The Gift of Solidarity
Disasters have a funny way of bringing good people together. Think of the recent outpouring of generosity and aid in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, which so devastated Honduras and Nicaragua. When good people faced together this kind of external disaster a common bond is formed—a bond that supports them in their work and makes them aware that they are called to be a people of life.
The personal and social disaster of legal abortion has brought together many people committed to work for increased respect for life. Yet one might wonder, "With all these talented and hard working people, why aren't we further along?" Abortion remains legal for all nine months of pregnancy, for virtually any reason. Despite near-successful efforts to ban "partial-birth" abortion, even infants struggling to be born can be killed in most states.
Twenty-six years after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, our country is in a state of moral disorder. Recently, a New York Times article raised the question of killing newborns, arguing that life is a continuum and that the moment of birth itself does not define the value of human life. If we can kill before birth legally, the author asked, why can't we kill after birth? He then spelled out a number of reasonable circumstances where such killing could be justified. His argument was consistent, but started from an immoral premise to reach a frighteningly wrong conclusion. This argument represents the logical extension of the pro-abortion ethos which shapes our culture now. No life, no life at all, has intrinsic value simply because it is a human life. No matter whose image we may be made in, the argument goes, a person's worth depends on his or her being wanted by someone with greater power, greater physical ability or greater financial status.
How do we respond? We begin by offering our vision of what the world can be. A vision founded on faith, but one also persuasive in the public square. A vision of a world where every single human being, made in God's image, would be welcomed in life and protected by law. Along with this vision, we offer a virtue that stems from our sense of community. The Church calls this virtue "solidarity."
Solidarity presupposes three bases: a common destiny, a common nature and a common vocation to freely give of ourselves for the good of others. First, a common destiny. In faith we believe that everyone is called to live forever with a God who is Love, and in whom life and love are eternally united. In solidarity we come to realize that our own personal destiny is inextricably shaped by our relationship with others. At the last judgment we will be judged by whether we have betrayed the unity of life and love in our relationships with others. We will be asked, "What did you do to the least of my brothers and sisters? How did you maintain a connection to them? How did you protect them? How did you protect their rights and, more importantly, how did you love them? How did you foster and sustain their lives?"
Secondly, solidarity is based on acceptance of a common nature shared by all humanity. At the heart of this common nature is the fundamental truth that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of our generous and loving God. Today, many think only in terms of individuals, sometimes grouped together, but always as distinct and separate beings related only extrinsically. Solidarity, in contrast, accepts not only that we share a common nature but that this nature is capable of knowing the truth, even about realities that cannot be quantified—realities such as justice and truth, love and peace. These realities inform the deepest level of our common humanity. They give direction to all our relationships.
Third, because we are free and share a common destiny and a common nature, solidarity also means that we can give of ourselves for the common good of others. This common vocation presupposes our common nature, built upon the image and likeness of God who is pure generosity, constantly giving Himself, offering Himself for our salvation. God makes us capable of giving ourselves, even sacrificing ourselves for the sake of the common good. Part of our self-sacrifice is to create a culture worthy of people made in God's image and likeness.
Pope John Paul II calls us to use our faith and the virtue of solidarity to create a culture of life. Culture and faith are both normative systems that tell us how to act, how to think, what to do, what to believe. When we hear that age-old phrase, "Everybody's doing it, mom!" we can say that this "everybody" is the culture. Today we experience a growing tension between our faith and our culture, a tension that tears at us in our deepest heart. This tension will never be entirely eradicated. Yet culture is not simply a force that shapes us; it is also a human creation that we can influence. We can act to reduce the tension by using our vision of faith and solidarity to build and strengthen cultural institutions in harmony with these virtues.
In the culture of the United States, law is a primary carrier of norms. Arguably it is the single factor that most creates American unity, given our diversity of religious faiths, cultural backgrounds, languages and regional differences. Unfortunately, the damage that the law has done to our culture in the last thirty years is proving difficult to undo. Yet law is not the only carrier of our culture. There are other theaters, other avenues of action, which also create culture and which our faith can transform.
We can look, for example, at the universities which are self-consciously carriers of culture. At times it is an adversarial culture—but it is an open one, and it must be engaged on its own terms. We can look at various social movements. We can look, perhaps, at art, plays, paintings, movies, popular music, and see how they might be transformed with this vision of human beings made in the image of a God who is life and love eternally united. How might we transform those areas which are bearers of culture?
Pope John Paul II has also encouraged us to look beyond our national borders and see how the Church can contribute to regional and even global cultures—through patronage of the arts, through education, and through social movements that unite people beyond the frontiers of any nation state. It is up to us as people of faith to find ways to transform our culture by faith, to create a culture that is more in harmony with the ideals of solidarity and human dignity.
The Call to Conversion
To transform this world we have to accept our Lord's call to conversion and invite others to hear this call. The Pope talks about evangelizing, about preaching the Gospel of Life. What does it mean to evangelize someone to the Gospel of Life? It means listening first of all to the Lord, starting with the quiet witness of gospel living and Christian service. It means accepting the necessity of our own conversion, striving daily to bring our will into conformity with the Lord's generous and loving will. Authentic evangelization recognizes that life and love are not our gift to the world; they are God's gift to the world, and we are his good servants.
There is a caricature some accept of a threatening pro-life movement that stridently accuses and condemns. We must find the courage to voice our pro-life message in a way that respects the human dignity of all people, those who do not know what to think of the life issues and even those who are opponents of the Gospel of Life. Evangelizing means speaking in the public forum, and doing so in a tone and manner that is compassionate and caring—judging the act, but being very slow to judge a person. It means speaking to our neighbor in ways that respect their human dignity and never in a way that makes people want to avoid us. It means speaking because we know that the Holy Spirit is always there ahead of us, at work in the world and in the life of the person we are talking to. We have to listen for the movement of the Spirit in a friend's heart. With great respect we look for opportunities to proclaim the Gospel of Life, for the appropriate moment and the appropriate forum, precisely because we have discerning and loving hearts.
We must also help each other to learn as much as we can about the issues, so we are well prepared to answer the questions others are likely to ask. Yet we must have the courage to speak out of our hearts even if we do not know every last technical issue or statistic, knowing that God will help us to find the right words.
There is a great obstacle in our society that stops us from being evangelizers, from preaching the Gospel of Life. In our culture, it is not considered polite to impose yourself upon others, particularly with regard to faith-motivated topics. There is enormous pressure to keep certain topics private, or confined to churches and parochial schools. This pressure should tell us that we must consider carefully our motives for speaking, and then speak always from a sense of love for our neighbor and respect for God's gift of life. Then, even in the midst of a struggle to find words, we can trust that God will help us to reach people's hearts.
There is another obstacle to preaching the Gospel of Life. Sadly, our nation has well-known examples of Catholics who have intentionally separated their faith from their actions in the public sphere. In his famous address to the Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy announced: "I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair." Whether intended or not, that declaration taught the message that faith is purely private. This "privatized" faith stands in stark contrast to the witness of the modern martyrs. I think particularly of Father Bernard Lichtenberg, who died of illness and starvation when he was 67 years old, in a cattle car on its way from his Berlin prison to the Dachau concentration camp. The reason for Blessed Bernard's arrest and death was that he used the pulpit of St. Hedwig Cathedral in Berlin to pray publicly for the victims of the Nazis, particularly the Jewish people. Blessed Bernard's faith was woven through every aspect of his work in the world and through every fiber of his being, public and private, at the price ultimately of his own earthly life. Imagine a country in which our Catholic political and other leaders were willing to be so courageous!
Instead, we see too often that the current notion of faith as a purely private matter, along with an exaggerated notion of privacy itself, has continually shrunk the sphere in which faith can legitimately operate. Faith is first excluded from politics, then from the school and workplace, then from the living room and bedroom, and finally even from influencing the consciences of believers on any moral issues, which are all "personal" and therefore totally individual in nature. The result is not only a faith that has little impact on contemporary life—whether public or private—but also a modern society that is hostile to hearing of faith. When faith can be neither public nor normative, when it cannot create a public culture, there are two options: either a conformity of faith to the prevailing cultural norms—which is the easiest way to go—or a confrontation which, although sometimes necessary, cannot be indefinitely sustained.
Because Catholics can be satisfied neither with total conformity nor with constant confrontation, the usual Catholic alternative is conversation. We have to work to find the vocabulary that will create a culture of life. In this conversation with our culture we must try to show how—far from being a threat to freedom or democracy—faith and solidarity are actually the firmest foundation for a free society, because they respect the dignity of each and every human being without exception. That conversation is still possible here, and for that we should be grateful.
Reasons for Hope
We have reasons for hope. We have known for years that most people's sentiments are more pro-life than not. We know we add to the number of pro-life people each time we find the courage to speak from the heart. And each time that we reach out to a woman in crisis, so that she can protect the life she bears. And each time we pray for the conversion of those who disagree with us. We also know that the partial-birth abortion debate has forced people to face squarely the true horror of abortion. While President Clinton may have temporarily prevented the will of the people from prevailing when he twice vetoed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the public relations struggle over partial-birth abortion has, in fact, been won by the pro-life movement.
What the polls and newspapers don't reflect are the facts that are most important. Thousands and thousands of children and young people are alive today and doing all the things that other children do, because a pro-life individual was there during the course of an unexpected and "unwanted" pregnancy. That individual was with the mother either physically, or at least in spirit and prayer and in solidarity with the woman who felt she needed to choose abortion because there was no other choice available.
The Pope writes in The Gospel of Life that God is always ready to answer our prayers for help with the virtues, the strength that we need to do God's will. God is determined to help us accomplish the tasks he sets before us. He doesn't expect us to do it alone, but gives us in solidarity many coworkers and companions, a family, to edify us and bolster our resolve. Nor does God require us to win each and every battle that we fight. All that is required, as Mother Teresa reminded us, is that we be faithful. That is the wonderful thing about being part of the family of God. We think in different time spans. All of our efforts are used to bring God's will and His love to circumstances that seem beyond our reach and beyond hope. But when we are faithful, God finds ways to work through us and create the world that He wants.
Throughout history God has been generous in raising up holy people for His Church and His world, and God will not be outdone in generosity in the next millennium. We must all listen to the voice of God, calling us to be people of life and love, and thus to aspire to be among the first saints of the third Christian millennium. That is what this vocation really is all about. To help others, to save those who are helpless, and to become holy ourselves in so doing.
There is a little girl in Chicago whose teenage mother—twelve years ago—was under tremendous pressure to have an abortion. The pro-life community there became aware of the situation. Some tried to intervene directly, but they were told it was none of their business. Things seemed hopeless, so they prayed. Dozens of people prayed constantly, I was told, around the clock. At 23 weeks of pregnancy, the young mother went to the abortion clinic. When the needle that would have begun the abortion was only an inch from her stomach, she inexplicably changed her mind. She told the abortionist, "No."
Several months later one of the couples who prayed adopted a beautiful baby girl whom they named Mary Margaret, after her birth mother. When I met Mary Margaret a few months ago, she shared with me a copy of her brief autobiography:
"My name is Mary Margaret and I am twelve years old. If it were not for a strong, brave and very courageous young woman, I might be zero years old. Adoption is the thing that saved my life. When God brought my birth parents together, God intended me to live and breathe in this beautiful world. Most pregnant teen moms would have done what any other teen mom would do. She would have had that 'little' surgical procedure known as abortion done to kill me. If my birth mom had listened to them I would not be here today. I would not be the big sister of three wonderful little brothers. I would not be an ice skater or an honor roll student. I would be a nothing. I'm sure that placing me for adoption was the hardest choice in her life, but it probably was the best one, too. She must have lingered over the decision for a while, but after you look at the pro's and con's, for me certainly, adoption was the best choice."
Stories like Mary Margaret's would not be possible without people of life, people who live in solidarity with the God of life and love. We have every reason to enter this new millennium with profound hope.
Cardinal George is Archbishop of Chicago and a consultant to the Bishops Committee for Pro-Life Activities.