of the Eucharist. In other words, the self-offering of the priest and the graces received from the priesthood is pre-requisite to the offering of the Eucharist and the reception of the awesome graces of the Eucharist. But without standing for the sanctity of life, for its goodness, for its dignity, how can the priest presume to offer himself to God? And if he cannot do that, he cannot receive the graces of the priesthood which then, in turn prevents him from offering the sacrifice of Christ. Witnessing to life, preaching on life, is absolutely central, urgently central, to the very life of the priest. As St. Paul said, "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!"

Not only is preaching on life, i.e., preaching the Gospel, absolutely central to the identity of the priest, to his service both to the Church and to the world, politically it is important in changing the culture of death to the culture of life. The organization I represent, Priests for Life, was founded in San Francisco in 1990 by Father Lee Kaylor and two other priests in response to a local pro-life issue. They realized that if priests would promote the culture of life among their congregations consistently and repeatedly, the beginnings of a civilization of love could be established. The Church with its parishes gathers large groups of people together every Sunday of the year. It is (from a strictly political viewpoint) one of the most astounding grass roots organizations in the world. With the possibility of influencing so many people, the priests who founded Priests For Life ten years ago thought that priests by influencing their people could be the leaders of a true conversion of the culture from one of death to one of life.

The founders of Priests for Life are right. If priests consistently and repeatedly teach the principles of the faith to their people and are able to persuade their people (or, at least most of them) to act on those principles, the culture will change. In the United States, Catholics represent at least a fifth of all voters. Such a powerful force, if it acted together, could clearly change the political climate. Similarly, from a broader perspective, fifty million Catholics could be a significant catalyst of cultural development and change. In other words, the Catholic population in the U.S. could establish a political culture favorable to life and could influence the cultural institutions now favoring the culture of death towards a stance in favor of life. Similarly, Christian populations in many countries could have a similar impact. But why do we need an organization called Priests for Life? With the identity between the Gospel and life, with its centrality to the identity of the priest, and to his service to the Church and the world, why have priests not promoted the Gospel of Life? In fact, in the face of the numbers of Catholics and Christians in the U.S. and other countries, how could the culture of death gain a foothold in the first place? Catholics and other Christians, led by their priests and ministers, should have been formed in the Gospel and using their large numbers, should have long ago resisted those promoting death sufficiently to prevent the turn of the culture towards life. In fact, as we know, this did not happen. As it is, the culture of death not only has a foothold, it seems to be able to maintain even extreme positions, e.g., partial birth abortion. Why has the Gospel of life not taken hold sufficient to counteract these tendencies so hostile to the Gospel, itself?

The answer the founders of Priests for Life gave was that priests were not preaching on life often enough and consistently enough. In other words, Catholics and other Christians were not led by their pastors to take strong positions on the life issues. But the question arises: Why? Why do priests not preach on an issue so fundamental to the their very priesthood? What is it about the life issues which causes the silence of the pastors? This is the question we at Priests for Life are asked repeatedly. If we could persuade pastors to speak to this issue on a regular basis, it does seem unassailable that they would be able to form a people in sufficient numbers to convert our culture to an affirmation of life. So, why do priests not speak out? If the premises that preaching on life is at the heart of the priesthood and that pastors are essential to persuading their people to influence the culture towards life (and I think these are obvious) are true, then the importance of discovering why they are reluctant to speak out on the life issues is vital.

I want to sketch a couple of reasons why I think some Catholic priests do not address the life issues as often as some of us would like. Of course, my remarks will reflect my experience in pro-life work in the U.S. Still, it seems to me that the U.S. experience is not so idiosyncratic as to be inapplicable to other parts of the world.

Many priests do not address abortion and even euthanasia because they are not politically correct. Another way of saying the same thing is that priests are sometimes disinclined to take on issues which they believe their people do not want to hear. One might argue that addressing unpopular issues is at the heart of preaching and that the Church has had a long history (beginning with its Founder) of addressing counter-cultural issues. And, of course, this is true. However, before standing before their people and challenging an accepted viewpoint or a lifestyle, priests need to be absolutely sure that they are speaking with the authority of the Church. It is too much to ask of any pastor that he challenge a culturally accepted norm or practice on his own authority. (In fact, such a stance is dangerous and can lead to excesses.) If the culture is to be confronted on a belief or practice, it has to be done with the full authority of the Church. But, therein lies the difficulty of today. Priests are not as sure of the moral authority of the Church as they were in the past. They do not perceive that they can rely on the Church for support when they challenge the culture. In part, this perceived lack of support from the teaching authority of the Church accounts for the reluctance of priests to speak on abortion and the other life issues (as well as many other areas of sexual morality).

An example might help. In the 1950’s, no one would have dared to challenge the Church in the United States. Hollywood, for example, would have never presented priests or sisters, except in the most favorable light. It was too dangerous! Catholics would never have stood for an attack on their faith. The Catholic bishops would have launched a campaign against any perceived insult and most of the faithful would have followed the bishops. The cultural and political force of the Catholic Church was simply too strong to be challenged. The Church and its teaching were like the Rock of Gibraltar. When priests spoke on counter-cultural issues, that Rock was behind them. They could lean on it while they preached. The people could see the Rock towering over their pastor. It was crystal clear to everyone that Father was not speaking on his own, but only giving them a "piece of the rock." They could oppose the Rock, but only at their own peril. Unfortunately, [the perception of many priests is that] that Rock is gone. It has been smashed…They do not see the Rock. They think it is not there and they do not perceive that they can lean against it. Furthermore, and most importantly, they do not perceive that when they take on the life issues, that they are giving the people a "piece of the rock." What happened? The "Rock" (to continue with the metaphor) was smashed—at least in the minds of many priests—with the arguments against Humanae Vitae, the so-called birth control encyclical. The four arguments questioning the Church’s authority to teach definitively on contraception can be applied to any moral teaching of the Church. In other words, if even one out of the four objections to the teaching of Pope Paul VI on contraception is accepted, then any moral teaching of the Church is called into question. Since one or more of these four arguments against Humanae Vitae are widely accepted by many priests, their perception of the moral authority of the Church has been radically altered. In other words, the bombs that blew the "Rock" to smithereens were launched by the dissenters to Humanae Vitae. But, please notice, that it is not the teaching in Humanae Vitae that is the essential problem. From this perspective, it is the objections to the teaching. The objections to the teaching are the bombs that blew apart the "Rock" in the minds of many because once these objections are accepted, they (or any one of them) can apply to any moral teaching of the Church. In effect, the topic of Humanae Vitae is irrelevant to this discussion. Any teaching of the Church taught in the 1960’s which occasioned the same or similar dissenting opinions would have caused the same result. What are the four objections to Humanae Vitae which question the moral authority of the Church?

Chronologically, the first objection to Humanae Vitae actually was made before the encyclical was promulgated on July 25, 1968. From about 1964 through 1968, there were many articles which argued that the Church did not have an official teaching on the question of the newly developed contraceptive pill. Although Pope Paul VI re-affirmed the traditional ban on contraception and asserted repeatedly that the Church actually did teach that it was immoral to employ contraceptives, several authors maintained that the newly developed pill required a new statement from the Church. In other words, the argument was that the teaching of Pius XI in Casti Connubii against contraception did not hold for the newly developed pill. Many priests, faced with "hard" cases presented to them by their parishioners, followed the argument that there was a vacatio legis, a "vacancy in the law." In the case where the Church has not yet decided an issue, every Catholic is free to follow the best advice possible. If there is conflicting advice, one can choose among the legitimate opinions. Thus, if there were a "vacancy in the law" and there were legitimate moral opinions allowing the use of the contraceptive pill, then it would be permissible for a couple to employ the pill. In the 60’s, there were moral theologians, some very prominent people, who accepted the moral legitimacy of contraception. So, if the "vacancy in the law" argument prevailed, it would be morally permissible for couples to use contraception. Of course, once Pope Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae, the "vacancy in the law" argument could not be maintained. But, for a while, people used it as a moral argument for the use of contraceptives.

In addition to the "vacancy in the law" argument, there were three other arguments against the teaching of Humanae Vitae which were proposed by the dissenters after the encyclical appeared. For convenience, we might label these the infallibility, conscience, and parallel magisterium arguments. The argument from infallibility is familiar to most. Some argued that the teaching in Humanae Vitae was not issued with the theological note of infallibility. Since it did not have the theological certainty of the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption, some argued that the ban on contraceptives did not have to be accepted by Catholics. Implicitly, of course, this argument held that only infallible statements were matters which Catholics in faith were to believe and practice.

If the teaching on contraception did not have to be followed because it was not infallible, then the decision was left to the individual conscience. In fact, as some dissenters argued, since no one, not even the magisterium of the Church, can compel a conscience, even if a particular teaching of the Church was infallible, people still were obligated to follow their own consciences. At first, the conscience argument was seen as the final arbiter for moral decisions on non-infallible teachings of the Church. However, very soon, it was evident that the claim for the authority of conscience was absolute. In other words, everyone was free to decided for himself or herself in the mystery of his or her own conscience what acts were moral or immoral. The freedom of the individual conscience, said the dissenters, was absolute. Conscience had to take into account the teaching of the Church, but only as one statement, not as an authoritative guide for one’s conscience. As is evident, with this claim for the absolute authority of the individual conscience, the teaching against contraception in Humanae Vitae would only be one voice which couples should at least hear before they determined for themselves how they would act regarding contraception. In other words, the claim for conscience, if accepted, vitiated the force of Pope Paul VI’s teaching.

The dissenters to Humanae Vitae also offered the so-called parallel magisterium argument. They suggested that Popes and bishops were busy administrators of the institutions of the Church who had little time and resources to spend on the study of practical moral problems. On the other hand, there are moral theologians who have devoted their lives to the study of morality and proper conduct. The argument suggests that if one wants an adequate, studied answer to a moral question, a moral theologian should be approached, not an overworked administrator. If a car needs repair, the car is taken to an auto mechanic, not to a physician. If there is a moral question, a moral theologian should be asked, not a pope or bishop. Therefore, in the area of contraception, the ultimate authority is not an encyclical letter of a Pope, but rather the judicious and informed opinions of theologically trained and competent academics in the area of moral theology.

It should be noticed that all these arguments, or each one individually, can be applied to any moral teaching of the Church. For example, when was the last time the Church officially promulgated a teaching against stealing? Facetiously, it might be suggested that there is a "vacancy in the law" on the question of stealing. Further, the teaching against stealing has certainly not been proclaimed infallibly by the extraordinary magisterium and therefore, some could suggest that people are free to make up their own minds. The argument from conscience could also apply. Since every moral teaching of the Church is simply one voice among many which the individual considers, the teaching against stealing is subject to the judgment of conscience. If one’s conscience, having considered the Church’s position, rejects the Church’s teaching against stealing at least in a particular instance, it would not be immoral for that person to steal on that occasion. In addition, the argument that moral questions should be referred to a moral theologian could also weaken or destroy the Church’s judgment that stealing is immoral. Given all the theologians available, is it not likely that one could be found who would agree that in a particular instance stealing would be justified?

Each of the four arguments presented by the dissenters to Humanae Vitae, the "vacancy in the law" argument, infallibility, the appeal to conscience, as well as the parallel magisterium argument can be applied to any teaching of the Church. Since a great number of priests have not only heard these arguments, but accepted one or all of them, at least in particular cases, the teaching authority of the Church has been severely weakened. To use the previous metaphor, the "Rock"—representing the teaching authority of the Church on moral questions—is in pieces. There is nothing for the priests to lean on when they attempt to preach on questions which they believe people do not want to hear. In addition to the perceived lack of support from the Church, there is the fear on the part of priests that a counter cultural message from the pulpit will lead to their parishioners abandoning the parish with a concomitant reduction in donations. … It is small wonder that priests are reluctant to preach on the life issues or sexual morality.

Of course, the arguments from the "vacancy in the law," infallibility, conscience, and the parallel magisterium do not hold. There are numerous and weighty arguments against each and every one of them. Further, most Catholics attending Church regularly want to hear the Gospel—it is the Good News and they want it preached in its fullness. I know of several priests who have taken on some of the more difficult issues who have received applause for their homilies. In other words, the perception that the "Rock" is in pieces is false, especially with the teaching of Pope John Paul II. Therefore, the perceptions of many priests about what their faithful want to hear and about the strength of the Church’s authority are not valid. Nevertheless, the perceptions continue to determine what subjects are addressed in homilies, sermons, and talks. These perceptions need to be changed and they are changing, only it is happening gradually. If we want priests to lead their parishes to an active campaign to establish the culture of life, then addressing these misperceptions becomes essential.

While priests do not cite their perceptions about the moral authority of the Church when asked why they do not preach on the life issues more regularly, they will mention that many in their congregations do not want to hear these teachings. Even more emphatically and more often, they will mention that "they do not want to hurt people." Some will forcefully maintain that if the question of abortion is talked about from the pulpit that it opens wounds in the flock. Priests are not priests because they want to hurt people. Most of us want to help and assist. Since mentioning abortion is often very painful to those who have been involved in an abortion, many priests have decided not to mention the issue. It must be remembered that priests as a group are extremely well read. They know how many abortions are done every year. They also are well aware that each abortion affects many more people than the child and the mother. Knowing these figures, they also are well aware that at least some of the people listening to any given homily have probably had some direct involvement with a surgical abortion. Since mentioning the issue is painful and priests do not want to hurt people, they are most reluctant to address the subject.

This false compassion is almost more important a factor than the question of the Church’s authority. While it is true that the mentioning the subject of abortion can be painful to those who have been involved with an abortion, it is even more painful not to mention it. David Reardon’s interviews with post-abortive women in the United States has shown that when they do return to the Church (usually after some years away after the abortion), they are shocked and hurt that no one mentions the cause of their pain. It is as though they walk into the parish Church bleeding from one of their legs. Imagine the scene, this young woman walks into Church one Sunday gushing blood from one of her legs. None of the ushers remark on her wound. They take her to a pew not even offering to help her as she leaves a trail of blood while walking up the aisle. Kneeling down, her leg continues to bleed leaving a pool of blood beneath the pew, but none of those around her mention it. Of course, since the wound of abortion is hidden from view, it is not like a bleeding leg. Yet, most women returning to Church after experiencing an abortion are not yet recovered from the event. They come to Church because they know they are spiritually hurting and they want the spiritual healing that only God can offer. But no one offers that spiritual healing. Interiorly, they continue to live in intense and searing spiritual and psychological pain. A physician treating a wound in a leg, first cleans the wound. This cleaning can be painful and so often a pain killer is administered, but even the giving of the pain killer can be painful. Should the physician not treat the leg because it will cause some pain to the patient? Obviously not. By the same token, the priest, the doctor of the soul, must treat the soul even if the treatment causes some pain to the patient. If the physician does not treat the wounded leg, eventually it will become infected and an amputation will have to be preformed. If the priest does not treat the wounded soul, the soul can be lost. False compassion leads to even greater pain and difficulties.

Priests will sometimes argue that they have tried to preach on the issue and then been severely criticized for insensitivity by post-abortive women who have heard them preach. Of course, such complaints do happen. Why? Those who have suffered from an abortion (and women are also victims of abortion), and come back to Church usually are not completely healed. They need the spiritual healing of the Church. In other words, they are wounded. When that wound is touched, it hurts. Just as the needle administering the pain-killer hurts as it goes in, so the preacher lancing the wound of abortion in the soul causes some pain. But unless the physician treats the wound, the leg is lost. Unless the doctor of the soul treats the wound in the soul, it is lost. Sometimes, the pain caused by the lancing of the wound of the soul through preaching is vocalized: there is a cry of pain expressed to the one causing the pain, in this case, the priest. But it is simply that, the cry of pain. Once that pain is completely released, the cure can begin. The post-abortive woman, having released the pain, is ready to seek the forgiveness of God.

If you would permit a personal anecdote, I can illustrate this point. I was preaching on pro-life in a parish in the U.S. After I completed my homily, I strolled out to the grounds around the Church which were very beautiful on this particularly sunny day. Shortly after I began enjoying the sunshine and park-like atmosphere, a young woman appeared and approached another man sitting on a nearby bench. After a short time, she approached me and struck up a conversation. She was very angry with me for having discussed the whole issue of abortion. She admitted to being post-abortive and to having confessed the sin (she was Catholic). Still, she firmly maintained that she believed that she had not committed any sin in having an abortion. She also said that the other man had told her he was a priest and that I had not meant what I said in the homily, at least no in the way she understood me.

There were several things happening with this woman. First of all, she was clearly in pain and was reacting to the pain. In effect, I had touched the wound. In confessing her sin, she had not sufficiently dealt with it. Either she was not yet ready to discuss it or the confessor was unable to help her deal with the sin. (Nevertheless, she had been forgiven of the sin.) She needed to vent the pain and then it would be possible for her to experience psychologically the forgiveness which God had already granted to her. However, the priest who had told her that I did not mean what I preached in my homily undid what I had tried to do. While trying to be compassionate, he had told her that the wound in her soul really was not there. He was denying reality and trying to hide the wound with a bandage. What I had done was to expose the wound and let her see it so she could realize it was there and that it had to be treated. If the young woman believed the other priest, she would need to have his bandage ripped off (by someone willing to tell her the truth) and then experience the pain all over again. Actually, the pain would be worse than she already had experienced because now there was a bandage over the wound which would have to be ripped off before she could be compelled to see the wound. The woman who approached me had not dealt with her wound, had denied its existence, was forced to acknowledge its presence, was hurt by seeing it (and therefore reacted to me) and then was allowed to return to her denial. The whole situation was tragic because having begun to deal with a real trauma in her life, the woman was allowed to believe it was not there. She suffered all the pain leading to a cure and then the cure was prevented by a return to denial which was possible because the other priest gave her permission to continue her denial.

Priests who do not preach on abortion allow those who are post-abortive to continue denying their pain. They refuse to act as doctors of souls because they do not want to cause pain. But, in the end, their refusal to practice their profession of spiritual healing causes even more pain. There is absolutely nothing comparable to the forgiving love or our merciful God. It is the most compassionate and most merciful act possible to bring people to the point where they an willingly put themselves before God and experience the immense flow of His merciful love. The greater the sin, the greater the love offered to God for its forgiveness. This is truly the stuff saints are made of. But it does depend on priests doing their part, not shrinking from the "hard" truths. Not preaching on abortion and the other life-issues for fear of offending someone is a terrible mistake because it is a refusal to treat the spiritual pain of abortion with the only medicine there is: God’s forgiveness. It is false compassion which leads to even greater pain.

What is the role of the priest in promoting the culture of life? It is vital. He can shape and form his flock so that they resist by every legal means possible the march of the culture of death. It is to preach the truth of the sin of abortion and euthanasia so that those who are the living victims of these sins will be able to find relief from the spiritual pain caused by these sins. Even if the preaching of the truth about these sins may be painful for an individual from time to time, the results are truly unbelievable. It is only in the truth that we can be free of sin and its pain. Let us never fail to remember that fidelity to the Gospel is the calling and vocation of all of us. Even false compassion cannot be a motive for us to abandon this sacred calling!

Using the Word of God to Preach Against Abortion

Priests for Life
PO Box 141172 • Staten Island, NY 10314
Tel. 888-735-3448, (718) 980-4400 • Fax 718-980-6515
mail@priestsforlife.org