“The Gospel of Life is at the heart of Jesus’ message,” says Pope John Paul II in the opening words of his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).

In this letter the Pope does more than make a plea for the sanctity of human life; he clarifies the Church's authoritative position on abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty and biological engineering.

The Catholic bishops, with priests as co-workers, are charged to preach the “Gospel of God to all men in keeping with the Lord's command,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

What is the role of the rest of us, the laity, as Catholics? As Americans, some say, we have choice. Yet that choice may come down to lining up with either the ancient values of Christianity or the modern culture of death.

In New Jersey's gubernatorial election Nov. 7, Jim McGreevey, a “very Catholic” Catholic was elected governor by a landslide. Heavily in his corner were nearly 60% of all New Jersey Catholics who voted. They supported their brother in the faith; after all, he is Catholic.

Or is he?

Anyone who followed the New Jersey election knew that the Catholic actively supports partial-birth abortion, and considers any other type of abortion a “choice,” a pregnant woman's prerogative at any time in her nine months of pregnancy.

During the campaign, the Catholic candidate labeled his Protestant opponent an “extremist” for his pro-life positions. The Protestant candidate repeatedly expressed that he fully embraces the position of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic bishops of New Jersey, and the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.

So why did 60% of Catholics side with the pro-abortion “Catholic” over the pro-life Protestant?

Could it be that we Catholics of New Jersey did not know our Church's teachings? Shouldn't we then blame the bishops of New Jersey?

Guess again. On Oct. 22, the Catholic bishops of New Jersey sent a public letter clarifying the teachings of the Church on innocent human life to “members of the Catholic Community” within the Garden State's dioceses. The courageous letter was signed by Newark Archbishop John Myers, and all 10 other bishops of New Jersey.

There was nothing new in the letter. Church teachings on abortion, euthanasia and physician-aided suicide are unchanged since Peter hung upside-down on a cross in Rome. The significant first-century document Didache (Teachings of the Twelve Apostles) makes clear: “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms “the moral evil of every procured abortion.” So too are euthanasia and “mercy killing” clearly opposed.

Perhaps the New Jersey bishops were unclear. What did they actually say?

“As another election approaches, we, the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey, reach out to encourage you to vote and to exercise that right in accordance with consciences formed in the light of your faith and the teachings of the Catholic Church,” they wrote. “As bishops, we are most aware of our primary responsibility as teachers of faith and morals to help people follow God's laws and do His will.

“We have always made it clear that we never intend to instruct people on how they should vote by endorsing or opposing candidates and we do not do so today.

“In 1998, as members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, we adopted a statement, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics. In that document, we noted our obligation to remind all Americans, including political leaders, and especially those who are Catholics. We said: ‘No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life.’ Thus, we consistently call upon all candidates to exercise genuine moral leadership by supporting laws that promote respect for the human person at all stages of life from conception to natural death.

“We also call upon Catholics to use their voting privilege to reflect a choice of candidates who respect and sustain the dignity of all human life. Such choices make clear to all candidates that life issues are a determining factor in our voting decisions.”

And that is what all New Jersey Catholic bishops said to all New Jersey Catholics.

The bishops must be wondering what happened to the flock.

How are the bishops doing in your state? Does anyone listen to the successors of the Apostles? Remember, the New Jersey bishops’ statement states universal Catholic teaching, not local lore nor political propaganda.

It would be interesting to learn what issue in the recent governor's election was most important to Catholics in New Jersey. Yet it is hard to fathom what might be more important than human life. But what do I know? I listen to the bishops.

Is innocent human life important enough for us as Catholics to support it? After the events of Sept. 11, I had heard so. Though now I am not so sure, I remain hopeful.

Pope John Paul II dedicates The Gospel of Life to Mary, the Mother of Life, who said Yes to the choice of life. And in a closing prayer our Holy Father asks of Mary: “Grant that all who believe in your Son may proclaim the Gospel of life with honesty and love to the people of our time. Obtain for them the grace to accept that Gospel as a gift ever new … and the courage to bear witness to it.”

For this we pray.

Drew DeCoursey, author of Lifting the Veil of Choice (OSV 1992), writes from Morristown, New Jersey.