Addressing Abortion with Confidence

A Message for Clergy

Padres, Debemos Enfrentarnos a Nuestros Temores sobre el Aborto

Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director, Priests for Life
Publication Date: June 14, 1999

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Since 1991, Priests for Life has worked closely with clergy around the world to assist them to address the abortion problem. Based on our extensive contact with priests through our seminars and individual consultations, and informed by the professional survey of priests that we commissioned in 2000, we offer the following reflections on some of the most common fears and hesitations that clergy have about addressing abortion. We hope these reflections will renew your confidence in addressing this most pressing moral problem.

1. Do I see the issue as too emotional and sensitive? Many aspects of abortion are very sensitive. That means they have to be dealt with in a sensitive way; it does not mean they should be ignored. The impact of abortion on the lives of our people -- physically, spiritually, and emotionally -- is all the more reason for a shepherd to pay attention to these wounds, and to help people avoid them in the first place. Ministry necessarily involves confronting problems that provoke emotions within us and among our people. In this case, ministry regarding abortion involves nothing less than life and death.

2. Am I afraid I won't be loved? Sometimes our fear about addressing abortion, or other controversial issues, is as simple as that -- and as profound. A strong relationship with Christ, who is the source of all love, and a conviction that fidelity to Him is the foundation for love between human beings, is a key remedy for this fear. Moreover, fidelity to our mission of proclaiming the Gospel -- especially when that means taking on hard issues -- is what will earn us the love and respect of those we serve. To the extent that we are disliked for what we say about abortion, we might ask whether efforts to save the life of a child are worth that sacrifice. The answer is self-evident.

3. Am I afraid of being perceived as "right wing," "fanatical," "traditionalist," or out of step with my people? Unfortunately, some use these labels to describe the pro-life movement. Yet we were not ordained to belong to any one "faction" of the Church, but rather to faithfully articulate the Church's teachings, among the most fundamental of which is the right to life. That teaching should find expression at each and every point along the spectrum of legitimate theological pluralism in the Church. No person or group in the Church is exempt from the privileged duty to defend life, nor does any group within the Church have a monopoly on the defense of life.

An important aspect of our leadership, in other words, is to re-frame the issue. There should not be a gap between 'social justice' concerns and 'right to life' concerns. The starting point and heart of 'social justice' is the dignity of the human person. Surveys, moreover, show that the people to whom we minister are much more in step with the position of the Church on life issues than with the positions of pro-abortion groups.

4. Am I afraid I may alienate some of my Parishioners? We do not want to unnecessarily offend or alienate anyone from the parish. We are reconcilers. At the same time, the One to whom we reconcile the people is God. To have the people coming to the parish is one aspect of our mission; another aspect is to make sure that when they come they hear the full message of God through His Church. This is not a favor to them; they have a right, in strict justice, to hear the full truth of Church teaching. Our experience through Priests for Life is that people throughout the nation appreciate hearing clear teaching from the pulpit about abortion. Yet to believe we can do this faithfully and at the same time never alienate anyone is to ignore the fact that even Christ Himself alienated some people (see, for example, the conclusion of His Eucharistic discourse in John 6). Can we do better than He did? Such alienation is not intentional on our part, but is, in some cases, inevitable. This is so because of the mystery of freedom. Some people have alienated themselves from the truth about abortion. If, then, we faithfully expose that truth, they may choose to alienate themselves from us, too. This is not the same as "driving them away," which is a situation in which we provide the cause of alienation by our carelessness or unkindness.

5. Am I afraid of "dividing my Parish"? Every parish is already "divided," with people on different sides of the abortion issue. If we never speak of the issue, we may cover over the division for a while, but that is not the same thing as unity. Unity is founded on truth, and is fostered by a clear exposition of truth. "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to Myself" (Jn.12:32). We do not build unity by our own human plans, efforts, and programs. We build it by lifting up Christ for all to see and hear. We build it by proclaiming His Word, without ambiguity or apology. Sure, there will be some division for the same reason that there will be some alienation. But the Word itself causes that. "I have come for division" (Luke 12:51). It is the division between truth and error, grace and sin, life and death. This division must come before unity is possible; otherwise the unity will be superficial and illusory.

6. Am I afraid of being a "single-issue" priest? As priests, we necessarily address a multitude of issues, and are to be committed to a consistent ethic of life. Numerically, abortion is one issue; but it is one issue like the foundation of a house is one part of the house. There is a hierarchy of moral values, and according to numerous documents of the Church, the dignity of life is the fundamental one. The reason why every other issue is an issue to begin with is that human beings have a right to life. We do not, therefore, address abortion because we are unconcerned about other issues, but precisely because we are concerned about them, and realize that we cannot make progress on them unless the foundation itself is secure.

7. Do I see the "consistent ethic of life" incompatible with a focus on abortion? The 1985 Reaffirmation of the US Bishops' Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities states, "Focus on abortion and the Church's firm commitment to a consistent ethic of life complement each other." Cardinal Joseph Bernardin made this point clearly in his speeches. "The fundamental human right is to life—from the moment of conception until death. It is the source of all other rights" (The Consistent Ethic of Life and Health Care Systems, Foster McGaw Triennial Conference, Loyola University of Chicago, May 8, 1985).

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8. Do I believe there are simply too many issues to address to allow me to focus on abortion? The fact that we have to address innumerable problems puts us in the same position in regard to all of them. We judge which ones to devote more time to depending on their urgency. Which do the most harm to the human family? Which provide the greatest threat to the spiritual well-being of our people? How does the Church's preferential option for the poor and weak inform each specific issue? Abortion, which claims more victims than any other act of violence, and whose victims are the weakest and most defenseless, ranks quite high in the answers to these and similar questions.

9. Am I just too busy to get more involved? Much of what we are called to do for pro-life does not take more time. Rather, it takes more spirit. It doesn't take any extra time to preach on abortion than to preach on any other topic. It doesn't take any more time to put a pro-life announcement in the bulletin than it does to put in any other kind of announcement. It doesn't take any more time to let a pro-life group know they have your encouragement than to let any other group know that. Beyond this, we can reflect that innocent life is at stake. If we would take time to try to save a child who was struck by a car on the road near our Church, can we not also take time to do something about 4000 children being deliberately torn limb from limb every day? All our time is God's anyway. Let's use more of it to save His children!

10. Will I increase the sense of guilt and pain of women who have had abortions? An understanding of the dynamics of post-abortion women and men is extremely helpful in dealing with this fear. Many priests are silent out of the best of good intentions towards such people in their congregation. Silence, however, does not interpret itself. The person in the pews hurting from abortion may interpret our silence to mean, "He doesn't know my pain," or, "He doesn't care about it," or, "There is no hope." Experts in post-abortion healing tell us that in order for those who have had abortions to find healing, it is absolutely essential that they "stop using the mechanisms of defense, such as denial, self-repression, and rationalization of abortion" (Dr. Philip Mango, "The Consequences of Abortion and Their Treatment," August 1990). It is not silence that helps one break out of denial, but rather an honest and compassionate word about the reality of what they have done. We preach on abortion to save post-abortive people, and to protect others from making the same mistake. After one homily I gave on abortion, a post-abortive woman said, "Father, it often hurts when I hear about abortion, but please keep preaching about it, because it is so consoling to know that by your words, someone else might be spared all the pain I have gone through."

11. Do I simply feel inadequate to the task of addressing abortion? Our confidence will increase as we become more informed about the issue, speak with other priests who are active in the movement, pray, and practice. There is sometimes a fear that we will give the issue the wrong emphasis ("coming down too hard," "fostering guilt," "sounding uncaring"). We can counteract this by always mentioning the help available to women in need, and the peace and forgiveness Christ offers through His Church.

12. Do I feel I have no right to address this issue, because I am a man, and celibate at that? The taking of a human life is a human issue, and addressing its injustice requires no qualifications other than being a decent human being. The "abortion-rights" community certainly has no complaints about men -- married or single -- speaking out in favor of abortion; nor should the pro-life community have any fear about men speaking out against it.

13. Do I believe abortion is too complex to be addressed in the homily? Abortion is psychologically complex, but morally it is quite straightforward: abortion is a direct killing of an innocent person, and is therefore always wrong. Nothing can justify it. It is not "too complex" to denounce killing in a homily, to point out injustice toward the most defenseless members of society, to proclaim that there is help available for pregnant women, and that there are better choices than abortion. This is no more complex than addressing racism, poverty, warfare, or drug abuse.

14. Is it the complexity of a large and varied congregation that deters me from addressing abortion? Any good public speaker knows that a primary rule is "Know your audience." A Sunday congregation is a varied audience, in terms of age, education, and spiritual maturity. The problem of addressing such a group is not limited to abortion. For any subject, we must exercise sensitivity and prudence. Outside the Church, our parishioners are constantly hearing messages that contradict historic Christian teaching on faith and morals. Our challenge is to provide them with truth that will counteract the confusing messages they hear elsewhere. It is unrealistic to think that every person will immediately understand everything we say. People will also differ in their estimation about what is "appropriate", and there will always be some criticism. We must live with that. We should make it clear that we are always open to speak with people privately if questions or misunderstandings arise due to our preaching. Using prudence, we must at the same time ask, "If they don't hear the truth from us, exactly where and when will they hear it?" If we are silent, we allow those who are intent on covering up the truth about how terrible abortion is, to have the first, last, and only word with people whom we are responsible to shepherd.

15. Do I have trouble relating abortion to Scripture? If Scripture does not teach the immorality of abortion, it does not teach anything at all. A particular word like "abortion" does not have to appear in the text of Scripture in order for Scripture to teach about it. The word "Trinity," for example, is not anywhere in the Bible, but the teaching is. Abortion is the killing of an innocent, human child. The teaching on abortion is contained in the numerous condemnations of the shedding of innocent blood, and the numerous instructions about justice and charity, especially toward the weak, the small, the helpless, and those whom society rejects. Numerous texts exist, but beyond this are the entire themes and directions in which Scripture moves. The people of the old and new covenants are called to be a holy people, a community bound to God and one another in love. This happens because God takes the initiative not only in giving life but also in intervening to save the helpless. Such are central events of both the Old and the New Testaments. Abortion belongs to a totally contradictory dynamic of thought and life: It excludes members of the community and destroys rather than defends the helpless. (Priests for Life provides specific materials on relating the abortion issue to Scripture, including sample homilies. Write to request them.)

16. Am I afraid that in addressing abortion I am allowing a "personal agenda" to intrude into the liturgy? If defending innocent children from death and reaching out in practical charity to help pregnant women in need is simply a "personal agenda," then what is the Church's agenda? Can it possibly not include this? Scripture makes it clear that liturgy which ignores the demands of justice is not true worship (see Isaiah 1).

17. Do I need more resources? There is an abundance of material that Priests for Life can provide for you, and if we don't have it we will point you to those who do.

18. Am I disillusioned by the lack of support I have in addressing abortion? We may not be feeling the encouragement we need from our fellow priests, our people, or our Church authorities. With reference to brother priests, this encouragement in standing up for life is one of the benefits Priests for Life is meant to provide. A local chapter in your diocese, or contact with other members, can help. Our regular newslette highlight what other priests are doing in the pro-life arena. There are also other priests' movements that strengthen us in various aspects of our ministry. In regard to our congregations, the encouragement is certainly there. Take a strong stand on life and that encouragement will grow. Complaints will also come, but it is not the complainers who have to answer to God for what is preached or not preached in the pulpit! In regard to our bishops and religious superiors, we need to heed Scripture's advice to pray for them, and if some are not encouraging us regarding the life issues, we should kindly but firmly request that they do.

19. Am I "turned off" by the eccentricity of some pro-lifers? There are "eccentrics" in every movement. The pro-life movement, being the largest grassroots movement in the history of the United States, is no different. The pro-life movement, however, more fully reflects the rich diversity of American society than the pro-abortion movement does.

A key role of the priest is to foster the gifts of the laity, encouraging them to use those gifts to transform society. This involves identifying those in our congregations who have the kind of leadership skills that can be effectively applied to the pro-life movement. If we call forth such individuals to take their part in local leadership, they will likewise attract others who can bring experience and professionalism to the movement. If, however, there is a vacuum of leadership, it will quickly be filled by "eccentrics."

20. Am I afraid of "political issues"? Is the killing of children merely a political issue? In the moral and spiritual realm, how is abortion different from the killing of 2 year olds? Do we have any less obligation to speak up for our brothers and sisters before they are born than after they are born? Does the fact that politicians talk about abortion require us to be silent? It is amazing how the Church receives such praise for speaking up for peace or for economic justice, which are also "political issues," but is subject to different rules when it comes to abortion. Some clergy will be silent, saying it is a "political issue." Then, some politicians will be silent, saying it is a "religious issue." If abortion is immoral, where do we go to say so?

Actually, abortion is many things. It is an issue of public policy, which we have every right to shape. It is a moral issue, "the fundamental human rights issue for all men and women of good will" (US Bishops' Resolution on Abortion, 1989). It is a spiritual issue, confronting us with the challenge as to whether we will peacefully co-exist with child-killing in our midst, or rather acknowledge God as the Lord of Life and worship Him by defending life.

It is critical to point out, especially at election time, that no matter what position any particular party or candidate takes in any race, the message of the Church about abortion is always the same. Speaking for life can just as well, in effect, help a pro-life Democrat and hurt a pro-abortion Republican as it can help a pro-life Republican and hurt a pro-abortion Democrat. Our motive is none of the above, but simply the defense of life.

If being afraid of political issues is the problem, how much more should we fear spiritual ones, in which the powers at war are much more awesome and the stakes much higher! But we are priests. We do not undertake the task on human strength, but in the power and authority of Christ. Hence, we do not let fear deter us.

21. Will I endanger our tax-exemption by speaking on abortion? No. The law does not forbid us to speak on public policy issues. The classic legal distinction is between issue advocacy, which is permitted, and candidate advocacy, which is not. On February 29, 2000, the office of the General Counsel for the US Bishops issued revised Political Activity Guidelines for Catholic Organizations. "During election campaigns," the guidelines remind us, "Catholic organizations may educate voters about the issues."

22. Do I fail to see the relationship between abortion and the salvation of the people I serve? The First Letter of John asks how the love of God can survive in one who has enough of this world's goods, yet fails to help his brother in need. (See 1Jn. 3:17) The question behind abortion, therefore, is not simply, "Would I do it?" but rather, "What am I doing to stop it?" To possess the greatest of "this world's goods" -- life itself -- and to fail to defend that gift for others, diminishes our own relationship with the Lord and Giver of life.

23. Do I feel abortions do not occur very frequently among my congregation? Most counties in America do not have an abortion provider, and the numbers of abortions are certainly higher in the big cities than anywhere else. But as Dr. Martin Luther King stressed during the Civil Rights Movement, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We do not fail to preach about famines, wars, or oppression that happens in far-off places. Love does not know geographical boundaries. Preaching on abortion in our community is part of teaching our people how to love one another, wherever the other may be, and whether the "other" means multitudes or just one.

24. Do I feel my people just don't care about the issue? How much people care about an issue depends in part on how clearly they see its connection with the things they do care about. Our teaching can help them make those connections regarding abortion. Why, for example, do we see children killing children in our society? Might it have a connection with the fact that the law allows parents to kill children by abortion, thereby teaching children that their lives are disposable? Significant studies likewise show links between abortion and child abuse, poverty, substance abuse, suicide, breast cancer, and numerous other problems. A "consistent ethic of life" means that all these life issues are interrelated; therefore, abortion cannot be ignored.

25. Do I feel the people already hear and know enough about abortion? It is not enough to "hear and know" about abortion, any more than it is enough to "hear and know" about poverty and other forms of social injustice. The point is that something must be done about these problems, and we are called to help our people get involved. A person may be opposed to poverty attitudinally, but what do they do to help the poor? How do they express their opposition behaviorally? Certainly, most of our congregation would lament abortion. But the challenge remains to bring to their attention continually both the obligations and the opportunities to actually prevent abortion in their community. Since the Roe vs. Wade decision legalized abortion in 1973, legal protection has not been restored to a single unborn child in our land.

26. Do I consider my congregation too elderly to be concerned about abortion? While many are too old to have a child, none are ever too old to love one, never too old to save one. They are therefore never too old to be concerned about abortion. By our active concern, any one of us can save the life of a baby scheduled to die. To try to save our youngest brothers and sisters is an expression of the love we are bound to for all our lives.

Parents and grandparents, furthermore, have a crucial, sometimes decisive role in the attitudes of their children and grandchildren toward abortion. Do they pass on a concern for life? Do they convey compassion, so that if their daughter or granddaughter were to become pregnant, she would know she could turn to them for understanding, rather than turn to the abortionist?

Despite age, people can also continue to make their voices heard in arenas of public opinion and the political process. Let nobody say they are too old to be concerned about abortion. As long as we possess life, we have the duty to defend life.

27. Am I afraid of being confrontational? Being confrontational is not the same as being uncharitable. Our Lord, who ate with sinners, also confronted them. Love demands confrontation, because it cannot rest if the beloved is entangled in evil. Love seeks the good of the beloved, and this means it has to get tough at times to extricate the beloved from evil. Many think of the price of confrontation, but forget that there is also a price to be paid for not confronting. That price is that evil continues to flourish, relationships become shallow and superficial, and true leadership vanishes because the leader is no longer able to point out the right path, and will eventually lose the respect of those who look to him for guidance.

Successful social reform movements, moreover, always confronted an unwilling culture by exposing the injustices they were fighting. A careful study of the Civil Rights Movement provides just one example.

28. Do I think my preaching on this issue just won't do any good? The American people are conflicted about abortion, and by no means as entrenched in their positions as we might imagine. Countless people have changed their views thanks to a single homily. I recall one woman telling me after Mass, "Father, I came in here today 100% pro-abortion, and now my views are completely changed." What convinced her was the example I used that federal law protects sea turtles from destruction, but does not protect unborn babies from abortion. It can be that easy. And people sitting in the pews wrestling with the decision to abort can be persuaded to save that life.

29. Do I think the fight against abortion is a lost cause and a waste of time? Every day brings us a new opportunity to play our part with God in the unfolding of His plan. Every day brings a new opportunity to convert a heart that has not heard the truth before, or to save a life that has not been destroyed before -- and to that life, it means everything. Every day brings a new opportunity to speak up for the defenseless, knowing that justice is on their side and that no lie can live forever. We must not lose our historical perspective. Evils such as slavery and segregation took a long time to overcome. Progress is in fact being made in the pro-life cause, and our goal of victory needs to be fresh before our eyes. The battle is not a choice between "Pro-life wins or Pro-choice wins." If pro-life does not win, nobody wins. Yet the One who calls us already holds the victory of life.

30. Am I afraid that by addressing abortion I may be forced to address contraception too? As priests we are publicly committed to teach all that the Church teaches. Not only is there a link between abortion and contraception, but there is a marvelous link and unity among all the truths which the Church proclaims. They form one organic whole, because ultimately the message is a Person, Jesus Christ. "Be not afraid; I go before you always." These words are sung so often today in our Churches. They are words for us priests. Never in history has there been so much assistance offered to us, particularly in Papal teachings and faithful commentary, to teach the truth about contraception, as there is today. Let us use the help that is available.

31. Am I uncertain about the credibility of the teaching itself? All the teachings of the Church hold together in an indivisible, living unity. We will not see the full "credibility" of any of the teachings if we isolate them from the whole, or eclipse the others. It is difficult at times to observe the teaching on abortion. But we also have teachings about grace, about the power of God, about dying to ourselves, about union with Christ, and about practical charity. The teaching is very credible, and will be so to our people if we present it as part of a clear, vigorous exposition of the entire Catholic faith, with no distortions or omissions, and if we place it in the context of a life marked by charity, compassion, and deep holiness.

32. Do I simply not know why I don't address abortion? If we can admit to ourselves that we don't know why we are not doing something we should be doing, then a privileged moment of growth has arrived. Let us respond in two ways. First, let us become more familiar with the issue itself and its connections with priestly ministry and with the lives of our people. Second, let us bring the matter before the Lord in prayer, asking Him to break through the barriers, to renew our entire priesthood, and through us to renew the face of the earth.

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