by Bishop James T. McHugh
November 13, 1998
The U.S. bishops recently concluded their five-year (ad limina) visists to Rome. Every five years, the bishops, in regional groups, visit the various offices of the Holy See, celebrate Mass with the Pope, and each bishop meets privately with the Holy Father.
When he meets with each group of bishops, the Holy Father delivers a brief reflection, or message, that is actually addressed to all the bishops in the United States. These messages cover a wide range of pastoral concerns. In this column, I will focus on references to pro-life concerns in several addresses, and to the Holy Father's continued encouragement to the bishops and to American Catholics.
Throughout, John Paul II recognized the unquestionable value of freedom which is enshrined in the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. But he points out that freedom is not simply unfettered personal autonomy or limitless personal choice. While such a notion of freedom receives popular support in the media, academia and our political institutions, it is superficial and empty. Such a notion destroys the concept of personal responsibility and undermines protection of the common good. Authentic freedom is based on truth and on the moral law which is "inscribed in our humanity, which we come to know by reflecting on our nature and our actions and which lays certain obligations upon us because we recognize them as
universally true and binding." This natural law, which is discernible by every person and binds all of us, gives us human integrity and enables us to safeguard and advance the good of society.
Pope John Paul noted that in building "a culture of life" the Church in the United States has consistently reached out to defend and promote human life and human dignity--by its generous social services for the poor, its support for immigrants from foreign lands, and by its strong statements in the public square pointing out the moral deficiencies of capital punishment. Statements of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops over the years have tried to heighten public awareness and sensitivity to the ethical dimensions of peace and war, environmental concerns and the implications of economic policies.
At the same time, the Holy Father agreed with and encouraged the bishops in their efforts to "rightly underscore the priority that must be given to the fundamental right to life of the unborn, and to opposition to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide." This priority was given special prominence in The Gospel of Life when John Paul II, exercising his papal teaching authority, confirmed the doctrinal and binding character of the teaching that the destruction of innocent human life, abortion and euthanasia are grave moral evils that cannot be justified, and whose free exercise or toleration undermine or destroy respect for life in other situations and circumstances.
Addressing recent legislative debates in the U.S., John Paul said that the strident support for partial-birth abortion, which was part of the public debate, amounts to an almost unimaginable insensitivity to the reality of what happens in an abortion and the damage it does to women and their infants. It is a mentality that ignores the value of human life, and opens the door to concerted efforts to justify legalized assisted-suicide and withdrawal of life-sustaining technologies, including assisted feeding, from seriously ill non-dying patients. The presumption, said the Holy Father, should be in favor of providing medically assisted nutrition and hydration unless or until it becomes excessively burdensome, dangerous or disproportionate to the expected outcome.
Highlighting the need for society to legally protect and sustain human life, Pope John Paul emphasized the unique opportunity--and the responsibility--that Catholics have, especially Catholic politicians, "to make their voices heard in the formulation of cultural, economic, political and legislative projects which, with respect for all and in keeping with democratic principles, will contribute to the building of a society in which the dignity of each person is recognized and the lives of all are defended and enhanced" (The Gospel of Life, 90).
The Holy Father emphasized over and over again the basic message of his encyclical, The Gospel of Life: Respect for human life calls for "a precise and vigorous reaffirmation of the value of life and its inviolability." He thanked the U.S. bishops for their unflagging efforts in this regard: "The pro-life movement," said the pope, "is one of the most positive aspects of American public life, and the support given it by the bishops is a tribute to your pastoral leadership."
Bishop James T. McHugh is Bishop of the Diocese of Camden, and a member of the NCCB Committee for Pro-Life Activities.