The Catholic bishops of the United States issued a document two weeks ago, appealing to Catholics and to all citizens of the United States to make the cause of human life a priority. But depending upon the “spin” given the document by your local news organizations, this may be a big surprise to you.
You may have read, rather, that the bishops wrote a document threatening Catholic politicians unless they shape up on their abortion votes. Or that the bishops are trying to form a Catholic voting bloc. Or that they are telling Catholic precisely “how to vote” in any given election. If you read the Washington Post or their syndicated article, you may even believe that the bishops drafted various lists of activities for priests and for bishops, all directed toward putting pressure on Catholic citizens and Catholic politicians in connection with public policy on abortion and euthanasia. (The Washington Post article was so particularly “off,” that a reporter from another magazine who has never particularly liked the pro-life cause called me to offer her sympathy.)
But all of these miss the spirit — not to mention the letter — of the document by a mile. For Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, is essentially a religious document. A pastoral document in the fullest sense of the word: a document in which the pastors of the Church exercise their responsibility as shepherds to teach those entrusted to them. In this case, to teach them about the very fundamental importance of matters of life and death — abortion and euthanasia in particular — in the midst of a culture which denies this truth.
The document was inspired — provoked is a more apt term — by our nation's debate over partial-birth abortion. Surely, this debate was the occasion for many to wake up to the brutal reality of the word “abortion.” But in the end, it proved impossible over two and one-half years to ban this horrible practice of brutally stabbing and suctioning the brains of mostly-born infants. In the end, the same old meaningless jumble of misrepresentations, and protestations about “rights” and “medical necessity” that passes for “pro-choice” argumentation, won the day. It was not lost on the Catholic bishops that the margin of defeat in the Senate — three little votes — could have been reversed and exceeded if certain Catholic senators, famously Catholic senators, had voted the right way.
“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.”
The document was drafted, therefore, to remind Catholics of the Church's teachings about human life. Also to remind Catholics and all American citizens of our national heritage that comes to us from our founders, a heritage of respect for the fundamental and inalienable rights of all human beings, the first being the right to life. The document says: “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.” Very importantly, the document was written also to remind Catholic of the enormous theological weight and the priority given to the proscriptions against abortion and euthanasia in the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae: “As John Paul II reminds us, the command never to kill establishes a minimum which we must respect and from which we must start out ‘in order to say “yes”’ over and over again, a “yes” which will gradually embrace the entire horizon of the good.' (EV 75, italics original).”
No doubt, the document speaks strongly to Catholic public officials. Reports missed their mark, however, when they claimed that this was intended to single them out in a unique way. The document also speaks directly and by name to all Catholic citizens, to brother bishops, to priests, religious, catechists, Catholic school teachers, family life ministers, and theologians. One might say, rather, with respect to Catholic politicians, that the document intends to remind them first that they are no different in most respects from Catholics generally. All have the responsibility to live lives of integrity in which private beliefs about life and death are reflected in public behavior.
On the other hand, the document does recognize two qualities setting public officials apart from others: First, they are uniquely empowered to affect matters of life and death, to the point where, should they vote for abortion or euthanasia, they “indirectly cooperate” in the actual killing. Second, some Catholic public officials are responsible for popularizing the argument that they are “personally opposed to abortion, but …” favor its legality. This insidious argument has led many people astray, Catholics and others. As the document says: “We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin.”
There is a colloquial expression regularly used in our country: “a matter of life and death.” It refers, of course, to the most important matters there are. But in the marketplace of ideas, enormous efforts have been expended to regularize the practices of abortion and euthanasia. The Catholic bishops have every intention of upsetting this plan with Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics.
Helen Alvaré is director of planning and information at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.