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September 14, 1999 - The Triumph of the Holy Cross

GOD'S GOOD GIFT OF LIFE

Pastoral Letter to the Clergy, Religious

and Laity of the Church of Pittsburgh

Most Reverend Donald W. Wuerl, STD

Bishop of Pittsburgh

 

INTRODUCTION

On the eve of the Great Jubilee commemorating two millennia of Christian experience and the opening of another millennium of grace, one of the most obvious gifts for which all of us can be grateful is God's good gift of life. The scriptures speak of the origins of human life as flowing from the very breath of God. "The Lord God ...blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being" (Gen. 2.7).

In announcing his new covenant with us, Jesus proclaimed that he has come among us to give us life to the full. "I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly" (Jn. 10.10). Every other good gift that we have rests on the gift of life. Whatever else we attempt to do to make this world a better place must start with a profound respect for human life.

CALL TO RESPECT LIFE AT ALL TIMES

Time has proven the great wisdom of Pope Paul VI's statement, "If you want peace, work for justice." This important and succinct message was enriched by Pope John Paul II when he said, "If you want justice, respect life. If you want life, embrace the truth - truth revealed by God."

The human family has come to recognize both by experience through rational reflection and by the light of faith that every human being is of transcendent importance and that each has inalienable rights. The convergence of philosophy and theology on the dignity of human life reaffirms the ancient wisdom "that faith and reason 'mutually support each other'; each influences the other" in the pursuit of deeper meaning and the truth.

Our conviction about the dignity and sanctity of human life is confirmed in the scriptures, the word of God. The Book of Genesis teaches us that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1.26). "Thou shall not kill," says the Lord in transmitting the commandments to Moses (Ex. 20.13). "Choose life, then, so that you and your descendents may live," Moses warned the chosen people (Dt. 30.19). And of course the whole life teaching and ministry of Jesus confirmed the dignity of human life and showed how dear each individual person is to God. Jesus said, "Even the hairs of your head have all been counted" (Lk. 12.7). This teaching of the scriptures, along with the clear and consistent teaching of the Church throughout the ages, reveals God's infinite love for the life he has created and therefore the love we should have for life. In view of this testimony the primordial transgression against God, the giver of life, is the act of destroying the life of others.

God holds us responsible for upholding human dignity. Never has that responsibility been more difficult than in our day, as the third Christian millennium dawns. At a time when many in society tend to judge a person's worth on an obscure and subjective "quality of life" scale, we are convinced that human dignity is not based on productivity or usefulness. Each person, created by God, is endowed with a sacred and inviolable human dignity. In the Book of Genesis God describes the persons he creates as "very good" not because of anything they have accomplished or produced but by the very fact of their existence as his creatures.

As members of the human family and as Christians, we must ensure that every human life be protected from conception until natural death. This responsibility must be accepted on many levels: each person has a charge; society and its leaders have a duty, and most assuredly so does the church community. Respect for every human being should be our first priority. Our words, actions and prayers must reflect God's command that we love one another as he has loved us (Jn. 13.34).

ESSENTIAL ROLE OF HEALTHY FAMILY LIFE

Our concern for the dignity of human life brings us face to face with the family and our need to support family life if we hope to ensure a respect for individual life in our society. It has become a truism to recognize that family life in our country is breaking down and with its collapse we are witnessing the unraveling of the fabric of society on the local, regional and national levels.

The family is the first building block of the human community or, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, it is the "original cell" of the whole human community that grows in an ever widening set of relationships beginning with a husband and wife, their children, the wider family and eventually all those other communities, educational, cultural, social, economic and, of course, political of which they become a part.

If the family, the original cell or the foundational building block, is damaged in any way or even destroyed, neither the body of which it is a cell nor the edifice of which it is the foundation can long endure.

Some might ask why this condition has reached such a critical point today. There have always been failed marriages and irresponsible parents in the past. Today, however, I believe we are recognizing an extensive and perhaps overwhelming collapse of individual families precisely because our society no longer supports the basic and essential values on which families rest and our community is built.

If we look to the teaching of the Church, we find a vision of family life that is not always replicated in the secular society in which we live. In the apostolic exhortation of Pope John Paul II on the family (Familiaris Consortio) and the 1994 Letter to Families in the International Year of the Family as well as in the teaching of the Catechism, we find a beautiful vision of marriage and family that corresponds to God's plan, our true happiness and what we are called to sustain as faithful members of the Church.

In contrast, it is precisely the rejection of these principles that has resulted in a society where some children are killed before they are born, many children no longer have a relationship with both of their parents, some parents take no responsibility for the children they generate, and a relatively large number of marriages are of such short duration that children experience a variety of adult figures in their lives without the necessary rapport with a caring and loving father or mother.

The picture of family life painted by the Church with broad strokes includes: the personal commitment of the partners in the marriage; openness to the generation of new life if it is God's plan for their marriage; the joyful acceptance of the responsibility and privilege of raising children and helping them to grow in wisdom, age and grace; and finally the recognition that this action is a graced response to the love of God that elevates married life to the level of sacramental participation in Christ's own redeeming action, allowing parents to participate in the building up of the body of Christ by bringing new life into the world and into the Church.

It would not be far off the mark to say that our secular society's denial of the intimate connection between sexual activity and the marriage bond is responsible for most of the unraveling of family and, therefore, community life in our time. Once the principle is established that sexual activity and the generation of children is for personal satisfaction alone and carries with it no particular relationship either to a committed bond of partnership or to the education and raising of children, you have what we face today -- an ever growing number of children who cannot identify in any meaningful sense with their parents and parents who are not in any realistic sense participants in sustaining, educating and developing their offspring. More disconcerting is the position of some that the solution to the problem is simply to kill the child before it is born.

TODAY'S SIGNS OF GROWING DISREGARD FOR HUMAN LIFE

We have seen society's tragic acceptance of the devaluation of human life gain momentum on what has been appropriately termed the "slippery slope." A watershed in this movement was the Supreme Court decision in January 1973 when abortion on demand was legalized in this country. With one stroke the Justices obviated the political consensus across this land that abortion needs to be controlled and created a new right, "the right to privacy," that is supposed to take precedence over even the right to life. Since then and until very recently the number of abortions has escalated, and fostered an increasing level of disrespect and violence throughout society.

Two generations after the Supreme Court legalized abortion we are now experiencing a disheartening increase in all the social problems that abortion was supposed to fix. Teen pregnancy, promiscuous activity, sexually transmitted diseases, child abuse and the number of children born to single parent families are dramatically higher now than in 1973 before abortion was legalized.

Pope John Paul II rightly warned that we are abandoning a "civilization of love" for a "culture of death." Since the court approved abortion on demand we have seen a 92 percent increase in the incidence of infanticide. The judgment that our children are disposable if we deem them inconvenient has had a tremendous impact on the way our society looks at all life. Violence has become an accepted mainstay in our society. Our youth now struggle in the midst of violence within the walls of their schools, on the streets in their neighborhoods and even in their own homes. The irrefutable connection between the abortion mentality and increasing violence especially among our youth can be denied only at the risk of still more upheaval. Violence breeds violence.

An important indicator of a growing indifference toward human life is the position of those who excuse themselves from the abortion debate by arguing that they are "personally opposed to abortion but publicly neutral." This display of indifference sends the message that it is acceptable to withhold protection from certain persons. The idea that a person can oppose abortion personally and defend and support it publicly is no more applicable to abortion than it is to any other critical social or moral question that challenges our nation today.

Sanctioned disregard for the unborn has broadened into a so-called "right to die" and a "duty to die" mentality. Our elderly and disabled brothers and sisters are now seen as burdensome to society. Isolated but well-publicized efforts to give legal sanction to assisting in the suicide of sick or elderly people are only thinly disguised attempts to legalize the killing of such persons. This eugenic philosophy only adds to the problems of our society, already mired in violence and death. 

TODAY'S SIGNS OF HOPE FOR IMPROVING RESPECT FOR LIFE

While we must acknowledge that a culture of death is growing up around us, we can also identify emerging signs of hope. Currently we have the lowest annual rate of abortion since 1975. The number of abortion providers and abortion clinics has dropped significantly in recent years. Even some proponents of legalized abortion admit that abortion is a "bad thing," "a failure" and "killing."

More Americans than ever before are pro-life. Many believe that abortion should not be legal in any circumstance. Even more believe that abortion should only be legal in those rare cases when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest or when the mother's life is threatened by the pregnancy. Almost three-quarters of all Americans believe that killing the unborn child merely to give a woman a choice is wrong. Yet these significant statistics are not usually presented in much of the media discussion over abortion or the laws of the land.

Another positive trend is the lowest teen pregnancy rate since 1975. Increasing numbers of young people are now choosing to live chaste lives, valuing responsible love, and accepting the teaching that the sexual expression of love is reserved for marriage. In this way, young people are responding positively to efforts to address the vital moral questions inherent in our sexuality.

This shift in the attitude and behavior of many young people is encouraging. More and more often teens are speaking out for life without hesitation or apology. A recent national survey of college freshman found that the generous love praised in the gospels remains attractive, volunteerism is up, casual sex down, and the acceptance of legalized abortion at its lowest point since 1977.

This positive shift does not rest solely with our young people. Our Holy Father continues to receive a favorable response from people the world over to his call to counter a society "in which the powerful predominate, setting aside and even eliminating the powerless: I am thinking here of unborn children, helpless victims of abortion; the elderly and incurably ill, subjected at times to euthanasia; and the many other people relegated to the margins of society by consumerism and materialism. Nor can I fail to mention the unnecessary recourse to the death penalty when other bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons." 

OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO DEFEND LIFE

Every responsible person and each follower of Jesus Christ have an obligation to defend and protect innocent human life. This witness can take place in many ways: teaching, non-violent public demonstrations, the legislative process, preaching, outreach to those in crisis pregnancy, care for the disabled and the dying, as well as financial support, prayer and ministry to those who have had an abortion.

If we are to put an effective end to those things that threaten human life, we must work as good citizens in the area of public policy to change laws. But it is also necessary to change hearts and minds as well as laws. Pope John Paul II reminds us that a pro-life educational endeavor must have "as its goal that shift of perception and change of heart which accompany true conversion."

It is said that evil exists when good people do nothing. We must find a way to make our convictions known and effective. For Catholics, the parish community is an ideal context in which to do this and the role of the priest, as leader, places him in a perfect position to reiterate this most basic principle of respect for life. In particular, the homily at appropriate times can be an effective means for communicating this truth. Other opportunities include the regular intentions of the general intercessions, the use of the parish bulletin, parish newsletters and increasingly web sites. The United States bishops offer guidance and a starting point: "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."

The proclamation of the gospel of life is not reserved to the parish priest. All of those involved in parish activity and especially the parish staff must be both committed to the message and able to express it in a convincing manner. Given the importance of the gospel of life regular updating sessions to deal with current issues and to review the teaching of the Church would be a valuable resource for all involved in the life of the parish.

We must also incorporate the Church's teachings on social concerns and respect life issues into the mainstream of Catholic education. All those who teach in Catholic schools and religious education programs must become intelligent and clear voices in defense of life. The U.S. bishops remind us that this educational effort must be made at every level. "The commitment to human life and dignity, to human rights and solidarity, is a calling all Catholic educators must share with their students. It is not a vocation for a few religion teachers, but a challenge for every Catholic educator and catechist." Efforts should be made to integrate this teaching into the curriculum of our education programs at every level.

The U.S. bishops also urge parents, as the primary educators of their children, to give priority to the important areas of human sexuality and respect for all human life. The faithful not only have a responsibility to promote life issues in their homes but also in the workplace, the courts and the legislature. The lay faithful are called to give daily witness to respect for life, in family life, public education, government, institutions of health care, and the instruments of mass communication.

Only in this way can these fundamental human values which are rooted in our very nature as the fruit of God's loving creation make an impact on our growing secular world that seems all too comfortable disregarding human dignity and ignoring the basic truth about the true origins, nature and destiny of every human person.

As children of God we must pray and fast for an end to anti-life practices; be active in the political process and elect responsible leaders; assist women facing unintended pregnancies; support with compassion those who suffer from having had an abortion; affirm the lives of the elderly and the disabled; forgive those who have committed grave offenses, and tirelessly promote the truth about the importance of each human person.

SPECIFIC ISSUES: ABORTION

Abortion has been nothing less than a blight on our society. Since 1973 more than 38 million people are not alive to offer us their God-given gifts because their mothers chose to end those lives by abortion. As defenseless, voiceless victims the unborn were the first to succumb to a "life vs. convenience" test. With the legalization of abortion, the right to life that had been guaranteed became conditional - and millions of unborn persons lost their lives by abortion.

Let us make no mistake or be fooled by the rhetoric of choice. The 1.4 million unborn, defenseless children killed last year in abortions had no choice. Others made a decision for them. No choice was offered the child. Only a decision: "The child must die."

Whether or not a pregnant woman wants to have a child is not the issue. She already has a child - in her womb. The issue is whether the child will be allowed to live. Two lives are involved in this partnership of human life. It is unfair for only one to make the choice, the decision - about the life of the other.

Unborn babies are not the only victims of abortion. All too often women are coerced, manipulated or enticed into having an abortion. Without truly understanding the implications of their actions, many women act out of fear and panic and rush to what they believe is a logical solution. They tend to isolate themselves from those who can support them through the pregnancy and thus are not aware of organizations or Church programs that offer alternatives to abortion. Only later do they and often those who have helped them find out that abortion is a very difficult decision to live with.

A SPIRITUAL RESPONSE

To all who have had an abortion or who have facilitated one, the Church continues to hold out the loving mercy and forgiveness of Christ. At Saint Mary of Mercy Church in downtown Pittsburgh a memorial chapel commemorating the unborn child invites everyone who may have been involved in the tragedy of an abortion to bring that suffering and pain, that evil and heartache to the Lord for forgiveness and healing. The same memorial chapel is a reminder to all of us to pray for those tempted to have an abortion so that they may avail themselves of the support that the Church freely offers to help them make a life-giving decision to have their child.

The memorial also calls us to pray for a change of heart both for those who perform this cruel and destructive action and for those in political office who falsely rationalize their support of abortion in the guise of freedom. Similar shrines or memorials in other churches and on the grounds of parishes, schools, cemeteries, Knights of Columbus halls and private residences, witness to the prayers for the unborn and their mothers by so many compassionate and caring people.

In an effort to assist our priests, I have recently made available to each parish a resource manual for priests entitled "Post-Abortion Ministry" prepared by the secretariats for priestly life and ministry and pro-life activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The material is intended to provide insight into the emotional, psychological and spiritual trauma suffered by many women who have had abortions. It addresses "How best to minister to these women (and others) both in the sacrament of reconciliation and in pastoral counseling."

A great tragedy in these more than 38 million abortions is that they are unnecessary in a country where positive alternatives abound. Compassionate assistance is available in all forms from committed pro-life people working to ensure that no woman should feel compelled to walk through the doors of an abortion clinic.

The legalization of abortion has also played a major role in the breakdown of the family. Abortion-rights rhetoric has given sole control and responsibility for child bearing to women. By not legally recognizing the rights of men in the abortion decision, society has taken away some of the impetus for the male's role as a father. Men no longer feel obligated to do more than offer to pay for an abortion.

One of the sad signs of the times is the ease with which a man will father a child and then walk away from both mother and child. The action of bringing new life into the world carries with it a weighty responsibility to nurture and support that life. A man is not free to decline his duties toward the new life he has helped engender. As a society we should reflect in our laws both the right that the man has regarding the new life he has fathered and the concomitant duty he also faces for the same new life.

THE NON-VIOLENT NATURE OF ALL PROMOTION OF LIFE

Our witness to God's truth must be peaceful, prayerful, non-violent and respectful of the dignity of all people. The Catholic Church opposes both the violence of abortion and the use of violence to oppose abortion. There is no appropriate reason to advocate or carry out murder or violence in the name of the pro-life cause. Such acts cannot be justified. They deny the fundamental value of each human life and do harm to genuine pro-life witness.

ASSISTED SUICIDE AND EUTHANASIA

The effects of the culture of death are not confined to the unborn. The elderly and disabled of our society are more and more considered as burdens. The disrespect for human life that began with the very first legal abortion has now grown into a culture where people will have to meet a certain "quality of life" standard in order to justify their continued existence.

The assumption that to be old, disabled or dying renders you worthless has fostered a terrible premise that seeks to eliminate the "imperfect" from our society. Masked by a false mercy, euthanasia is being promoted as the right and good thing for society to do. Many are actively working to legalize euthanasia, already a reality in the state of Oregon. Often those who support the killing of the elderly do so under the guise of an act of mercy. Words like "intolerable pain," "agony" and "terrible suffering" are often used when in fact modern science today can and should control pain.

The origins of the word euthanasia are found in the desire for a "happy" or "easy death." Today in our culture the word is translated "mercy killing." Most of the media emphasis is now on mercy, but we must never forget that the action is killing. Advocates of assisted suicide, carried out either by a physician or by a family member, challenge the Church's teaching. They say, in effect, "I can end life if I have the intention of doing it with mercy." Yet suicide and euthanasia are "false mercy." We do not respect human life by destroying it, whether in the womb or near the end of life. We must care for those who are dying with our presence, our prayers, and the sacraments of the Church.

There is a long-standing Catholic tradition of praying for a happy and provided death. Saint Joseph is the patron of a happy death. To him we offer prayers that when the time for our death arrives we might be provided the sacraments - the anointing of the sick, an opportunity for confession and viaticum - as we conclude our pilgrimage to the Father.

CARING FOR THE TERMINALLY ILL

Our faith provides the context not only for our own death but for the way in which we approach the death of others. For those who believe, "life is changed not ended" and when, as the liturgy teaches us, "the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place heaven." It is this lively faith that instructs us in how we are present to and stand with someone who is dying.

The caring presence of family, friends, chaplains, and parish priests cannot be underestimated. Heartfelt prayers bring comfort. Ritual prayers allow participation of the family members. For an ill person the priest celebrates the rite of anointing of the sick. For the dying the priest (or other pastoral care worker) brings viaticum, which is the Eucharist for the journey through death to eternal life.

Each of us is unique, and so too are the circumstances of each dying person. Sensitivity is always part of a spiritual response. Everyone has the need of support, consolation and hope. Our Christian faith, expressed in our presence, words, prayers, and love provides rich resources for overcoming our initial fear and caring for a person who is dying.

Death is the natural conclusion to our earthly life. Rather than deny it we need to be able to embrace its reality and assist one another in our encounter with death. As our Holy Father teaches us: "We never celebrate and exalt life as much as we do in the nearness of death and in death itself. Life must be fully respected, protected and assisted in those who are experiencing its natural conclusion as well."

END OF LIFE DECISIONS

The call for uninterrupted respect for all human life requires that people of faith act responsibly in end-of-life situations. When we deal with the last stages of human life we need to be particularly sensitive to both our capabilities and our limitations. Eventually all physical remedies fail. All life begins, grows, matures, declines and ends in death. As responsible Christians we are called to provide medical treatment for the body while there is still hope of healing and restoration of health. But even when healing is no longer possible, treatment is futile and death is inevitable, we are still obliged to care for the dying.

The provision of nutrition and hydration is a normal part of human care. The United States Bishops' pro-life committee provides us direction in this area when it writes: "We reject any omission of nutrition and hydration intended to cause a patient's death. We hold for a presumption in favor of providing medically assisted nutrition and hydration to patients who need it, which presumption would yield in cases where such procedures have no medically reasonable hope of sustaining life or pose excessive risks or burdens."

The Church wisely makes a distinction between medical treatment and common care. We are obliged to utilize ordinary medical treatment in dealing with our physical condition. The Church distinguishes between morally ordinary and extraordinary treatment. No one is obliged to use morally extraordinary treatment to sustain human life.

The Catholic Church teaches that when medical treatment becomes futile, and it is no longer possible to prevent a patient's death, or when the only result of intensive medical treatment would be to add suffering or prolong dying, we must accept the inevitability of death. At this point respect for the dying indicates that it is no longer necessary to offer medical treatment.

While it is true that the means of supplying nutrition and hydration can in themselves become morally extraordinary in some circumstances, the presumption should always be in favor of sustaining human life through the provision of nutrition and hydration.

Never, however, is it acceptable to take actions that deliberately take the life a dying person. Lethal injections or any other means to assist in suicide are never condoned as acts that respect the inherent dignity of the human person. Advances in hospice care and palliative care have made it possible to control pain and suffering during the last days of a person's life.

Our Judeo-Christian heritage believes that life is the gift of a loving God and that we may never choose to cause our own deaths. As a people who believe in God and in eternal life we must always remember that despite its human tragedy, death is the gateway to our final and eternal union with God.

HUMAN CLONING AND GENETIC TECHNOLOGY

Respect for human life is also challenged by technological advances and the desire to perfect the genetic make-up of human beings. Religion and science are not adversaries but can influence and compliment one another. Pope John Paul II clearly articulated this relationship when he wrote, "The Church remains profoundly convinced that faith and reason `mutually support each other,' each influences the other, as they offer to each other a purifying critique and a stimulus to pursue the search for deeper understanding."

While science seeks to find the best solution for physical human problems, the Church reminds science that there is more to a human being than just physical form - the material dimension. We welcome science that serves and enhances the human person by upholding criteria of respect, generosity and service while resisting the slide to a new criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness.

As society moves to understand genetic make-up and provide for the possibility of human intervention to alter life in future generations, we must remember that God is the author of life. We need to acknowledge the role that the Creator continues to play in the creation of life.

Human embryo research raises ethical problems because it either allows for scientific experimentation on human beings or redefines human life in a way that classifies some human beings as "subhuman." Most research of this type ignores the fact that at the moment of conception God creates a new, unique, individual human being that, from that moment, through all of life is worthy of the protection and respect that every human life deserves.

Human cloning and human embryo research deny the dignity and uniqueness of the human being. Human persons should never be treated as means to an end. We have only to look at our environment to be reminded that we often do not have the necessary insight to understand all the consequences of our actions. Simply because we have the ability to do something does not mean that we should do it. A healthy religious reverence for the Providence of God, as well as a respect for the law of unintended consequences, call us to observe the moral law whenever we move forward in scientific discovery.

ETHICAL REFLECTION ON TECHNOLOGY

As Catholics we believe that the reason some procedures are prohibited is because they are in themselves wrong and therefore undermine and hinder our very attempts to achieve human good. In this day of widespread moral relativism, if not outright confusion, it is all the more important that the Church continue her witness to moral truth. Some actions, even if technologically feasible, are still wrong.

Our society approaches ethical and moral decisions in sharply contrasted ways. One view accepts God's plan and the preservation and enrichment of human life within that plan. Another position concentrates on the autonomy of the human person who is assumed to have virtually limitless freedom to manipulate and reorder the human body according to norms accountable only to some human convention. This divergence of views is what Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae describes as a struggle between the culture of death and the civilization of love.

An excellent summary of the place of moral directives regarding life issues is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This study of the faith refers to the Ten Commandments as a "privileged expression of the natural law." This ancient tradition of moral norms that guide human activity is the most challenged in our increasingly technological world where scientific advances often outpace the necessary moral reflection. More and more, we meet those who have concluded that moral reflection is not even necessary.

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Pope John Paul II has persistently reminded us of our duty to reverence every life, and he asks us to be faithful to this ideal in reflecting on capital punishment. The Catholic Church's moral teaching has always agreed that lawful authorities have the power to enforce law, prosecute lawbreakers, and imprison convicted criminals. It has also recognized the right, in extreme circumstances, to execute certain convicted criminals, especially when there seems to be no other way to guard innocent lives. Today, however, the Church has become convinced that less than lethal means are available and morally appropriate to punish criminals convicted of certain crimes and still protect society from them.

Our Holy Father teaches that "the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent."

In the same ways that abortion, euthanasia, infanticide and human cloning disrespect human life so too does capital punishment. We believe that human life is sacred and deserves to be protected. While the state has the right and responsibility to punish, the Catholic Church teaches that if other means, such as life-long imprisonment, are sufficient to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to those means, and thereby better conform its policies to the inherent dignity of all human beings.

Capital punishment causes irreparable harm. It can turn the institution that serves as an instrument of justice into a means of seeking revenge. The practice of capital punishment continues the cycle of violence that it was supposed to end. The destruction of human life, even in the form of punishment, takes away a gift that is God's alone to take. It extinguishes the possibility for rehabilitation and atonement.

The facts show that capital punishment falls disproportionately on racial minorities, the uneducated, and the poor and disadvantaged. Too often inadequate and ineffective legal representation has led these disadvantaged groups to be executed at a disproportionately higher rate.

As Christians, we are called to forgive those who have harmed us. The healing nature of forgiveness is a gift from God that should never be taken for granted or ignored. We are challenged to see in the imprisoned the very face of Christ, visit them regularly and respect them as fellow human beings (Mt. 25.36).

At the same time we must respond pastorally to those who have been victimized by the crimes of others and find ways to help alleviate their sometimes unbearable pain. One particular ministry that has responded to those who deal with effects of sudden, tragic or violent death in their family is the We are Remembered Ministry. Annually a special Mass is celebrated bringing together all of those who continue to deal with the pain of tragic death in their lives. It is a time of spiritual renewal, re-commitment in faith and above all prayerful support for each other.

CONCLUSION

Each October Catholics in the United States observe Respect Life Month. This year we do so on the eve of the new millennium. As we prepare to celebrate the Great Jubilee, let us renew our firm belief in the dignity of every human life and address with fresh vigor the whole range of issues that erode this most fundamental of human rights. These issues include every aspect of human life - prenatal care, birth, nurture and growth, marriage and family life, housing, employment, care for disabled and handicapped persons, rehabilitation of those addicted to alcohol and drugs, care of the elderly -- indeed, any issue related to the dignity of human life.

In concluding these reflections I ask that we join together in a renewed commitment to work and pray more fervently for the building up of the civilization of love in our midst. To the extent that each of us is personally involved in the defense of human life, to that extent will we achieve a truly good and just society and manifest a civilization of love - one that will enrich our lives and the lives of our children and their children for generations to come.

May God grant us all the grace to recognize the inestimable dignity of human life and the courage to defend and support it in our words and deeds.

Faithfully in Christ,

Donald W. Wuerl
Bishop of Pittsburgh

Priests for Life
PO Box 141172 • Staten Island, NY 10314
Tel. 888-735-3448, (718) 980-4400 • Fax 718-980-2542
mail@priestsforlife.org