By Ernest Ohlhoff
Editor’s note. Elsewhere today we are commenting on a remarkable column by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. It is a reflection on “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops produced in 1998. Ernest Ohlhoff, Director of Outreach for National Right to Life, wrote about the statement 15 years ago. His column is still very much worth reading.
The statement by the Catholic Bishops of the United States issued on November 18, 1998, uses Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) as a foundation on which to reaffirm and clarify the Catholic Church’s position on, and public response to, what the Pope has described as the “culture of death” in the United States.
Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics is precisely that. It is a challenge to all Catholics to embrace the founding principles of the United States and the teachings of the Gospel of Life. It is a call to Catholics at all levels in the Church, including the hierarchy, to take on an even greater public witness regarding the sanctity of human life.
In the document, the bishops also recognize the global role of the United States as a “trend-setting” democracy and in so doing add increased emphasis on the need to reestablish life-protecting domestic and foreign policies.
“Your country stands upon the world scene as a model of democratic society at an advanced state of development. Your power of example carries with it heavy responsibilities. Use it well America.” — Pope John Paul II, Newark, N.J. 1995
It is because of the United States’ loss of respect for human Life through legalization of abortion and the increased threat of euthanasia and assisted suicide that the bishops’ statement is so important and timely.
Clearly referring to our nation’s founding principles it states:
“… As Americans, as Catholics and as pastors of our people, we write therefore today to call our fellow citizens back to our country’s founding principles, and most especially to renew our nation’s respect for the rights of those who are unborn, weak, disabled, and terminally ill. Real freedom rests on the inviolability of every person as a child of God. 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.”
Referring frequently to remarks from Pope John Paul II, the statement prescribes the responsibilities for both clergy and laity regarding the need to bear a strong public witness of the Gospel’s message of life in both their private and public lives as follows:
“In a special way, we call on U.S. Catholics, especially those In positions of leadership — whether cultural, economic or political — to recover their identity as followers of Jesus Christ and to be leaders in the renewal of American respect for The sanctity of life … No one, least of all someone who Exercises leadership in society, can rightfully claim to share fully and practically the Catholic faith and yet act publicly in a way contrary to that faith. “
Political officials who claim to be “Catholic” are specifically admonished not to hide behind a “personally opposed but …” position:
“….some Catholic elected officials have adopted an argument that, while they personally oppose evils like abortion, they cannot force their religious views onto the wider society. This is seriously mistaken on several key counts. First, regarding abortion, the point when human life begins is not a religious belief but a scientific fact … Second, the sanctity of human life is not merely a Catholic doctrine but part of humanity’s global ethical heritage and our nation’s founding principle. Finally democracy is not served by silence….”
“Catholics who are privileged to serve in public leadership positions have an obligation to place their faith at the heart of their public service, particularly on issues regarding the sanctity and dignity of human life….
“No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life.”
The document also calls on all individual Catholic citizens to use their citizenship as an opportunity to select public officials who will embrace the philosophy of the culture of life:
“… Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts. Every act of responsible citizenship is an exercise of significant individual power. We must exercise that power in ways that will defend human life, especially those of God’s children who are unborn, disabled or otherwise vulnerable. We get the public officials we deserve. Their virtue — or lack thereof — is a judgement not only on them, but on us. Because of this, we urge our fellow citizens to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest.”
And specifically, the bishops themselves define their own responsibilities in the document, by stating in part that:
“… As chief teachers in the Church, we must therefore explain, persuade, correct and admonish those in leadership positions who contradict the Gospel of life through their actions and policies. Catholic public officials who disregard the Church teaching on the inviolability of the human person indirectly collude in the taking of innocent human life.”
“Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics” also challenges each and every individual citizen to focus his/her energies within the democratic process by taking an active public role in the abortion and euthanasia debates and to consider the positions of the candidates for public office carefully before each election. The document also puts Catholic public officials on notice that the “I’m personally opposed, but …” rhetoric is not consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church:
“… No human law can validly contradict the Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.”
This statement is also consistent with and complimentary to the Bishops’ Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities which was first issued in 1975 and reissued in 1985. The plan recommends activities and projects to be conducted through the Church to help defend all innocent human life and restore legal protection to the unborn child.