by Richard M. Doerflinger
December 11, 1998
When the Catholic bishops of the United States approved a new statement on the sanctity of human life this November, the most frequent question reporters asked of bishops and staff was: "What's new about this statement?"
The reporters knew that the Catholic Church has a centuries-long moral tradition on the need to defend human life. They also knew that the Catholic bishops have defended a consistent ethic of life, linking efforts against abortion and euthanasia with efforts against poverty, racism and capital punishment. What they wanted to know was how the new statement, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, would make things different.
Some, like the Washington Post, made up their own answer, announcing that the bishops had kicked off a new political "campaign" to mobilize Catholic voters on the abortion issue. Others thought new plans to excommunicate certain Catholic politicians might be in the works. These were, to say the least, misunderstandings -- the statement is not a political strategy map but a pastoral exhortation to Catholic citizens, voters and public officials. There are new elements to the statement, but they build on the Church's past statements and actions on these issues.
One new aspect, inspired by Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life, is a new confidence and coherence in relating attacks on life such as abortion and euthanasia to other threats to human dignity. The bishops were very clear in affirming their commitment to human life at every stage and in every circumstance: "Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice." Yet the value of each and every human life is so clearly undermined by direct attacks on innocent life that opposing such attacks is of fundamental importance even as the Church continues its efforts against racism, homelessness and other problems.
The bishops, who have spoken of a "seamless garment" of respect for life, used a new metaphor: "If we understand the human person as the "temple of the Holy Spirit" -- the living house of God -- then these latter issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house's foundation... Neglect of these issues is the equivalent of building our house on sand."
Secondly, the bishops made a very direct appeal to public officials, especially those who claim adherence to the Catholic faith. They commended public leaders who courageously speak and act in defense of human life at all stages, but added: "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. We call on them to reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public roles and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with Church teaching."
In part this more direct approach grows out of the bishops' own experience of opposing the grotesque late-term procedure known as partial-birth abortion. An unprecedented number of bishops over the past two years have written directly to their elected officials and met personally with them -- sometimes accompanied by thousands of letters and postcards signed by lay Catholics in their home dioceses. In this statement, the bishops openly affirm their continuing obligation as pastors to teach the moral truth to those who wield public authority.
Third, the statement takes a new and forceful approach to those who say such appeals to political figures are unwarranted intrusions of religion into public life. The bishops say that to deny the God-given unalienable right to life is to betray the founding principles of our nation. Thus this debate is not about a sectarian agenda, but about reclaiming a national heritage grounded in our Declaration of Independence. "In a striking way," they say, "we see today a heightening of the tension between our nation's founding principles and political reality. We see this in diminishing respect for the inalienable right to life and in the elimination of legal protections for those who are most vulnerable. There can be no genuine justice in our society until the truths on which our nation was founded are more perfectly realized in our culture and law."
The bishops have posed a bold challenge to Catholics in the United States. "American Catholics have long sought to assimilate into U.S. cultural life," they say. "But in assimilating, we have too often been digested. We have been changed by our culture too much, and we have changed it not enough. If we are leaven, we must bring to our culture the whole Gospel, which is a Gospel of life and joy. That is our vocation as believers." As we approach a new Millennium, if we live more fully and unapologetically as Catholics who love life, we may help our society become both more truly American and more fully human.
(Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The full text of the bishops' statement is posted on the NCCB's Web site: www.usccb.org/prolife/gospel.shtml.)