"Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community" (US Bishops, 1998, Living the Gospel of Life, n.23).
"Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights -- for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture -- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition of all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination" (Pope John Paul II, 1988, The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World (Christifideles Laici), n.38).
Those are clear and strong words. The Vicar of Christ has spoken them to the entire world. The Successors of the Apostles have spoken them to our entire nation. Now it is time for us as priests to echo them to every corner of our parishes, schools, and other avenues of ministry. It is time to echo them in our parish bulletins, our publications, our homilies, our talks, our counseling, and our private conversation.
We are on solid doctrinal, moral, and legal ground. These are words spoken by those to whom we are accountable. It is difficult to go wrong when we are quoting our own bishops and Pope!
Yet often we tiptoe in an embarrassed and overcautious silence when it comes to pointing out the contradiction inherent in the positions of candidates for public office. Let us not confuse moral teaching with political endorsement. We are not called to say, "Vote for John Smith." Yet neither are we called to be silent when "John Smith" tramples underfoot the law of God and the very principles of civilized society by defending the slaughter of children in the womb.
The Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World states, " At all times and in all places, the Church should have the true freedom to teach the faith, to proclaim its teaching about society, to carry out its task among men without hindrance, and to pass moral judgment even in matters relating to politics, whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it" (GS 76).
In the case of abortion in America, the "fundamental rights of man" certainly require that we speak. Let's examine why.
Abortion is not, and never has been, simply an "issue." It is, rather, the most radical break with civilization that history has ever seen. The legal reason this is true becomes clearer when we realize that Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy for any reason or no reason, never denied that the unborn child is a child. The Court instead declared that this question was beyond its competency to answer. "We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer"(Roe, at 159).
Yet just three paragraphs earlier, Roe declares, "[T]he word "person," as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn" (Roe, at 159).
Had the Court said, "We have concluded that the unborn are definitely not human, and therefore we can legalize abortion," at least it would have preserved the principle that government cannot authorize the destruction of the innocent. But the Court failed to do that. Instead, the Court asserted that although unborn children may well be human beings, government can authorize their destruction anyway.
That's the stuff of which holocausts are made. The Court, in fact, declared a new kind of government -- the kind that has mastery over life and death. If a government claims that kind of mastery, there's no reason to limit its use to one group of people over another. Either all our rights are subject to the government, or we have some rights that no government can touch. If government can take away the very right to life, then obviously that right does not come from the mere fact that we are human. Instead, it comes from criteria set by others. And if others can set the criteria for life and death, they can set the criteria for any other right as well, since we can possess and exercise our rights only if we are alive.
This is why the bishops can say that when a public servant cannot stand up for the right to life, his stand for other human rights is "suspect". It is suspect in its very foundations, even if the motives for such a stand are pure. It is suspect in its logic and also in its efficacy. If one tries to build a just society while tolerating the most fundamental injustice, or tries to welcome the poor and weak while ignoring the poorest and weakest, one builds on sand.
This is also why the Pope can call the outcry for human rights "false and illusory" without the right to life. Such an assertion is not a hollow denunciation or a sectarian imposition. Rather, it reflects what our Founding Fathers asserted by calling our rights "inviolable."
The Founding Fathers knew the difference between Divine law and human law, and wrote about it clearly. Alexander Hamilton, a signer of the Constitution, wrote, "[T]he law dictated by God Himself is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity if contrary to this" (The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Vol. I, p. 87).
James Wilson, another signer of the Constitution and a US Supreme Court Justice, wrote, "All [laws], however, may be arranged in two different classes, 1) Divine. 2) Human Human law must rest its authority ultimately upon the authority of that law which is Divine" (The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, Vol. I, pp. 103-105).
In short, to allow legalized abortion is an attack on the entire moral order. If abortion is not wrong, nothing is wrong. If it is wrong, civilization will not survive unless it is set right.
Reprinted with permission
Priests for Life Newsletter
Volume 14, Number 1, January - February 2004
Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director