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February 2, 2001


"I have set before you life and death"

Thank you, President Bush. I well remember my dismay eight years ago, on the day of the annual Vigil for Life which marks the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court abortion decision, when I heard of the decision taken by then President Clinton to reverse course on the "Mexico City Policy," which had banned giving U.S. tax dollars to family planning agencies who advocated for or provided abortions in foreign countries. This announcement came on the second full day of the then-new President's first term. For me it provided an ominous portent of how little "rare" counted in Clinton's campaign slogan that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare."

I confess I was surprised to learn of Bush's reversal of Clinton's executive order on this policy, reinstating the ban on the use of such tax funds. He too used the occasion of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. While the election campaign did not prepare one to expect decisive action early on, this decision was a clear signal from a president who does not shy from acting on principle.

Like slavery in the 19th century, in the last half of the 20th century abortion has become a dominant political/social/moral issue in the United States. The struggle, not surprisingly, has its repercussions throughout the world. All the more so, given the place of the United States as the dominant world power in a time whose mantra is globalization.

For this reason. the reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy is all the more necessary and important, both for impact on American population policy efforts abroad, and to redress the scandal of providing tax dollars from our sharply divided citizenry to support the promotion of pro-abortion policies and practices in poor countries around the world.

In many, indeed most, of these countries, abortion is contrary to the religious, moral and social tenets of the people. But money talks, and American money talks loudest. The population and family planning agencies who take their cue from American groups like Planned Parenthood and the Rockefeller Foundation will still have plenty of money for their work, sadly enough. But it is important both symbolically and in fact, that American tax dollars not be given to groups who advocate for abortion abroad.

This brings me to a reflection on advocating for abortion at home. When the late Governor Casey of Pennsylvania, a life-long Democrat with impeccable party credentials, and with a strong pro-life commitment was refused his request to address the 1992 national party convention, it became clear that pro-life Democrats, indeed believing Catholics in general, were in for a hard time.

I use the word "believing Catholics" for this reason. One encounters all too often politically involved Catholics who declare themselves "pro-choice." But can a believing Catholic be pro-abortion? As the U.S. Bishops stated in our 1989 Resolution on Abortion, "No Catholic can responsibly take a 'pro-choice' stand when the 'choice' in question involves the taking of innocent human life."

It is true that Catholics may be mistaken without culpability about something which Catholic faith requires us to believe. But Catholics may not willingly espouse as a personal opinion something they know to be contrary to the fullness of the faith of the Church, and still remain "in good faith" and good standing.

Some may suggest that abortion is not such a "faith-defining" issue. But such a claim would not be correct. It is clear from the history of the Church's teaching that the taking of innocent life by abortion is contrary to the fifth commandment revealed by God in the Decalogue -- the Law which requires our obedience, or our sorrow and appeal for God's forgiveness when we fail to live up to it.

In his 1995 Encyclical The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), Pope John Paul II wanted to ensure that we be clear about the place of our teaching on abortion within the deposit of faith. After consulting the bishops of the whole world on this article of Catholic faith, the Pope wrote: "Given such unanimity in the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition of the Church, Paul VI was able to declare that this tradition is unchanged and unchangeable. Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops - who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine - I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium" (no. 62).

The application of such a teaching of Catholic faith to the practical order, especially in a pluralistic society, can offer complex situations that need to be addressed. It is certainly legitimate to debate the merits of a strategy such as a proposed human life amendment to the Constitution, or even the merits of a Mexico City Policy. But no believing Catholic may profess to be pro-abortion (or pro-choice, a distinction without a difference) without peril to his or her profession of the "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Ephesians 4, 5).

The American bishops gave good advice in our 1998 statement Living the Gospel of Life: "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. It is always a grave act of violence against a woman and her unborn child. This is so even when a woman does not see the truth because of the pressures she may be subjected to, often by the child's father, her parents or friends'' (no. 21).

For all of us - in political parties, in unions, in schools, in the media - it is the challenge of the Gospel itself not to go along with (indeed to work against) the prevailing agendas whose program, even under the guise of good intentions embraces the culture of death. God's revelation, handed down in the deposit of faith over 20 centuries of Catholic Tradition, invites us with dramatic urgency: "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live!" (Deuteronomy 30,19)

Most Reverend William J. Levada

Archbishop of San Francisco

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