by Helen Alvaré
June 24, 1999
"Citizenship in the work of the Gospel is also a sure guarantee of responsible citizenship in American civic affairs."
How about this for fireworks on the Fourth of July? Religion, Politics, Abortion and Euthanasia . . . all together in one document. Seriously.
These are the subjects of a statement by the U.S. Catholic bishops in a document whose cover bears a likeness of the very Declaration of Independence we celebrate every Fourth. It is called: Living the Gospel of Life; a Challenge to American Catholics (LGL) -- "challenge" being the operative word. For the bishops' message comes onto the American scene in the midst of stiff challenges to respect for human life, and challenges to Catholics' will and ability to respond to these.
In the United States, Catholics are sorely tempted to try to "fit in" with elite culture's approval of abortion, and sometimes euthanasia as well. (Demographically, more "privileged" Americans favor legal abortion and euthanasia more than do those of less privilege.) As the bishops say: "We have been changed by our culture too much and we have changed it not enough." (LGL, 25) A more perfect example can hardly be found than in a recent Washington Post interview with the Roman Catholic winner of the 1999 National Book Award (Alice Mc Dermott): "If she's never rejected her Catholic upbringing, that may be because she was also taught to see it skeptically. She remembers coming home outraged, because the church had told her to be outraged, about Roe v. Wade. ... 'People are going to have abortions, whether they're legal or not,' her father said. ... McDermott soon decided he was right. 'All the girls in school started going off to have abortions.' She ...laughs. 'It opened my mind.'" Another painful example of trying to "fit in": the failure of prominent Catholic politicians to vote to override President Clinton's veto of the bill to ban partial birth abortions.
The second and simultaneous challenge Catholics face is that of seeming to "stick out" when the subject turns to abortion or euthanasia. Even though a solid majority of Americans oppose most abortions and euthanasia. And even though respect for human life comes first from human instinct, not religious dogma.
In the recent debate over using federal tax monies to kill human embryos by removing their "stem cells," regularly it is a representative of the Church who testifies, often alone, before Congress against powerful interests from the federal government and genetic research firms. When Michigan last Fall considered a referendum to legalize assisted suicide, the Church helped organize one of the most visible and successful campaigns against it. At various United Nations conferences, when the United States has led efforts aggressively to insert legalized abortion into international agreements as a "human right," it has been the Holy See holding up most publicly the rights of the unborn. For these and other public pro-life displays, supporters of abortion and euthanasia regularly accuse the Church of seeking to "impose its values" on the nation. As if it were not the essence of democracy for private citizens to speak the truth in the public square.
Into this setting comes Living the Gospel of Life. Doing what Catholic teaching does at its best: transcending apparent contradictions, bridging faith and reason. To Catholics and to all Americans, LGL says "Be not afraid." Respect for the life of every human being, no matter how ill, broken, or unformed, is an inherently noble tradition. A non-religious tradition that is and has been an essential part of "humanity's global ethical heritage." (LGL, 24). A quintessentially American tradition, too, synonymous with the most indispensable of the founding principles of our nation: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...."
Catholic Americans need not hide their pro-life beliefs, nor squirm uncomfortably when one of their own is featured prominently in defense of human life. For 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." (LGL, 6).
Happy Fourth of July.
Ms. Alvaré is Director of Planning and Information for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.