A Pastoral Statement by The Most
Reverend John J. Myers,
Archbishop of Newark
May 5, 2004
Our times demand honesty. It is possible to value
sincerely one’s Catholic heritage and to revere one’s Catholic forebears
and yet not to have Catholic faith.
Faith is a free and personal act inspired by the Holy Spirit, by which we
entrust ourselves to the living God and to Jesus Christ his Son and our
Lord. While intensely personal, the act of faith is always at the same
time ecclesial. This means that the act of faith embraces the Church to
which Christ Himself has entrusted His mission. According to the Catechism
of the Catholic Church, “Whoever says ‘I believe’ says ‘I pledge myself to
what We believe.’” In other words, faith, while free and personal, is also
a commitment to make one’s own faith the faith of the Church.
It is always a temptation to emphasize the personal aspect of faith with
the intent of “reducing” the faith to those elements with which we are
comfortable in our life. This is deeply erroneous. The commitment of faith
is a commitment to grow not only closer to Jesus Christ but also to
continue to grow, sometimes through questions and struggles, into the full
faith of the Church.
It is clear in the constant teaching of the Church, and recently
articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that protecting the
fullness of the proclamation of the faith in any generation is a task
entrusted to the bishops of the world in union with the Bishop of Rome.
Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, the bishops are charged in each era
and in each culture with proclaiming the truth of the Gospel and
maintaining that truth in good times and in bad.
Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna has pointed out that perhaps the
most powerful words in the Creeds of the Church are those that come first:
“I believe in God the Father Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth….” With
these words we acknowledge that God is the source of the universe and of
our existence. It is God’s world in which we live and it is our task to
come to understand and respect that and live in the world as God intended.
Authentic Christians know that it is not ours to define our own being in
an absolute way, but rather it is ours to discover and live with joy the
being in the world, which God has given us.
This is also true for the human conscience. Clearly each human person has
a conscience and should follow it because by definition conscience is the
intellectual act of judgment of what is right and wrong to do or not to
do. It is the last best judgment of what one ought to choose. Thus,
conscience must be formed through education and prayer, and be informed by
the teaching of Christ. We cannot form our conscience in solitary
isolation or simply with reference to cultural practices or convictions.
Conscience can only be formed authentically by reference to the truth.
Truth and conscience go together. Following an authentic conscience builds
the truly human. Following a conscience without reference to truth sets an
individual and society adrift on a sea of hopelessness.
There are many implications of these principles. We profess our faith not
merely in a formula of words, but rather in the realities to which those
words refer. And that certainly applies in the matter of abortion,
euthanasia, cloning and other issues which are before the American people
and the world public at this time. Long before science made clear that
each individual is genetically new and unique from conception, the Church
taught that abortion is a great evil. She still teaches this even in the
face of the tragedy in our country where respect for the sanctity of human
life has been eroded.
There is no right more fundamental than the right to be born and reared
with all the dignity the human person deserves. On this grave issue,
public officials cannot hold themselves excused from their duties,
especially if they claim to be Catholic. Every faithful Catholic must be
not only “personally opposed” to abortion, but also must live that
opposition in his or her actions. In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All
Seasons, St. Thomas More remarks, “I believe, when statesmen forsake their
own private conscience for the sake of their public duties…they lead their
country by a short route to chaos.” Sadly, too few follow the example of
St. Thomas More. As voters, Catholics are under an obligation to avoid
implicating themselves in abortion, which is one of the gravest of
injustices. Certainly, there are other injustices, which must be
addressed, but the unjust killing of the innocent is foremost among them.
At the same time, I point out that this is not simply a Catholic issue,
but a basic moral issue of justice and human dignity. It applies to all
persons. Some justify their actions by saying that they must respect the
consciences of others. But this “respect” for another’s conscience should
never require abandoning one’s own properly formed conscience.
Conscientious opposition to abortion, rooted in an understanding of the
sanctity of human life, may not be sacrificed simply because others, whose
consciences are gravely mistaken, would unjustly take the life of an
I have already said this before, in a previous Pastoral Letter in 1990:
“Although we must all follow our conscience, the task of conscience is not
to create moral truth, but perceive it. It is quite possible for an
individual to perceive the moral reality of a particular situation
erroneously. Such a person may be sincere, but he or she is sincerely
“Catholics who publicly dissent from the Church’s teaching on the right to
life of all unborn children should recognize that they have freely chosen
by their own actions to separate themselves from what the Church believes
and teaches. They have also separated themselves in a significant way from
the Catholic community.
“The Church cannot force such people to change their position; but she can
and does ask them honestly to admit in the public forum that they are not
in full union with the Church.
“One who practices such dissent, even in the mistaken belief that it is
permissible, may remain a Catholic in some sense, but has abandoned the
full Catholic faith. For such a person to express ‘communion’ with Christ
and His Church by the reception of the Sacrament of the Eucharist is
This is not a new teaching of the Church. From the earliest years, it has
been pointed out that one cannot claim to be a Christian and yet believe
other than what the Church teaches. In the second century St. Justin
Martyr described the Eucharist in this way: “No one may share the
Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he
is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his
sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by
The law and discipline of the Church recognizes this fact in various ways.
It is a time for honesty. I ask and urge that Catholic voters and
Catholics in public life carefully consider their position if they find
themselves in opposition to Church teaching in these matters. Sadly, I
must point out that to continue down this road places them in danger of
distancing themselves even more from Jesus Christ and from His Church.
Perhaps it is also time to remind ourselves of the meaning and purpose of
communion. No one has an absolute right to the Eucharist. It is a gift
given to us by a merciful and gracious God. In fact, the Eucharist is
God’s gift of Himself to us. In receiving Him we are made one flesh with
him. This reception also symbolizes and makes real our union with the
whole Church. To receive unworthily or without proper dispositions is a
very serious sin against the Lord. St. Paul explicitly teaches this in his
letter to the Church at Corinth when he wrote, “This means that whoever
eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the
body and blood of the Lord. A man should examine himself first; only then
should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup. He who eats and drinks
without recognizing the body eats and drinks a judgment on himself” (1 Cor
11: 27-29). “Without recognizing the body” refers both to recognizing the
presence of Christ in the Eucharist and recognizing the Body of Christ,
which is the Church. Obviously this means that no Catholic should approach
communion unless properly disposed (without unconfessed mortal sin on
one’s conscience, having fasted at least one hour in accordance with the
Church’s discipline, etc.).
But, receiving the Eucharist also means that one is in fact in full
communion with Christ and His Church. To receive communion when one has,
through public or private action, separated oneself from unity with Christ
and His Church, is objectively dishonest. It is an expression of communion
by one’s action that is objectively not in accordance with one’s heart,
mind, and choices.
Communion is Not Private
Because the Eucharist is the source and summit of our
faith, the most sacred action of our Church, to misuse the Eucharistic
symbol by reducing it to one’s private “feeling” of communion with Christ
and His Church while objectively not being in such union is gravely
This is particularly true when it comes to the area of protecting human
life. Abortion and infanticide are, as Vatican Council II stated,
“abominable crimes” (Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church
in the Modern World, 51). The fact that all too many U.S. citizens have
grown comfortable with the on-going injustice of abortion on demand is
quite upsetting. That some Catholics, who claim to believe what the Church
believes, are willing to allow others to continue directly to kill the
innocent is a grave scandal. The situation is much much worse when these
same leaders receive the Eucharist when they are not objectively in
communion with Christ and His Church. Their objective dishonesty serves to
compound the scandal.
Some might argue that the Church has many social teachings and the
teaching on abortion is only one of them. This is, of course, correct. The
Church’s social teaching is a diverse and rich tradition of moral truths
and biblical insights applied to the political, economic, and cultural
aspects of our society. All Catholics should form and inform their
conscience in accordance with these teachings. But reasonable Catholics
can (and do) disagree about how to apply these teachings in various
For example, our preferential option for the poor is a fundamental aspect
of this teaching. But, there are legitimate disagreements about the best
way or ways truly to help the poor in our society. No Catholic can
legitimately say, “I do not care about the poor.” If he or she did so this
person would not be objectively in communion with Christ and His Church.
But, both those who propose welfare increases and those who propose tax
cuts to stimulate the economy may in all sincerity believe that their way
is the best method really to help the poor. This is a matter of prudential
judgment made by those entrusted with the care of the common good. It is a
matter of conscience in the proper sense.
Injustices Are Impermissible
But with abortion (and for example slavery, racism,
euthanasia and trafficking in human persons) there can be no legitimate
diversity of opinion. The direct killing of the innocent is always a grave
injustice. One should not permit unjust killing any more than one should
permit slave-holding, racist actions, or other grave injustices. From the
perspective of justice, to say “I am personally opposed to abortion but…”
is like saying “I personally am against slavery, but I can not impose my
personal beliefs on my neighbor.” Obviously, recognizing the grave
injustice of slavery requires one to ensure that no one suffers such
degradation. Similarly recognizing that abortion is unjust killing
requires one—in love and justice—to work to overcome the injustice.
Among my most important responsibilities is that of pastor and teacher. In
light of recent developments in our nation, I wish once again to affirm
the teaching of the Church. Human life is a gift from God and as Catholics
we have a most grave obligation to defend all human life from the moment
of conception until natural death. God help us if we fail in this most
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic
Advocate, archdiocesan newspaper, Newark, New Jersey.