Reflections on Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics

Bishop Donald Trautman
Bishop of Erie, PA
Publication Date: January 22, 1999

Reflections on the U.S Bishops' Statement: Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics

Rose Dinner, Hyatt-Regency, Washington, DC

Colleagues and Friends of the Pro-Life Movement:

Today we have marched for life. Our feet may be sore and cold and tired, but I remind you of what St. Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans: "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news" (Romans 10, 15). In typical Hebrew fashion, Paul praises the messenger by singling out parts of the body – the feet – that enable the messenger to bring the good news. With Paul I say: Pro-Lifers have beautiful feet. You are the messengers of God’s truth that all life is sacred from the womb to the tomb. You are the voice of the unborn and infirm and terminally ill. You have proclaimed and defended the most basic human right – the right to life. You are the messengers of the Gospel of Life. You have marched and marched since Roe vs. Wade in 1973, and you have not been "afraid to engage in the good fight" for the sake of life (1Timothy 6,12).

There is one here who has always been a leader "in the good fight", one who has always been in the forefront of the march, witnessing and motivating and inspiring others to join the march – Nellie Gray. She has not only beautiful feet but also a beautiful heart.

My purpose this evening is to share with you some insights on the Pastoral Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops entitled: Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics. The Bishops write as Americans and Pastors of the Church to their fellow citizens urging them to reclaim the founding principles that gave birth to this nation – especially the inalienable, God-given right to life. The Document has 39 Paragraphs divided into 4 Chapters. The first three chapters lay the foundation, the rationale, for the high point of the Statement in the final chapter, which focuses especially on Catholics in political life. The bishops want the record to be clear where the Church stands.

First, the Bishops address those political leaders who so often advocate for the poor and marginalized but not for the unborn. The Bishops clearly state that "any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing and healthcare", but being right in these matters can never, never, never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks against innocent human life (Paragraph 23). Let no Catholic office-holder hide behind a record of doing good for the poor and marginalized in society, but then vote in favor of abortion, partial birth abortion, or euthanasia. "The failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the "rightness of position" in helping the poor (Paragraph 23).

Secondly, the Bishops note that some Catholic elected officials have argued that, while they personally oppose evils like abortion, they cannot force their religious views on society. The Bishops forcefully respond that when human life begins is not simply a religious belief but a scientific, medical, biological fact. Human life at all stages of development is sacred. The right to life is a person’s most fundamental right. Our cherished Declaration of Independence declares: All people are created equal, all are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". The right to life is a basic human right that comes from our sovereign God and no one can take it away. Elected officials cannot simultaneously commit themselves to human rights while eliminating the weakest among us. No one can collude in the killing of innocent life.

We all know the political mantra: "I am personally opposed, but abortion is legal; I can’t force my views on society". What if we lived when slavery was legal. Would we have said: "I am personally opposed to slavery, but I can’t force my views on society"? Thank God some people had the courage to work to abolish slavery. Thank God some people were opposed and marched and struggled to convince others. The Supreme Court in 1857 in the Dred Scott Case said black people were not citizens. This court decision was overturned by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. Thank God for the people who brought this about.

As Christians we have an obligation to be a leaven in our culture, to give witness to the truth. Public officials must be people of conscience who put their beliefs into action. Recall in the history of this great nation the many examples of courageous public servants who went beyond "living with" intolerable legal situations such as slavery and segregation. They succeeded in overthrowing bad law and restoring human rights. Let us learn this lesson of history and have "the courage and honesty to speak the truth about human life". The Bishops remind all public officials: "No appeal to policy, procedure, majority will, or pluralism ever excuses a public official from defending life to the greatest extent possible" (Paragraph 32).

As the chief teachers in the Church, the Bishops have a serious obligation to "explain, persuade, correct, and admonish those in leadership positions who contradict the Gospel of Life through their actions and policies" (Paragraph 29). For those Catholic public officials, who disregard Church teaching on life issues, "a private call to conversion should always be the first step in dealing with these leaders" (Paragraph 29). The Bishops believe that personal explanation, exhortation, and education must come first.

The Bishops’ Statement declares that these political leaders have a duty to exercise moral leadership in society. "They do this not by unthinking adherence to public opinion polls or by repeating empty pro-choice slogans" (Paragraph 29).

In cases where some Catholic political leaders refuse to give witness, "Bishops have the duty and pastoral responsibility to continue to challenge those officials…and persistently call them to a change of heart" (Paragraph 29).

The Bishops’ Statement slowly and methodically builds to a crescendo with Paragraph 32, which is its strongest declaration. This paragraph states that those Catholic officials who refuse to adhere to Church teaching on the sacredness of human life must consider "the consequences for their own spiritual well-being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin". That is a powerful statement that calls for a careful examination of conscience. Such individuals are "to reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public roles and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with Church teaching".

There will be some Catholic political leaders who will pay the price for giving witness to pro-life issues. They may lose some constituents, but they will "save lives through their witness, and God and history will not forget them" (Paragraph 31). The Bishops praise Catholic and non-Catholic public officials who have used their leadership roles to advance respect for all human life.

The Bishops summarize their position in these words:

"No political leader can evade accountability for his or her exercise of power. Those who justify their inaction on the grounds that abortion is the law of the land need to recognize that there is a higher law, the law of God. No human law can validly contradict the commandment: "Thou shalt not kill." (Paragraph 32)

These are the highlights of Chapter Four. We have needed such a statement for a long time. It is now in place and we all have reason to be proud of it.

Permit me to close with a personal observation.

A few years ago Mother Teresa of Calcutta attended a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. She delivered a message of truth with great boldness. Before an audience of 3,000 that included President Clinton and his wife, Vice President and Mrs. Gore, and congressional leaders, this aged, wrinkled, stooped, frail little nun said that America, once known for generosity to the world, had become selfish. She said the proof of that selfishness is abortion. Mother Teresa reasoned that "if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill each other…Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use violence to get what they want".

At that line most of those in attendance jumped to their feet and gave Mother Teresa a standing ovation. President Clinton reached for his water glass. He did not applaud. Mother Teresa went on to deliver the knockout line: "The greatest destroyer of peace today [is] abortion, which brings people to such blindness".

The circumstances that have led to the present trial in the Senate are an example of that moral blindness – the blindness of the abortion mentality.

When President Clinton several weeks ago spoke to the nation regarding his involvement with Monica Lewinsky, he used the standard pro-abortion language. He argued it was a private matter. His defense lawyers have continued to argue: "It’s a private matter." Pro-lifers know well that pro-abortionists define abortion as a private matter in order to obscure its moral implications and to deny responsibility for its consequences. It should not be surprising that Mr. Clinton, who has upheld even partial-birth abortion, should use the standard pro-abortion rhetoric in defending himself. This is another example of the moral blindness of the abortion mentality.

Let us recall the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who protested the Nazi regime:

"Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."

We have the American Bishops Statement. Now let us speak; let us act.


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