Now the word of the Lord came to me saying: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born, I consecrated you; a prophet to the nations I appointed you. —Jeremiah 1:5.
“Your country stands upon the world scene as a model of a democratic society at an advanced stage of development. Your power of example carries with it heavy responsibilities. Use it well, America!” — Pope John Paul II, Newark, 1995.
At the conclusion of the 1998 ad limina visits of the bishops of the United States, our Holy Father Pope John Paul II spoke these words: “Today I believe the Lord is saying to us all: do not hesitate, do not be afraid to engage the good fight of the faith.” When we preach the liberating message of Jesus Christ we are offering the words of life to the world. Our prophetic witness is an urgent and essential service not just to the Catholic community but to the whole human family. In this statement we attempt to fulfill our role as teachers and pastors in proclaiming the Gospel of Life. We are confident that the proclamation of the truth in love is an indispensable way for us to exercise our pastoral responsibility.
When Henry Luce published his appeal for an “American century” in 1941, he could not have known how the coming reality would dwarf his dream. Luce hoped that the “engineers, scientists, doctors … builders of roads [and] teachers” of the United States would spread across the globe to promote economic success and American ideals: “a love of freedom, a feeling for the quality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance and independence and also cooperation.” Exactly this, and much more, has happened in the decades since. U.S. economic success has reshaped the world.
Mark of America
But the nobility of the American experiment flows from its founding principles, not from its commercial power. In this century alone, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died defending those principles. Hundreds of thousands more have lived lives of service to those principles — both at home and on other continents — teaching, advising and providing humanitarian assistance to people in need. As Pope John Paul observed [at Baltimore/Washington International Airport, in his Departure Remarks following his last U.S. visit], “At the center of the moral vision of [the American] founding documents is the recognition of the rights of the human person … The greatness of the United States lies “especially [in its] respect for the dignity and sanctity of human life in all conditions and at all stages of development.” This nobility of the American spirit endures today in those who struggle for social justice and equal opportunity for the disadvantaged. The United States has thrived because, at its best, it embodies a commitment to human freedom, human rights, and human dignity. This is why the Holy Father [told] us [in his homily at Giants Stadium in 1995]: “… [As] Americans, you are rightly proud of your country's great achievements.”
But success often bears the seeds of failure. U.S. economic and military power has sometimes led to grave injustices abroad. At home, it has fueled self-absorption, indifference, and consumerist excess. Overconfidence in our power, made even more pronounced by advances in science and technology, has created the illusion of a life without natural boundaries and actions without consequences. The standards of the marketplace, instead of being guided by sound morality, threaten to displace it. We are now witnessing the gradual restructuring of American culture according to ideals of utility, productivity, and cost-effectiveness. It is a culture where moral questions are submerged by a river of goods and services and where the misuse of marketing and public relations subverts public life. The losers in this ethical sea change will be those who are elderly, poor, disabled, and politically marginalized. None of these pass the utility test; and yet, they at least have a presence. They at least have the possibility of organizing to be heard. Those who are unborn, infirm, and terminally ill have no such advantage. They have no “utility,” and worse, they have no voice. As we tinker with the beginning, the end, and even the intimate cell structure of life, we tinker with our own identity as a free nation dedicated to the dignity of the human person. When American political life becomes an experiment on people rather than for and by them, it will no longer be worth conducting. We are arguably moving closer to that day. Today, when the inviolable rights of the human person are proclaimed and the value of life publicly affirmed, the most basic human right, “the right to life, is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death” (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 18).
The nature and urgency of this threat should not be misunderstood. Respect for the dignity of the human person demands a commitment to human rights across a broad spectrum: “Both as Americans and as followers of Christ, American Catholics must be committed to the defense of life in all its stages and in every condition,” [as the Holy Father said at Giants Stadium] The culture of death extends beyond our shores: famine and starvation, denial of health care and development around the world, the deadly violence of armed conflict and the scandalous arms trade that spawns such conflict. Our nation is witness to domestic violence, the spread of drugs, sexual activity which poses a threat to lives, and a reckless tampering with the world's ecological balance.
Protecting the Weak
Respect for human life calls us to defend life from these and other threats. It calls us as well to enhance the conditions for human living by helping to provide food, shelter and meaningful employment, beginning with those who are most in need. We live the Gospel of Life when we live in solidarity with the poor of the world, standing up for their lives and dignity. Yet abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others. They are committed against those who are weakest and most defenseless, those who are genuinely “the poorest of the poor.” They are endorsed increasingly without the veil of euphemism, as supporters of abortion and euthanasia freely concede these are killing even as they promote them. Sadly, they are practiced in those communities which ordinarily provide a safe haven for the weak — the family and the healing professions. Such direct attacks on human life, once crimes, are today legitimized by governments sworn to protect the weak and marginalized.
It needn't be so. God, the Father of all nations, has blessed the American people with a tremendous reservoir of goodness. He has also graced our founders with the wisdom to establish political structures enabling all citizens to participate in promoting the inalienable rights of all. As Americans, as Catholics and as pastors of our people, we write therefore today to call our fellow citizens back to our country's founding principles, and most especially to renew our national respect for the rights of those who are unborn, weak, disabled, and terminally ill. Real freedom rests on the inviolability of every person as a child of God. The inherent value of human life, at every stage and in every circumstance, is not a sectarian issue any more than the Declaration of Independence is a sectarian creed.
Truly Catholic Leaders
In a special way, we call on U.S. Catholics, especially those in positions of leadership — whether cultural, economic or political — to recover their identity as followers of Jesus Christ and to be leaders in the renewal of American respect for the sanctity of life. “Citizenship” in the work of the Gospel is also a sure guarantee of responsible citizenship in American civic affairs. Every Catholic, without exception, should remember that he or she is called by our Lord to proclaim his message. Some proclaim it by word, some by action and all by example. But every believer shares responsibility for the Gospel. Every Catholic is a missionary of the Good News of human dignity redeemed through the cross. While our personal vocation may determine the form and style of our witness, Jesus calls each of us to be a leaven in society, and we will be judged by our actions. No one, least of all someone who exercises leadership in society, can rightfully claim to share fully and practically the Catholic faith and yet act publicly in a way contrary to that faith.
Our attitude toward the sanctity of life in these closing years of the “American century” will say volumes about our true character as a nation. It will also shape the discourse about the sanctity of human life in the next century, because what happens here, in our nation, will have global consequences. It is primarily U.S. technology, U.S. microchips, U.S. fiber-optics, U.S. satellites, U.S. habits of thought and entertainment, which are building the neural network of the new global mentality. What America has indelibly imprinted on the emerging global culture is its spirit. And the ambiguity of that spirit is why the Pope appealed so passionately to the American people in 1995. “It is vital for the human family,” he said, “that in continuing to seek advancement in many different fields — science, business, education and art, and wherever else your creativity leads you — America keeps compassion, generosity and concern for others at the very heart of its efforts.”