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One Nation Under God: A Lesson in Exercising Faithful Citizenship

Bishop Blase Cupich, S.T.D.
Bishop of the Diocese of Rapid City, SD

Bishops Column

The upcoming vote on Initiative Measure 11 presents us with another opportunity to reflect on the full range of issues related to abortion and the legal means to restrict it. On other occasions, I have addressed these issues at length in our diocesan paper, as well as in the secular press and national publications. I now propose three considerations as you weigh the merits of Measure 11 and speak to family and friends about this issue before the election.

First, while we seldom reflect on it, we commonly accept the principle that the state has a responsibility to use its power to protect the rights of each citizen, particularly the most vulnerable. Otherwise, the very foundations of a government based on law are undermined. Laws are in place requiring the government to speak on behalf of, and for the protection of, certain groups of people who are voiceless and vulnerable, such as orphans, the mentally challenged, or those who are unable to mount a legal defense on their own behalf. However, when it comes to protecting the unborn, the most vulnerable and the voiceless, there is a gap in this system of protection which needs attention. As a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) succinctly put it, “All we are saying is: Don’t forget about the baby.”

Second, Measure 11, admittedly, is not a perfect law. It allows for exceptions, which is problematic. We want the dignity of human life respected for all. In fact, it was unfortunate that early on, some of the literature distributed in support of Measure 11 used ill-chosen wording, noting that this initiative has “reasonable exceptions to allow women to have abortions in cases of rape, incest, life and health of the mother.” Such portrayals do not represent the views of the Catholic Church and I was pleased to learn that this has been corrected. There is nothing reasonable about accepting that the lives of some children are of less value than the lives of others. We want the lives of all unborn children protected.

At the same time, it is important to remember that a law with no exceptions failed in South Dakota in 2006. Only 44 percent of voters favored an end to abortion in all cases. Subsequent polling indicated that a majority of South Dakotans favored ending abortion as a means of birth control and that they would support an abortion ban that allows exceptions in cases of rape and incest and when the life and the health of the mother is at serious risk. Clearly, Measure 11 is a serious attempt to significantly limit the number of lives lost through abortion.

The ultimate and preferred goal is to defend the right to life for all the unborn against the violence of abortion. However, a gradualist approach is also a responsible and justifiable way of proceeding. It recognizes that the perfect is not the enemy of the good. That is to say, we should not hesitate to do good just because we cannot achieve the perfect. Passing a law that prohibits some abortions, followed by incremental steps that are increasingly more effective in protecting all unborn human beings, is morally acceptable, especially in view of what is presently possible.

Pope John Paul II advocated such a position in The Gospel of Life. He wrote that whenever it is impossible to abrogate all laws permitting abortion, it is licit to support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such laws. Support for a limited outcome is not a form of cooperation with an unjust law. Rather, it is a “legitimate attempt to limit its evil aspects” (cf. paragraph 73).

Surely, one can oppose an imperfect law in good conscience on the grounds that, due to its exceptions, it does not reflect the fullness of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life. Yet, this leaves one with the troubling question: Although it may not be possible to end all abortions, what is my responsibility to limit at least some of its evil aspects? For these reasons, I have concluded that Measure 11 is not only justifiable, it is deserving of support.

Finally, I want to speak to the objection that those who seek legal restrictions on abortion are imposing their own moral views on others, suggesting that those who do not seek legal sanctions for abortion are not imposing their moral views on others. Supporters of both positions inevitably bring their moral perspectives on the nature and dignity of human life to bear in deciding when life should be protected.

Society cannot escape what is essentially a moral dilemma: When does human life deserve legal protection from the state? And society certainly cannot escape this dilemma by denying that it is fundamentally a moral issue, no matter what position one chooses. In a word, this is not a battle between those who wish to impose their moral views on society and those who do not. Rather, it is essentially a debate about when and how the moral claims of human life should be honored and protected in our society.

I have written here only on the specific topic of Measure 11. Yet, I recognize that there are other serious and relevant issues to be considered as we elect new leaders and adopt new laws on November 4. Let me close with four requests:

1) Please read Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, which can be found on the diocesan Web site at An abbreviated version of the document, which was prepared by the U.S. bishops, was recently inserted in the parish bulletins. Its purpose is to inform you about the various life issues and to call on our nation to make room at the table of life for all. As we state in Forming Consciences, our role as pastors is not to endorse or oppose candidates or to tell people how to vote. Rather, our responsibility is “to teach fundamental moral principles that help Catholics form their consciences correctly, to provide guidance on the moral dimensions of public decisions, and to encourage the faithful to carry out their responsibilities in political life.” (15)

This is in keeping with what Pope Benedict XVI stated when he spoke to Italian legislators two years ago, noting that when churches participate in public debate, their interventions must always be “… aimed solely at enlightening consciences, enabling them to act freely and responsibly, according to the true demands of justice, even when this should conflict with situations of power and personal interest.”

2) Discuss these matters openly and with respect and civility with your friends and family. Our national dialogue has been greatly impoverished within the United States over the years by the bitterness, superficiality, and attack-orientation of our political debates and campaigns. Even more menacing is the prospect of race- based voting, which has been the topic of recent media reports. To allow racism to raise its ugly head once again in our land to the point that it impacts our choices in this solemn moment for our nation is to cooperate with one of the great evils that has afflicted our society. In the end, such tactics and attitudes leave us a nation divided after each election day, weakening the bonds that tie us together as a civil society and undermining the ability of our leaders to address the serious issues facing our great country.

3) Be sure to register by October 20 and vote either on November 4 or by absentee ballot.

4) Pray for our country, both personally and communally. Some parishes are using the novena provided by the USCCB, which is scheduled to begin on October 26. Others are gathering to pray the rosary. However you pray, please leave partisanship at the church door and pray that we will be “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Bishop Blase Cupich October 4, 2008 Feast of St. Francis of Assisi


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