Various Reflections on the Political Responsibility of Christians

Reflexiones sobre las Responsabilidades Políticas de los Cristianos

Fr. Frank Pavone

Publication Date: January 01, 2000


I. Religion is not disconnected from politics.

Scriptural basis

Nature of prayer

Example of Mary

Interrelation between this world and the next

Religious life and spiritual life

Bishops' Pastoral Plan and other exhortations

Every vote counts


II. Caesar Must Obey God

Scriptural basis

Separation of God and state

Church Teaches not only revealed truths

Political but not partisan: free to follow the Gospel

"Can't Legislate Morality"


III. The right to Life is Fundamental

Declaration of Independence and purpose of Government

Single Issue person

Consistent Ethic of Life

Sierra Club vs. Morton

Disqualifying Issues

Personally opposed but…




The ministry of Priests for Life is to assist the clergy and the entire Church to respond to the tragedy of abortion. One of the many and varied modes of such a response is the effort to change public policy, and one of the ways to change public policy is to participate in national elections in an informed and active way.

This booklet contains a series of brief reflections about how and why we as believers should exercise political responsibility. The reflections draw from the teachings of Scripture, the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II, and the United States Catholic Bishops. This is not an exhaustive analysis of these themes, but rather a "pastoral glance" at them, in order to overcome some of the common misunderstandings and slogans that can too easily lull us into apathy regarding our civic responsibilities, or into the fallacy that religious life and political life are somehow disconnected.

Priests for Life makes available a series of educational materials on this theme, including camera-ready bulletin inserts for parishes. Please contact us to obtain your set of such materials.

Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director


I. Religion is not disconnected from politics.

Scriptural basis

Every Christian has political responsibility in this world, according to his or her vocation in life.

Scripture provides the perspective for a proper understanding of our political responsibility. St. Paul writes to the Philippians, "As you well know, we have our citizenship in heaven; it is from there that we eagerly await the coming of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:20). St. Peter writes, "You, however, are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people he claims as his own" (1Pt.2:9). The Letter to the Hebrews states, "Here we have no lasting city; we are seeking one which is to come" (Heb. 13:14).

In other words, we belong to Christ. The word "Church" (ecclesia in Latin and Greek) means "called out." We have been called out, called together, by the word of God. We have actually been entrusted to that word, and we belong to the One who speaks it.

Yet we continue to be citizens of this world. Jesus prayed the following words for His apostles -- and for us -- on the night before He died: "I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but to guard them from the evil one. They are not of the world any more that I belong to the world. Consecrate them by means of truth -- Your word is truth" (Jn.17:15-17). We are citizens of heaven, living in this world and bearing witness in this world to the truths of God. When speaking before Pilate, Jesus said that his own kingdom did not belong to this world, but that He came into this world to bear witness to the truth (see Jn.18:33-38). We are called to do the same.


Nature of prayer

The foundation of all the good that we can accomplish is prayer. "Without me," Christ said, "you can do nothing" (Jn. 15:5). Jesus does not merely "help" us, as if we work on our own and He comes along to ease the burden. Rather, we cannot even begin a good work without His saving action within us. All we do is His gift. We need to pray more, and with greater fervor.

But be careful not to misuse a good thing. Even prayer can become an excuse, a refuge from our responsibility to take action. The temptation can be especially strong when the action is political. Nevertheless, we are called to do something.


For the very same reason we are called to pray! Does God really need us to pray? Does He need to be reminded of His duties, or told to do His job? Of course not. Yet He calls us to pray, because He wants us to be involved in what He is doing. If, therefore, He calls us to pray, even when He could act without our prayers, it is reasonable that He calls us to action, even when He could act without our works. God calls us not because He needs us but because He chooses to use us.

Prayer is not just asking God to do something. That’s part of it, but it's more. Prayer is union with God. Prayer means we open ourselves so wide to God that He comes in and does something through us! Prayer and action are not two separate options, but rather two aspects of the same reality: union with God. When we come to prayer, we come to the living God, a consuming fire, and the source of all activity. When we come away from prayer we should not feel rested but restless. We should not feel that we’ve done our duty, but that we’ve been given our duty.

Be careful when you ask God to end injustice. His response may very well be to reach down from heaven, lift you up by the back of the neck, and throw you into the battle! God is not going to rip open the sky, come down, and tell our nation to stop injustice. Instead, He is going to put conviction in your heart and words on your lips and command you to speak and act! Let us never use prayer to escape from action. Instead, let us immerse ourselves in true prayer, which enables us to act in union with God, who destroys death and restores life!

Prayer helps us grow in the virtue of charity, and one aspect of charity is that we care about how people actually get on in life. We try to make life better for them. It's not enough just to pray.


Example from Mary

This truth is made clear in the life of the woman who had the deepest prayer life and the most intimate relationship with God -- the Virgin Mary.

At the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel told Mary that she would be the mother of God (see Lk. 1:26-38). Mary received Gabriel's message and was certainly astonished. Yet the angel also told her that her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant. Despite the high calling Mary had just received, she did not lose sight of the pressing needs of her kinswoman Elizabeth. She undertook the arduous journey to the hill country, and tended to Elizabeth's needs for three months. Mary kept in touch with both heavenly and earthly reality. The truth of her new status did not distract her from Elizabeth's needs. Mary responded to those needs in a very practical way. She resisted any temptation to become absorbed in herself or her own religious experiences.

We see her give the same example at Cana. The celebration there in company with Christ and the Apostles did not blind her to the real needs of the newlyweds. The wine had run out, and she responded.

There is an axiom in psychiatry that says, "Believe behavior." See what the speaker does. If we believe the world needs to be changed, and that God calls us to do so, that conviction must be translated into action.


Interrelation between this world and the next

 To understand our political responsibility, we need to understand the nature of heaven, eternal life, our activity in the next world, and the relationship such activity has with our activity in this world.

Some people are afraid to go to heaven. They are more afraid, of course, of the alternative -- as they should be. But a fear of heaven, perhaps, can spring from a misunderstanding of the common phrases "eternal rest" and "forever and ever." We rest in this world, but for a while. Then we want to get up and do something. We are not inclined to want to rest forever.

Fortunately, that is not what "eternal rest" means. Eternal rest is not the same as inactivity. Rather, it is the attaining of the purpose for which one was made. When someone pursues an educational degree, for example, he or she is "at rest" when the degree is awarded. That hardly means inactivity, however; in fact, the degree was likely obtained with a view to taking on new activities in which one uses the knowledge and skills which the degree represents. In the life to come, we will be active. In fact, our capacity for activity will be far greater than it is now. We will have attained the very purpose for which we were created, namely, union with God. Yet we will not be bored. Every moment of heaven will be new and surprising, for we will always be seeing and knowing more of God than we saw or knew before.

In the next life, we will not be angels. We believe in the resurrection of the body; in fact, the resurrection of the entire universe. "What we await are new heavens and a new earth…" (2Pt.3:13). God made us as human beings, a unity of body and soul. The next life will be physical as well as spiritual. We are reminded of this by the fact that the Lord ate a piece of cooked fish after he rose from the dead (see Lk.24:36-43).

The organization of society in its political dynamics is a good, not an evil. Good often has evil intermingled with it, but in His saving activity, God purifies the good; He does not destroy it. In the life to come, all the good in God's creation will be purified. That world is not disconnected from this one. The good we receive and cultivate here will be found again on the other side of the grave.

The Second Vatican Council, in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) speaks of the relationship between our activity in this world and the world to come in the following words:

"We know neither the moment of the consummation of the earth and of man nor the way the universe will be transformed. The form of this world, distorted by sin, is passing away, and we are taught that God is preparing a new dwelling and a new earth in which righteousness dwells, whose happiness will fill and surpass all the desires of peace arising in the hearts of men. Then with death conquered the sons of God will be raised in Christ and what was sown in weakness and dishonor will put on the imperishable: charity and its works will remain and all of creation, which God made for man, will be set free from its bondage to decay.

"We have been warned, of course, that it profits man nothing if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself. Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come. That is why, although we must be careful to distinguish earthly progress clearly from the increase of the kingdom of Christ, such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God, insofar as it can contribute to the better ordering of human society.

"When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and our enterprise -- human dignity, brotherly communion, and freedom -- according to the command of the Lord and in his Spirit, we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom "of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace." Here on earth the kingdom is mysteriously present; when the Lord comes it will enter into its perfection" (GS 39).

Religion has sometimes been criticized for making people focus so much on the promise of the world to come that they neglect to develop and improve this world. But the passage above indicates that our belief in heaven is to make us all the more concerned with earth. The fact that we know human beings will live forever means we need to take better care of them now. The good we accomplish in the earthly society becomes, as it were, the building blocks of the world to come. It is all God's gift, brought to perfection at Christ's coming, and yet we have a real role to play in preparing that reality.

Religious life and spiritual life

This same document, Gaudium et Spes, laments the disconnection between faith and practical life. Some people do not adequately distinguish spiritual life from religious life. One's "religious life" consists in explicitly religious practices carried out at specific times -- such as one's Sunday worship or private devotions -- whereas one's "spiritual life" means one's relationship with God, and union with His will, at all times and places. To do one's work -- which for most people is not specifically religious -- is an opportunity for union with God if the work is done in accordance with His will. Every choice we make, in fact, either brings us closer to God or further away. There is no standing still in the spiritual life. We are called to do everything for the Lord and in the Lord.

In the first chapter of Isaiah, we see that God is quite upset with His people. Although He had prescribed for them the rituals and sacrifices, He says He is tired of them and wants them no more. In fact, He says He will no longer even hear their prayers. The problem, as the Lord then explains, is that the people have blood on their hands. They are busy worshipping God, but they are ignoring the injustice around them. God commands them to do something to stop it. It is not enough that they are carrying out their religious practices. Those very acts of worship are displeasing to God if they are not leading us to be more concerned about what is going on in this world.

Any religion, of any time or place, that allows us to ignore injustice and bloodshed, is not authentic religion and will not save us or anyone else. Our political responsibility flows from that fact.

Bishops' Pastoral Plan and other exhortations

The US Bishops' Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities (1985 Reaffirmation) contains, as an integral part of its structure, a section on public policy. The bishops state,

"Consistent with our nation's legal tradition, we hold that all human laws must ultimately be measured against the natural law engraved in our hearts by the Creator. A human law or policy contrary to this higher law, especially one which ignores or violates fundamental human rights, surrenders its claim to the respect and obedience of citizens while in no way lessening their obligation to uphold the moral law.

"This relationship between morality and law is highlighted in the case of abortion. The abortion decisions of the United States Supreme Court violate the moral order and have disrupted the legal process which previously attempted to safeguard the rights of unborn children.

"All in our society who are pledged to protect human rights through law have a moral responsibility to address this injustice by seeking the restoration of legal protection to the unborn. While at any given time human law may not fully articulate this moral imperative, our legal system can and must be continually reformed so that it increasingly fulfills its proper task of protecting the weak and preserving the right to life."

Every four years, when our nation faces a major national election, the Administrative Board of the United States Catholic Conference issues a statement on political responsibility. In their 1995 statement, Political Responsibility, the bishops declared, "In the Catholic tradition, citizenship is a virtue; participation in the political process is an obligation. We are not a sect fleeing the world, but a community of faith called to renew the earth." We are not in this world by accident. Nor are we here in order to leave it the way it is. We are here in the world to change the world for the better.

In their 1999 statement, the bishops reiterate this theme with the following words:

"Sometimes it seems few candidates and no party fully reflect our values. But now is not a time for retreat. The new millennium should be an opportunity for renewed participation. We must challenge all parties and every candidate to defend human life and dignity, to pursue greater justice and peace, to uphold family life, and to advance the common good" (Administrative Board, US Bishops, Faithful Citizenship, 1999, p.5).

"For Catholics, public virtue is as important as private virtue in building up the common good. In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue; participation in the political process is a moral obligation. Every believer is called to faithful citizenship, to become an informed, active, and responsible participant in the political process" (p.9).

Every vote counts

The bishops gathered for the Second Vatican Council explicitly taught, in the document Gaudium et Spes, that we have an obligation to vote.

Now if a priest tells you that you need to do something, you will presumably take that seriously. If a bishop tells you, you will take it even more seriously. What if a few thousand bishops tell you that you need to do something? That is the case here!

We don't tell you whom to vote for…We shouldn’t have to! Our job as ministers of the Gospel is to form people in the principles and to call forth their ability to evaluate the situation they face in each election.

Some people feel their vote does not count, does not make a difference. Let's ask a question. How many people do you suppose think that way? And how many people thinking that way is too many? If there are too many people thinking that way, the best thing you can do to start changing that is to not think that way yourself!

Another document which is central to these considerations is the US Bishops' 1998 statement Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics. The bishops exhort us, "We encourage all citizens, particularly Catholics, to embrace their citizenship not merely as a duty and privilege, but as an opportunity meaningfully to participate in building the culture of life. Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts. Every act of responsible citizenship is an exercise of significant individual power. We must exercise that power in ways that defend human life, especially those of God's children who are unborn, disabled or otherwise vulnerable" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 34).


II. Caesar Must Obey God

Scriptural basis

An important theme of Old Testament history is the way in which God’s people Israel related to the other nations surrounding them. The people of the covenant were not to follow the idolatrous practices of those nations. Israel, after all, had the benefit of God’s revealed law. The other nations did not.

One thing that the Israelites wanted to imitate, however, was the fact that other nations had a king. At one point they demanded of Samuel the prophet, "Give us a king!" Upon consulting the Lord, Samuel was told, "They have asked for a king---Give them a king." But God also gave this essential warning: both the people and their king have a king in heaven! The well-being of the entire nation depends on the obedience which both the king and his people give to the King of heaven. (See 1 Samuel 8:1-22 and 12:13-15.)

The Lord Jesus expressed the same theme in Matthew 22: 15-22. When asked whether taxes should be paid to Caesar, Jesus asked whose image and inscription was on the coin. "Caesar’s," came the answer. The Lord then said, "Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" (Mt. 22:21).

The coin belongs to Caesar, for it bears Caesar’s image. Human beings belong to God, for they bear God’s image! The implication of the passage is that "What belongs to God" includes Caesar himself! Caesar must obey God.

Separation of God and state

Both the passage from 1Samuel and from Matthew’s Gospel teach what the Second Vatican Council commented upon at length, namely, that separation of Church and state does not mean separation of God and state. If you separate the state from God, the State disintegrates. While the Church does not have a political mission, she nevertheless has a political responsibility: to bear witness to those moral truths without which the common good---which is the very purpose for which governments are instituted---cannot survive. These moral truths are basic and go beyond the bounds of any denominational beliefs. Because they are truths, they must shape public policy.

Not only do individuals have a duty to obey God, but so do governments.

Christians have a duty to be politically active, to register and vote, to lobby and educate candidates and elected officials, and to speak up about the issues that affect the common good. The Church does not set up the voting booths, but when we go into the voting booths, we don’t cease to be members of the Church! If we don’t shape public policy according to moral truths, why do we believe that moral truth at all?

Now is the time, now is the challenge. No longer are we to think of our religion as a purely "private matter." Christ taught in public and He was crucified in public. Now risen from the dead, He places us in the public arena, with the commission to make disciples of all nations (See Mt. 28:18-20). May we not fail Him or our nation.

"The Gospel of Life must be proclaimed, and human life defended, in all places and all times. The arena for moral responsibility includes not only the halls of government, but the voting booth as well. Laws that permit abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide are profoundly unjust, and we should work peacefully and tirelessly to oppose and change them. Because they are unjust they cannot bind citizens in conscience, be supported, acquiesced in, or recognized as valid" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 33).

"There seems to be some apprehension today that a close association between human activity and religion will endanger the autonomy of man, of organizations and of science. If by the autonomy of earthly affairs is meant the gradual discovery, exploitation, and ordering of the laws and values of matter and society, then the demand for autonomy is perfectly in order: it is at once the claim of modern man and the desire of the creator….However, if by the term 'the autonomy of earthly affairs' is meant that material being does not depend on God and that man can use it as if it had no relation to its creator, then the falsity of such a claim will be obvious to anyone who believes in God. Without a creator there can be no creature. In any case, believers, no matter what their religion, have always recognized the voice and the revelation of God in the language of creatures. Besides, once God is forgotten, the creature is lost sight of as well." (Gaudium et Spes, 65)

John Paul II has written in his Encyclical letter The Gospel of Life, "Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality. Fundamentally, democracy is a "system" and as such is a means and not an end. Its "moral" value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral law to which it, like every other form of human behavior, must be subject: in other words, its morality depends on the morality of the ends which it pursues and of the means which it employs. If today we see an almost universal consensus with regard to the value of democracy, this is to be considered a positive "sign of the times", as the Church's Magisterium has frequently noted. But the value of democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes. Of course, values such as the dignity of every human person, respect for inviolable and inalienable human rights, and the adoption of the "common good" as the end and criterion regulating political life are certainly fundamental and not to be ignored" (EV 70).

In other words, certain things need to be beyond the reach of the majority, precisely because they embody values that a society needs to survive, and that nobody has the right to ignore or shun. No majority can make what is wrong into something that is right.

This nation is an experiment in self-governance. Whether this experiment will succeed or fail depends on our faithfulness to this principle. People cannot govern themselves if they have lost the sense of what is right and what is wrong. We govern the country. If we exempt ourselves from that admittedly challenging process, then we are letting someone else govern us!

Some call our teaching on the right to life "divisive." Our country was founded on the recognition of certain basic moral principles, among which is that the right to life is unalienable, is bestowed by the Creator, and is to be protected by the government. The very greatness of America depends on her adherence to this truth. How, then, can one consider "divisive" the very principle on which our unity as a nation stands?

Some speak of "a pluralistic society." There are many forms of legitimate pluralism in our society: there are varieties of cultures, of art, of races, of schools of thought. Yet the very phrase "a pluralistic society" indicates that it is one. The word "pluralistic" here is modifying a singular noun. What holds this "pluralistic society" together, keeping it from becoming a disconnected chaos? There need to be certain basic, foundational principles to which everyone in the society adheres if it is to survive. The right to life is the first among them.

The confusion that exists regarding the relationship between religion, politics, and the right to life, is evident in the many discussions I have with those who perform abortions. When I begin talking to them about science, they talk to me about faith.

The pattern begins when I ask the question, "Does an abortion destroy a human life?" The answer I hear is, "I don't know when the child receives a soul." In one breath, the topic of discussion was an observable procedure from the perspective of verifiable science. In the next breath, the topic was spiritual and invisible: when do children receive souls?

This twist in the discussion is not limited to those who provide abortions. It also happens with many others who favor the availability of legal abortion. After all, they argue, since we have religious freedom in this country, people should be allowed to believe what they want about when the soul begins to exist. It would be wrong to impose by law one particular religious or theological position on this matter.

The truth is, however, that the pro-life movement does not seek to impose by law any religious or theological belief, whether about the soul or anything else. Such an effort is both misguided and unnecessary.

Suppose, for example, that I do not believe that you have a soul. Does that give me the right to kill you? No, it does not. Your life is still protected by the law, despite my beliefs. Does the law that protects your life require me to believe that you have a soul? No it does not. It doesn't even require me to believe that souls exist at all. What it requires is that whatever I believe, I refrain from taking your life. The law protects both the right to believe and the life of the believer.

That is what the pro-life movement wants. We are simply calling for the protection of all human beings.

If someone does not believe the child in the womb has a soul, that is his or her business. But to go on and say that because one doesn't believe that, it should be legal to kill the child, is equally as unjust as to say that because one doesn't believe you have a soul, it should be legal to kill you. The law doesn't care about the belief; it regulates the action.

The law's criterion for who receives protection should be the verifiable evidence of science, rather that the subjective criterion of religious belief. There is such a thing as religious truth. But whether a baby lives or dies should not depend on whether or not everyone in society has acknowledged that truth. Human life needs protection now. The freedom "not to believe" should never be confused with freedom to destroy others.

Church Teaches not only revealed truths

Religious freedom is a key value in American life, and a human right which the Church defends vigorously. This liberty means that religious beliefs should be embraced freely, not imposed by law. Yet one cannot legitimately invoke religious freedom in order to trample the rights of others. To invoke religious liberty to destroy another's life is an intolerable abuse. No religion would be allowed to have as part of its worship service a ritual that tortures and kills a child.

Religion does not only protect revealed truths; it also protects fundamental truths about the human person and society that transcend denominational differences. For example, a basic tenet of civilized society is that stealing is wrong. This is also a religious teaching, revealed to Moses in the Commandments and pronounced by our Lord. Yet nobody complains that laws against stealing are an imposition of religious beliefs by the state. Similarly with the right to life. many defend their "belief" in abortion under the rubric of religious freedom, and seek to relativize the "belief" of pro-life people that abortion is wrong or that life begins at conception. Yet to call for the equal protection of every life that is demonstrably human is not any more an imposition of "belief" than to call for the protection of everyone's possessions from stealing.

In an abortion-related argument, one US Senator once reasoned in words similar to these: "Some people believe life begins at conception, some believe life begins at birth and others believe life begins sometime in between. We should allow people in this country the freedom to hold their own beliefs, without government bodies imposing one or another philosophical or theological position."

I pointed out to the Senator, however, that he had forgotten a group of people, namely, those who believe life begins sometime after birth. Are we not to let them believe as they want, also? Certainly, we should. Yet that does not give them the right to kill the born.

The question here, again, is not whether we will permit beliefs, but rather, whether we will permit actions which destroy fundamental human rights. Laws protecting life actually protect one from the beliefs of those who refuse to recognize them as full members of the human community.

In another exchange on the Senate floor (NY Times, August 6, 1995), one pro-abortion senator remarked to a pro-life senator in response to a question about whether human life begins at conception, "One enters prayer when one comes to this decision…It might surprise the Senator to know that he is not my God."

So now a basic fact of science is subject to the conclusions one comes to in prayer! It is a wonder that those who conceived the first test-tube baby did not gather around the petri dish and have a prayer service! And what would happen if someone came back from his prayer time and told you he had just decided that you are not human!

The separation of Church and state is not the separation of God and state. Without God, the state itself collapses. Without responsibility to God, what is to prevent those in power from saying that whatever they think is right is right? No human law can make an act of violence right.

It is helpful to recall in this context that one of the reasons that God's people in the Old Testament were overtaken by their enemies was that the practice of child sacrifice was tolerated among them!

Political but not partisan: free to follow the Gospel

Believers are not second-class citizens. Just because people have convictions which flow from their faith does not mean they have less of a voice in the shaping of public policy. In fact, a primary purpose of the Church is precisely to influence the culture through advocacy of moral issues.

Churches are unique among § 501(c)(3) organizations in that their involvement in politics is inevitable due to the promulgation of a moral code by every major religion. As one commentator declared: "Religion and politics have been intertwined since the birth of our nation. In a democracy created to reflect the social fabric of its citizens, religious groups have always advocated moral positions to further or impede political causes and political campaigns" (Judy Ann Rosenblum).

The mission of the Church is a religious one. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, our Lord did not give the Church a mission in the political order. Yet this does not mean that the Church has nothing to say about political matters. The Church has much to say, precisely because of her religious mission. The Church is to be a source of vigor for us to establish the human community according to the law of God. The Church, in fact, is the breaking in of the Kingdom of God among us, though its fulfillment remains in the future.

The Church does not formulate policies; the Church gives witness to the truths of God with which policies should conform!

Those truths do not easily fit the categories of liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. All policies have to be evaluated according to how they touch the human person, how they affirm human life, human dignity, human rights, and the common good. When we speak of whether the Church has a political responsibility, we are not speaking about endorsing particular candidates, conducting partisan campaigns, or representing any party or platform. What we are doing instead is clarifying the mission of the Church, and applying the teachings of the Church about human life and behavior to the circumstances under which we organize ourselves as a society.

No party line perfectly conforms to the Gospel. We have to be free to follow the Gospel -- free not only in the sense that the law does not interfere with the Church's proclamation of the truth, but also free interiorly to be able to vote on principle rather than by party loyalty. The bishops' 1995 statement Political Responsibility states that we need to be political without being partisan, civil without being soft, involved without being used.

In the parishes, there are many things we are able to do, such as to educate candidates and voters, and conduct voter-registration drives. In short, we must be involved. Being religious people does not mean we don't get involved in these things.

The bishops speak about the freedom that Christians must have to profess their faith publicly and to make that faith the object of their highest allegiance:

"We get the public officials we deserve. Their virtue -- or lack thereof -- is a judgment not only on them, but on us. Because of this, we urge our fellow citizens to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest.." (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 34).

"One of our greatest blessings in the United States is our right and responsibility to participate in civic life. The Constitution protects the right of individuals and of religious bodies to speak out without governmental interference, endorsement, or sanction. It is increasingly apparent that major public issues have clear moral dimensions and that religious values have significant public consequences. Our nation is enriched and our tradition of pluralism enhanced when religious groups contribute to the debate over the policies that guide the nation" (Administrative Board, US Bishops, Faithful Citizenship, 1999, p.8).

"Catholics are called to be a community of conscience within the larger society and to test public life by the moral wisdom anchored in Scripture and consistent with the best of our nation's founding ideals. Our moral framework does not easily fit the categories of right or left, Democrat or Republican. Our responsibility is to measure every party and platform by how its agenda touches human life and dignity" (Administrative Board, US Bishops, Faithful Citizenship, 1999, p.8).

"Every Catholic is a missionary of the Good News of human dignity redeemed through the cross. While our personal vocation may determine the form and style of our witness, Jesus calls each of us to be a leaven in society, and we will be judged by our actions. No one, least of all someone who exercises leadership in society, can rightfully claim to share fully and practically the Catholic faith and yet act publicly in a way contrary to that faith" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 7).

"We believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a "Gospel of life."… We cannot simultaneously commit ourselves to human rights and progress while eliminating or marginalizing the weakest among us. Nor can we practice the Gospel of life only as a private piety. American Catholics must live it vigorously and publicly, as a matter of national leadership and witness, or we will not live it at all" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 20).

"American Catholics have long sought to assimilate into U.S. cultural life. But in assimilating, we have too often been digested. We have been changed by our culture too much, and we have changed it not enough. If we are leaven, we must bring to our culture the whole Gospel, which is a Gospel of life and joy. That is our vocation as believers. And there is no better place to start than promoting the beauty and sanctity of human life" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 25).

"Can't Legislate Morality"

Some declare that "you can't legislate morality." Let's look more closely at what that statement means.

If it means the law is not sufficient to make everyone morally responsible, that is certainly true. We need more than laws to make people good. Their hearts and minds need to be converted. Laws do have both a teaching and restraining function, however, that actually keep people within the bounds of moral behavior, even if unwillingly. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, the law can't make my brother love me, but it can keep him from lynching me.

If the phrase means the law is not the source of morality, that is also true. Morality comes not from law, but from the nature of the human person, which ultimately flows from the nature of God.

If the phrase means laws have nothing to do with morality, as if there is a total separation between one's "moral life" -- understood as private -- and one's "social life" -- as lived within the boundaries set by the human community, this is patently false. This is the idea that whatever a law says is OK is OK. In reality, however, majorities can be wrong. Furthermore, both morality and law deal with human behavior. Any time you legislate the boundaries of human behavior, you are legislating morality.

III. The right to Life is Fundamental

Declaration of Independence and purpose of Government

Aristotle wrote, "The state comes into existence that man may live."

The Declaration of Independence states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it…"

"Self-evident" means you don't have to prove it. You just say it, and it's obvious. According to this document, therefore, we should not have to "prove" that the right to life is possessed by every human being, prior to and independent of the decisions of anyone in government positions. The danger faced by a person who says, "I don't believe you are human" is that someone else can say it to them. How would one prove it? 

Life comes first among our rights. Freedom of choice is great if you have life. Destroy life, and you destroy liberty and the pursuit of happiness at the same time. To help us evaluate the hierarchy of issues, it helps to ask what a person still has if you take away the rights in question. Many are deprived of various rights but remain persons protected by the law. But when personhood and protection of the law are removed, no other rights stand either. In fact, the very reason we have other rights is that we have the right to life.

If our government becomes destructive of the purpose of securing the right to life, we the people must no longer consent to that. John Adams, Second President of the United States, declared, "You have rights antecedent to all earthy governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe."

What is the first responsibility of those in government? It is to recognize their place. They are guardians of rights which pre-exist them and the government itself. Some say the government should not be involved in the abortion decision. They do not realize how right they are. The government got "too involved" in the issue when it decided in Roe vs. Wade that it could deprive the unborn of their right to life. Now, the government's duty is to step back from that position by realizing that it does not have the authority to either bestow or take away the unalienable right to life. The goal here is not simply to have all abide by the norm. It is, rather, to recognize that the norm is beyond the power of a government to change. The right to life is not an issue that can be resolved temporarily, until some further threat to it comes along.

Government leaders, furthermore, must lead. While forging a consensus is a key part of political activity, there are some fundamental issues of justice that cannot wait for a consensus. When a segment of the human family is being put to death legally, the leaders cannot wait for enough people to agree that the victims should be protected.

The Declaration of Independence recognizes the existence of a higher law that that written by humans. This is the natural law. Oliver Wendell Holmes was a key influence in our law's departure from the recognition of natural law. He held that the norm was that which is "convenient" and "expedient for the community concerned."

The Holy Father and our bishops have commented on the responsibility and destiny of America in this regard:

"Every human person - no matter how vulnerable or helpless, no matter how young or how old, no matter how healthy, handicapped or sick, no matter how useful or productive for society - is a being of inestimable worth created in the image and likeness of God. This is the dignity of America, the reason she exists, the condition for her survival - yes, the ultimate test of her greatness: to respect every human person, especially the weakest and most defenseless ones, those as yet unborn." - Pope John Paul II at the Detroit Airport on 19 September, 1987

"As we tinker with the beginning, the end and even the intimate cell structure of life, we tinker with our own identity as a free nation dedicated to the dignity of the human person. When American political life becomes an experiment on people rather than for and by them, it will no longer be worth conducting. We are arguably moving closer to that day. Today, when the inviolable rights of the human person are proclaimed and the value of life publicly affirmed, the most basic human right, 'the right to life, is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death' (Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life [Evangelium Vitae], 18)" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 4).

"In a striking way, we see today a heightening of the tension between our nation's founding principles and political reality. We see this in diminishing respect for the inalienable right to life and in the elimination of legal protections for those who are most vulnerable. There can be no genuine justice in our society until the truths on which our nation was founded are more perfectly realized in our culture and law" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 14).

"Virtual reality and genetic science may give us the illusion of power, but we are not gods. We are not our own, or anyone else's, creator. Nor, for our own safety, should we ever seek to be. Even parents, entrusted with a special guardianship over new life, do not "own" their children any more than one adult can own another. And therein lies our only security. No one but the Creator is the sovereign of basic human rights -- beginning with the right to life" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 15).

Single Issue person

Begin speaking and acting against abortion, and it won't be long before you'll be called a "single-issue" person.

What the phrase means isn't exactly clear. Certainly, pro-lifers know that other "issues" besides abortion exist, and pro-lifers everywhere are in fact actively involved in addressing a host of other issues. But precisely why do "other issues" exist and what is their importance? Other issues exist because people exist. If there were no people, there would be no issues and nobody to discuss them. The bottom line, in other words, is life. Any issue is important because life is important. Why should we be concerned about unemployment? It is a concern because people have a right to make a living. Why do they have a right to make a living? Because they have a right to live! Why is poverty also an important issue? It is important because people have a right to food, clothing and shelter. Why do they have a right to these things? Because they have a right to live! It all comes down to life. That's why abortion is the key issue. Deny that a person has the right to live, and you undercut the importance of every other issue. It is impossible to coherently speak up about any issue impacting human life if you are allowing the life itself to become a disposable item. Abortion is more than abortion.

The fact that abortion is a non-issue for many people is what makes the ‘single-issue’ accusation so misplaced. It adds insult to the injury already inflicted upon the children (a fatal injury) and their mothers. "Why don't you take care of people already born?" we are asked. Our response is, "Why are you making the distinction in the first place? We speak more often of the pre-born precisely because we are trying to undo the unfair distinction made between them and the born. The pre-born have equal rights with the born, and we demand that those rights be respected in the same way." To accuse pro-lifers of not having concern for the born is as unfair as accusing prison chaplains of not having concern for those who are free, or helpers of the blind of not having concern for those who see! Having a universal concern for human rights never excludes a person from having a specific focus on one group of people in need.

The pre-born, furthermore, are most in need. Is any other group of people killed at the alarming rate of 4400 a day, at set times and places, accompanied by the indifference of so many and by the efforts of others to make it seem so legitimate? These deaths are not accidents; these deaths are authorized by the government. Is there really another issue gushing forth such contempt of human lives, or another group of human lives so unable to defend themselves? What would happen if tomorrow a policy were announced whereby 14 year olds could be put to death at the discretion of their mothers? Would the policy last until sunset? Wouldn’t people rise up in revolt? Then suppose those who had set the policy said, "0K. We're sorry... That was a bad policy. We will push it back seven years. Only 7-year olds may be put to death, at the discretion of their mothers." Would that policy be any different? Would it be any better? Then suppose the policy-makers said, "OK. We were wrong again. This time we'll push the age back another seven years. Boys and girls in the womb may be killed at the discretion of their mothers." The first two cases were fantasy, but now--welcome to reality. Here's the key question: Is this policy any different, any better? No; yet where is the outcry? Why do those who do cry out get accused of being "single-issue" people? Have we somehow believed the lie that abortion is morally better than killing a 7-year-old? If 7-year olds were systematically, legally, killed, would those who speak up be called "single issue" people?

Because of the prayerful action of pro-lifers, many children have been saved from abortion. Ask those children if they think that being saved from abortion is a "single issue." No, for each of them it is every issue; it is life itself. For us, it is every issue regarding that child and everything that will ever touch his/her life. The child lives. The issue is his/her every need, blessing, mission, interaction, and contribution to this world! The issue is no less than the living image of God Himself. Yes, in the end there is only one issue. The issue is life. And ultimately, life defended and affirmed is identical with that single issue called love.

Archbishop Eusebius Beltran wrote the following words, which were published in The Sooner Catholic in 1994: "Several years ago, I remember being criticized for urging people to vote pro-life. I was accused of being a "single issue voter." On reflection, that's not a bad designation. If one issue is big enough and important enough and capable of overshadowing other issues, then it should be addressed. If one issue is so fundamental that it affects every other issue, then it should be given prominence. If one issue perpetrates a grave injustice to anyone, then it has to be stopped. If one issue is a matter of life or death, then life has to be chosen. The one issue that is reflected in each of these situations is abortion. Therefore I am proud to be called a "single issue voter" in this regard for there is no other issue as basic, as fundamental and as urgent."

Consistent Ethic of Life

Because my ministry is focused on abortion, I am sometimes asked whether I believe in the consistent ethic of life. But consistency is not just something we "believe" in; it is something we are all obliged to! Consistency demands that we recognize the sanctity of the human person, whoever and wherever that person may be, and whatever evil is threatening that dignity.

So the answer to the question is a resounding Yes!

The "consistent ethic of life" is a critically important but widely misunderstood teaching. Though he did not invent it, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago was the most visible proponent of this teaching, often popularly referred to as the "seamless garment" philosophy.

Cardinal Bernardin began his public reflections on this theme in the context of the work he did on the US Bishops' pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace, and of his position as Chairman of the Pro-life Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He saw that in order to effectively articulate the Christian response to a wide range of menacing threats to human life, brought about by a new kind of interconnection between the forces of destruction made possible by modern technologies, it was necessary to highlight the interconnection of the many and varied efforts to defend human life. He noted that progress in the defense and protection of life in one arena meant progress for the defense of life in all arenas.

Some object to the idea of the consistent ethic because they interpret "consistency" to mean "of equal importance or urgency." That is a common misunderstanding of the teaching; that is not what it means. What links the many issues of human life is that such life is sacred: it comes from God, it belongs to God, it returns to God. All human beings have equal dignity, and nobody may ever directly destroy the innocent. These principles apply whether we are talking about abortion, capital punishment, war, poverty, drug abuse, street violence, or any other of the multitude of problems we face in society.

But that does not mean that these issues are morally equivalent. Each issue, along with the overall principles which we have already stated, has its own particular principles and moral considerations which need to be brought into the discussions whenever one treats of that particular issue. These particularities could conceivably result in divergent opinions about what specific policies should be implemented, while at the same time those who disagree acknowledge the same essential principles.

Nor do all of these issues constitute an emergency of equal gravity and urgency. Some do more damage and claim more victims than others.

We need to understand the consistent ethic of life in the context of what the United States bishops have said about it on more than one occasion. In the 1985 Reaffirmation of the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, the bishops wrote, "Because victims of abortion are the most vulnerable and defenseless members of the human family, it is imperative that we, as Christians called to serve the least among us, give urgent attention and priority to this issue of justice….This focus and the Church's firm commitment to a consistent ethic of life complement each other. A consistent ethic, far from diminishing concern for abortion or equating all issues touching on the dignity of human life, recognizes the distinctive character of each issue while giving each its proper role within a coherent moral vision"(p.3-4).

Furthermore, in their 1989 Resolution on Abortion, the bishops declared, "Abortion has become the fundamental human rights issue for all men and women of good will."

The fundamental nature of the abortion tragedy was again stressed in the Bishops' 1998 document, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics: "Respect for the dignity of the human person demands a commitment to human rights across a broad spectrum…Yet abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others. They are committed against those who are weakest and most defenseless, those who are genuinely 'the poorest of the poor'" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 5).

"Bringing a respect for human dignity to practical politics can be a daunting task. There is such a wide spectrum of issues involving the protection of human life and the promotion of human dignity. Good people frequently disagree on which problems to address, which policies to adopt and how best to apply them. But for citizens and elected officials alike, the basic principle is simple: We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate that life may seem. In other words, the choice of certain ways of acting is always and radically incompatible with the love of God and the dignity of the human person created in His image. Direct abortion is never a morally tolerable option" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 21).

"Adopting a consistent ethic of life, the Catholic Church promotes a broad spectrum of issues…. Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these areas. Catholic public officials are obliged to address each of these issues as they seek to build consistent policies which promote respect for the human person at all stages of life. But being 'right' in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 23).

In their 1999 statement "Faithful Citizenship," the Administrative Committee of the USCC stated, "We are convinced that a consistent ethic of life should be the moral framework from which to address all issues in the political arena." The consistent ethic acknowledges that human dignity is threatened by many things in our society, and that while individual issues are unique, they are interrelated to the point where progress on one front affects progress on all fronts. The statement "Faithful Citizenship" outlines the moral framework of the Church's approach to society, and some of the key questions that need to be asked as we face another election. Some of its other pertinent quotes follow:

"Catholic teaching offers a consistent set of moral principles for assessing issues, platforms, and campaigns. Because of our faith in Jesus Christ, we start with the dignity of the human person. Our teaching calls us to protect human life from conception to natural death, to defend the poor and vulnerable, and to work toward a more just society and a more peaceful world" (Administrative Board, US Bishops, Faithful Citizenship, 1999, p.11).

"Every human person is created in the image and likeness of God. The conviction that human life is sacred and that each person has inherent dignity that must be respected in society lies at the heart of Catholic social teaching. Calls to advance human rights are illusions if the right to life itself is subject to attack. We believe that every human life is sacred from conception to natural death; that people are more important than things; and that the measure of every institution is whether or not it enhances the life and dignity of the human person" (Administrative Board, US Bishops, Faithful Citizenship, 1999, p.13).

"Because every human person is created in the image and likeness of God, we have a duty to defend human life in all its stages and in every condition. Our world does not lack for threats to human life. We watch with horror the deadly violence of war, genocide and massive starvation in other lands, and children dying from lack of adequate health care. Yet as we wrote in our 1998 statement, Living the Gospel of Life, "Abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human life and dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental good and the condition for all others." Abortion, the deliberate killing of a human being before birth, is never morally acceptable" (Administrative Board, US Bishops, Faithful Citizenship, 1999, p.16).

"Faithful Citizenship" is the latest in a line of statements on political responsibility issued every four years since the mid-1970's. In 1984, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the most well-known spokesperson regarding the consistent ethic of life, had this to say about the role of such statements: "The purpose is surely not to tell citizens how to vote, but to help shape the public debate and form personal conscience so that every citizen will vote thoughtfully and responsibly. Our "Statement on Political Responsibility" has always been, like our "Respect Life Program," a multi-issue approach to public morality. The fact that this Statement sets forth a spectrum of issues of current concern to the Church and society should not be understood as implying that all issues are qualitatively equal from a moral perspective…As I indicated earlier, each of the life issues—while related to all the others—is distinct and calls for its own specific moral analysis. Both the Statement and the Respect Life program have direct relevance to the political order, but they are applied concretely by the choice of citizens. This is as it should be. In the political order the Church is primarily a teacher; it possesses a carefully cultivated tradition of moral analysis of personal and public issues. It makes that tradition available in a special manner for the community of the Church, but it offers it also to all who find meaning and guidance in its moral teaching" (A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue, The William Wade Lecture Series, St. Louis University, March 11, 1984).

Notice that the Cardinal stated that not all issues are qualitatively equal from a moral perspective. A consistent ethic recognizes that there is justification for placing priority emphasis on certain issues at certain times. To ignore the priority attention that the problems of abortion and euthanasia demand is to misunderstand both the consistent ethic and the nature of the threats that these evils pose. To again quote Cardinal Bernardin, "A consistent ethic of life does not equate the problem of taking life (e.g., through abortion and in war) with the problem of promoting human dignity (through humane programs of nutrition, health care, and housing). But a consistent ethic identifies both the protection of life and its promotion as moral questions" (Wade lecture, as above). "The fundamental human right is to life—from the moment of conception until death. It is the source of all other rights, including the right to health care" (The Consistent Ethic of Life and Health Care Systems, Foster McGaw Triennial Conference, Loyola University of Chicago, May 8, 1985).

On Respect Life Sunday, 1 October 1989, Cardinal Bernardin issued a statement entitled "Deciding for Life," in which he said, "Not all values, however, are of equal weight. Some are more fundamental than others. On this Respect Life Sunday, I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life itself. Human life is the condition for enjoying freedom and all other values. Consequently, if one must choose between protecting or serving lesser human values that depend upon life for their existence and life itself, human life must take precedence. Today the recognition of human life as a fundamental value is threatened. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of elective abortion. At present in our country this procedure takes the lives of over 4,000 unborn children every day and over 1.5 million each year."

The Cardinal was also clear in his teaching that having a consistent ethic certainly cannot mean that every group must try to do something about every issue that impacts on human life. Such an approach is simply impossible. What it does mean, however, is that in the marvelous unity of the Body of Christ, each part does the work assigned to it, while rejoicing in and affirming the work of all the other parts.

Further quotes of Cardinal Bernardin follow:

"Some of the responses I have received on the Fordham address correctly say that abortion and capital punishment are not identical issues. The principle which protects innocent life distinguishes the unborn child from the convicted murderer.

Other letters stress that while nuclear war is a threat to life, abortion involves the actual taking of life, here and now. I accept both of these distinctions, of course, but I also find compelling the need to relate the cases while keeping them in distinct categories" (A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue, The William Wade Lecture Series, St. Louis University, March 11, 1984).

"Surely we can all agree that the taking of human life in abortion is not the same as failing to protect human dignity against hunger. But having made that distinction, let us not fail to make the point that both are moral issues requiring a response of the Catholic community and of our society as a whole.

"The logic of a consistent ethic is to press the moral meaning of both issues. The consequences of a consistent ethic is to bring under review the position of every group in the Church which sees the moral meaning in one place but not the other. The ethic cuts two ways, not one: It challenges prolife groups, and it challenges justice and peace groups. The meaning of a consistent ethic is to say in the Catholic community that our moral tradition calls us beyond the split so evident in the wider society between moral witness to life before and after birth.

"The taking of life presents itself as a moral problem all along the spectrum of life, but there are distinguishing characteristics between abortion and war, as well as elements which radically differentiate war from decisions made about care of a terminally ill patient. The differences among these cases are universally acknowledged; a consistent ethic seeks to highlight the fact the differences do not destroy the elements of a common moral challenge.

"In essence the consistent ethic is a moral argument, and, therefore, its principles and perspective must be constantly measured and tested. The consistent ethic rejects collapsing all issues into one, and it rejects isolating our moral vision and insulating our social concern on one issue" (Address at Seattle University, March 2, 1986).

Additional quotes:

"We are now witnessing the gradual restructuring of American culture according to ideals of utility, productivity and cost-effectiveness. It is a culture where moral questions are submerged by a river of goods and services and where the misuse of marketing and public relations subverts public life…The losers in this ethical sea change will be those who are elderly, poor, disabled and politically marginalized. None of these pass the utility test; and yet, they at least have a presence. They at least have the possibility of organizing to be heard. Those who are unborn, infirm and terminally ill have no such advantage. They have no "utility," and worse, they have no voice" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 3-4).

"If we understand the human person as the "temple of the Holy Spirit" -- the living house of God -- then these latter issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house's foundation. These directly and immediately violate the human person's most fundamental right the right to life. Neglect of these issues is the equivalent of building our house on sand. Such attacks cannot help but lull the social conscience in ways ultimately destructive of other human rights. As Pope John Paul II reminds us, the command never to kill establishes a minimum which we must respect and from which we must start out "in order to say 'yes' over and over again, a 'yes' which will gradually embrace the entire horizon of the good" (Evangelium Vitae, 75)" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 23).

"The inviolability of the person, which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights -- for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture -- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition of all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination . . . " (John Paul II, The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World, n. 38)

Sierra Club vs. Morton

The 14th amendment to the Constitution states in part, "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The fact that the law does not protect children in the womb from abortion is rooted in the words of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, "the word person as used in the Fourteenth Amendment does not include the unborn."

What is less widely known is the decision handed down eight months before Roe vs. Wade, in which personhood was also discussed in relation to protecting the environment. In the decision, Sierra Club vs. Morton, Justice Douglas gave argued in the following words:

The ordinary corporation is a "person" for purposes of the adjudicatory process….So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life…With all respect, the problem is to make certain that the inanimate objects, which are the very core of America's beauty, have spokesmen before they are destroyed….The voice of the inanimate object, therefore, should not be stilled….That is why these environmental issues should be tendered by the inanimate object itself. Then there will be assurances that all of the forms of life which it represents will stand before the court -- the pileated wookpecker as well as the coyote and bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the streams. Those inarticulate members of the ecological group cannot speak….

Eight months later, he ruled with the majority in Roe vs. Wade that "the word person …does not include the unborn."

There is a stunning arbitrariness to this decision, and a stunning implication about the power of the government. To support Roe vs. Wade is not merely to allow the existence of the most common surgical procedure in America. It is to acknowledge that the government has the power to say who is a person and who is not. And if the government is to have that say, then who is to limit the groups to whom it is applied?

This is one of the facts that makes the controversy over abortion fundamentally different from other political controversies. There are many injustices in society, and many bad policies which are inconsistent with the human dignity of the victims. But abortion is the only instance in which the victims have been legally defined out of existence; they are legally annihilated before they are physically annihilated. This is why the bishops have called Roe vs. Wade a "poison" in our national life (see Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 9).

Supporters of Roe vs. Wade can ask, "Could the government ever declare my teenage daughter to be a non-person? Could it ever say I am not a person?" If the answer is no, then such a person has not understood the full implication of Roe vs. Wade.

Such supporters say the government "should not be involved it the abortion decision." How true! In fact, the government got too involved in it when, in 1973, it presumed to have the power to deprive some of the right to live! The government should indeed back away from the abortion decision by recognizing that it does not have the power to permit the lives of the innocent to be taken.

Those who govern are to govern all the people. All includes the smallest and weakest, the persons yet unborn.

Disqualifying Issues

Now suppose your choices in an election aren't that great. One helpful question to ask is, "How fundamental is the issue on which the candidate is off-base? Does the candidate embrace any disqualifying positions?" Such positions are those that are so fundamentally wrong that nothing else they do can make up for it.

Some disagreements with candidates are legitimate; others are not. Some positions are so fundamentally wrong that they should be beyond the realm of the optional. Should someone who would permit race riots have responsibility for the human community? Should a candidate who would say that he thinks shootings in schools are OK be permitted to make any decisions regarding public policy?

Abortion is an act of violence, and the approval of it on the part of a candidate should raise the same concerns regarding whether such a person is qualified for public office.

We sometimes see pro-abortion public officials speaking up for animal rights. It is as though they have to do something to soothe their conscience, which tells them they have to protect the vulnerable.

When we try to figure out whether we should vote for a given candidate, we need to look at that person's character. We know what issues that person has to deal with today, but we do not know what issues he may confront during the years of his public term of office. What gives us any idea as to how he may respond to issues arising in the future? Signs of moral character are helpful measures. And one's position regarding violence against innocent babies is a pretty good signal of one's moral judgment and conscience. As someone once said to me, "Father, if those elected officials can’t respect the life of a little baby, how are they supposed to respect mine?"

Another question is, "Can I make a bad situation a little bit better?" When we vote for a candidate, we are not casting a simple up and down vote on an issue. The candidate needs to be right on the fundamentals (such as the right to life itself), but sometimes the candidate with whom we agree the most does not have a realistic likelihood to win. (It is true that we need to create such a likelihood, but this is more realistically done in a period of years before an election rather than months or weeks before.)

May we vote for one who, free of disqualifying faults, is better than the alternative even if not right on everything? Of course. This is not choosing "the lesser of two evils" (because we may never choose any evil). Rather, this is a case of choosing good even if evil is mixed in (as it usually is in this world). I may vote someone into office who offers hope of improving the current situation as much as possible.


Personally opposed but…

Public officials sometimes claim that they are opposed to certain moral evils personally, but cannot express that opposition publicly or bring it to bear on public policies. It is true that not every moral norm can or should be translated into a civil law. It is also true, however, that the defense of fundamental human rights -- the most fundamental being the right to life -- is an obligation that public officials are not free to push aside, no matter how difficult it may be to secure protection of those rights. This is precisely one of the key challenges of public service and leadership.

"Some Catholic elected officials have adopted the argument that, while they personally oppose evils like abortion, they cannot force their religious views onto the wider society. This is seriously mistaken on several key counts. First, regarding abortion, the point when human life begins is not a religious belief but a scientific fact -- a fact on which there is clear agreement even among leading abortion advocates. Second, the sanctity of human life is not merely Catholic doctrine but part of humanity's global ethical heritage, and our nation's founding principle. Finally, democracy is not served by silence. Most Americans would recognize the contradiction in the statement, "While I am personally opposed to slavery or racism or sexism I cannot force my personal view on the rest of society." Real pluralism depends on people of conviction struggling vigorously to advance their beliefs by every ethical and legal means at their disposal" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 24).

"As chief teachers in the Church, we must therefore explain, persuade, correct and admonish those in leadership positions who contradict the Gospel of life through their actions and policies. Catholic public officials who disregard Church teaching on the inviolability of the human person indirectly collude in the taking of innocent life" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 29).

"Catholics who are privileged to serve in public leadership positions have an obligation to place their faith at the heart of their public service, particularly on issues regarding the sanctity and dignity of human life. Thomas More, the former chancellor of England who preferred to give his life rather than betray his Catholic convictions, went to his execution with the words, 'I die the king's good servant, but God's first'" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 31).

"In an age of artifice, many voters are hungry for substance. They admire and support political figures who speak out sincerely for their moral convictions. For our part we commend Catholic and other public officials who, with courage and determination, use their positions of leadership to promote respect for all human life" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 31).

"We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin. We call on them 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 teaching. No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 32).

"No appeal to policy, procedure, majority will or pluralism ever excuses a public official from defending life to the greatest extent possible. As is true of leaders in all walks of life, no political leader can evade accountability for his or her exercise of power (Evangelium Vitae, 73-4). 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'" (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 32).


"All mankind is grass, and all their glory like the flower of the field; the grass withers, the flower wilts…but the word of our God stands forever" (Isaiah 40:7-8).

The Christian is called to live and work in such a way that the kingdom of this world may be more like the Kingdom of God. Yet the Christian does not put his ultimate trust in human beings or in political processes. His trust is in God.

Nations rise and nations fall. The kingdoms of this earth are a blink of the eye in the perspective of eternity.

Yet again, what we do in that "blink" has eternal consequences.

The battle for life is too fundamental to be ignored. In the end, God will have His way; His will shall be fulfilled and the victory of life will be fully manifest. Our task is to labor so that as many people and nations as possible will be on the right side of the victory when it does unfold, and that there will be as few casualties as possible in the meantime.

If, in the passing winds and waves of time, some battles in this monumental effort are lost, we do not cease to labor on. The battle of life is such that if lost, it must be fought again. And if some battles are successful, we are to keep ever vigilant, for our trust is not in human beings or the things of this world. If human life has been attacked in the past, it will be attacked in new ways in the future. May we be faithful to the task of proclaiming, celebrating, and serving the Gospel of Life until the Lord returns!


"So be it, Lord, Thy Throne shall never

Like Earth's proud Empires, pass away;

Thy Kingdom stands, and grows Forever,

Till all Thy Creatures own Thy sway."

Priests for Life
PO Box 236695 • Cocoa, FL 32923
Tel. 321-500-1000, Toll Free 888-735-3448 • Email: