A truly enlightened society makes political decisions based on moral
principles and creates laws consistent with God's provident plan to
foster human life. We have witnessed over two centuries the emergence of
God's loving will in several important issues. The abolition of slavery
and the extension of civil rights to all Americans, regardless of race,
religion or ethnic origin, are examples of the triumph of basic human
rights despite deeply rooted practices of discrimination in our country.
History shows that Our Commonwealth is enriched when its citizens
approach human rights questions from positions grounded in God's loving
plan and alert to the moral dimensions of all human actions.
George Washington, in his Farewell Address, spoke of the necessary
part religion must play in the well-being of the nation:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political
prosperity religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . And
let us with caution indulge the Supposition that morality can be
maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence
of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and
experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail
in exclusion of religious principles.(1)
As spiritual leaders, bishops have a responsibility to offer guidance
when our people attempt to make decisions on issues of human life,
dignity and rights. Bishops are authoritative teachers of faith and
morals in these human rights issues, we teach in union with our brother
bishops throughout the world and with our Holy Father, the Pope. One of
the most important life issues addressed by the Church today is that of
abortion, which was condemned along with infanticide by the Second
Vatican Council as "unspeakable crimes".(2)
In this reflection we wish to assist our Catholic laity and all
persons of good will. We address this issue of abortion not as a narrow
sectarian concern, but as a fundamental human issue that touches every
person of any or no creed. To speak out against racial discrimination,
social injustice or abortion is not to force values upon society;
rather, it is to call to the attention of our society its own long
accepted moral principles and commitment to defend basic human dignity
Catholics who are recognized as public figures and enjoy a place of
prominence within the community and even within the Church, have a
special duty to be faithful in both word and action to the faith they
profess. True conviction will not allow itself to be emptied of meaning
when challenged in public life. In fact, the opposite is true. We must
defend our most cherished principles when they are questioned.
Membership in the Catholic Church requires accepting the teachings
and creed of the Church. To pick and choose from the Church's teaching
and creed what one accepts and what one rejects is not the definition of
a faithful member of the Church. Jesus called upon His disciples to
accept even His "hard sayings" if they were to remain true to
Repudiating publicly the teaching of the Church and encouraging
others to do so forces the bishops to take issue. This is not a question
of the right to free speech. it is a matter of false representation. One
cannot claim to be a Catholic in good standing in the Church while
publicly rejecting and advocating the abandonment of its teaching.
The so-called "right to choose" argument raises its own set
of problems. The argument is usually put in these terms:
"Personally I am against abortion but I believe that women should
have a right to choose." While this argument appears to have a
certain public relations appeal, closer analysis reveals it as nothing
more than an evasion of the issue. Advocates of this position would
never apply such logic to any other serious moral matter, including
racial segregation, child labor, ethnic and religious bigotry, or sexual
harassment. For example, how would this sound: "Personally I am
opposed to slavery, but I believe that people should have a right to
What would happen if we employed this approach in all of our current
social and moral questions? Would this argument be a proper response to
the problems of drug dealing and drug use, to child abuse, drinking and
driving, racial inequality or other current social and moral dilemmas?
Can we grow as a healthy society when such a double standard of morality
is enshrined as an acceptable response to matters touching human rights,
dignity and life' Ultimately, the "freedom of choice" argument
when applied equally to good and evil choices has no meaning in a
morally ordered society.
Those who support the "right to choose" argument assume
that only the mother is affected by choosing to abort her baby. We
reject that premise for the clear and compelling reason that two human
lives are involved. In this partnership of human life, it is radically
unjust for one to choose to end the life of the other.
Every Catholic must recognize abortion as the killing of an unborn
child and work at least to limit and, if possible, eradicate this evil.
To stand by and watch the public decision-making process determined
solely by pragmatic considerations is to empty words of their meaning
and the political process of its moral content.
Our concern for the life of unborn children must be matched by our
sensitivity and love for women with unexpected or problem pregnancies.
Every effort must be made by our Churches as well as by the civil
government to assist pregnant women, especially those under pressure to
seek a solution through abortion.
No religious group has the right or power to "impose its
views" on others. In our pluralistic democracy, public policy on
abortion and other controversial issues is decided when a majority of
citizens of whatever convictions determines the policy. Catholics, along
with others, must present their views with clarity and vigor before they
are accepted by the majority. On an issue as vital as abortion, it is
essential for Catholics to participate in the public debate with courage
and conviction. Otherwise, the daily killing of 4,000 unborn children
will continue unabated.
When we speak as citizens, we bishops make no claim other than our
right to speak to public policy. We tell no person for whom to vote. But
we do have a duty to proclaim the basic right to life of every human
being, born and unborn, and to denounce the objective evil that is
abortion. Today many voices contend for the soul of America. These
voices advocate and argue a wide range of actions that affect the moral
fiber of our nation. in the midst of these different opinions, we
bishops call upon our Catholic people to adhere to the moral teaching of
the Catholic Church. We challenge them to profess-not only in their
words but also by courageous deeds-their conviction about the sanctity
of all human life.
- George Washington, Farewell Address: Messages and Papers of the
Presidents; Bureau of National Literature, New York, vol 1, p, 205.
- The Second Vatican Council, "Pastoral Constitution on the
Church in the Modern World", no. 51.
Used with permission of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference