Within the past few weeks at least two people proclaiming membership in
the Catholic Church wrote letters to the editor to daily newspapers
presenting flawed thinking on the Catholic teaching of abortion and their
particular political beliefs. As their bishop, I have no choice but to
respond to their public action.
As people of faith, we are called to be in an intimate and personal
relationship with Jesus Christ, accepting him as Lord and Savior. Only
then will our hearts and minds, our words and actions be truly formed by
As Catholics, we learn about our faith through the reading of the
Sacred Scriptures and the teaching of the Magisterium. This teaching is
found in doctrinal instruction, encyclicals like the Gospel of Life, and
other official documents like the General Instruction on the Roman Missal.
Much of this material is collected into handy resources like the Catechism
of the Catholic Church.
The church, in our ever-changing world, always turns in faith to the
Lord. As the Bible reminds us, the gates of hell will not prevail against
the church. The teaching of the church is in opposition to the culture of
death and therefore the church is attacked by agents of the culture.
Actually, if we follow Jesus, we should expect to carry the cross of
misunderstanding, attack and even hate. As St. Peter said to the sanhedrin,
“We must obey God rather than men.”
The teaching of the Church
In light of the letters to the editor, I want to present the church
teaching in a straightforward manner: You cannot on the one hand support
abortion rights and on the other be a Catholic in good standing. Likewise,
you cannot offer personal opposition to abortion and then act differently
in your professional life.
As the Fathers of the Vatican II Council said more than 30 years ago:
“This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives
deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.” (Gaudium
et Spes 43)
The church, through the bishops, must teach the Gospel. I have the duty
to teach about human life and dignity, marriage and family, war and peace,
the needs of the poor and the demands of justice. As we learned during the
civil rights struggle, we have a moral responsibility to state the truth
about the dignity of every human being regardless of race. It doesn’t
matter whether a particular politician or a candidate for office agrees
with us or not.
The same is true today.
The Catholic Church has taught from the beginning that the killing of
the unborn (burning them with a solution the doctor injects into the womb,
cutting them up while still alive in the womb like so much meat, or
sucking out the brain in partial birth abortion) is intrinsically evil,
murder and can never be justified.
Those who perform an abortion and those who cooperate willingly in the
action, if fully aware of the grave evil, cut themselves off from the
church and separate themselves from God’s grace. This is and has been the
constant teaching of the Catholic Church.
The common good
The letters to the editor and statements I have received in a few private
letters are clear examples of the erosion in Catholic formation for the
last two generations.
Today nominal Catholics are often soft on abortion and badly misinformed
about this and other aspects of the faith including the Eucharist and the
proper formation of one’s conscience. They fail to grasp the difference
between the common good and excessive individual rights.
In the Diocese of Sioux Falls we have the Institute for Religious
Education (IRS) offering up to 120 hours of training in the faith for
religious education teachers, Catholic school teachers, and others to have
the full teaching of the church. It will be offered again this fall, and I
encourage you to take part. Call the Education Office at 605-334-9861 and
ask to be included. To date more than 1,500 people from the diocese have
enrolled for all or part of the program.
During the June bishops’ meeting in Denver, we stated clearly that the
legal system itself cooperates in evil when it fails to protect the lives
of those who have no protection. When the Supreme Court interpreted that
abortion on demand is a constitutional right, the justices failed to
protect the lives of innocent and defenseless new members of the human
race; a sin against the common good.
The morality that protects human rights and thus the common good is the
first and best thing worth legislating. When a politician says, “I am
personally opposed to abortion but don’t want to impose my Catholic
beliefs” or says something like, “You can’t legislate morality,” he or she
fails the common good.
As the bishops stated in “Faithful Citizenship,” Catholics who bring
their moral convictions into public life do not threaten democracy or
pluralism, but rather enrich them and the nation. The separation of church
and state does not require division between belief and public action,
between moral principles and political choices, but rather protects the
rights of believers and religious groups to practice their faith and act
on their values in public life.
The church clearly teaches in the Gospel of Life (par. 73) and on page
6 of the Statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (in
the English translation) that those who formulate the law (legislators at
the state and national level) have a grave and clear obligation to oppose
any law that attacks human life. If you review someone’s voting record or
listen to their campaign promises, you will have the information to cast
an intelligent vote.
The statement from the Congregation goes on to say, “A well-formed
Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program
or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental content of faith
and morals.” (CDF page 6)
Morality not political activity
It is clear that from the pulpit you cannot endorse a certain political
party or speak for or against a particular candidate for office. However,
pastors are only fulfilling their duty when they share the teaching of the
church with regard to faith and morals. This is not political activity.
I have given the statement from the CDF to the priests and deacons so
they can reflect on it and address it from the pulpit when appropriate. I
have asked them to read the Gospel of Life and Veritatis Splendor and
share this with the people. This is important as we help people properly
form their conscience. We cannot be silent out of fear and anxiety, but
rather we must speak the truth of the faith.
As our Holy Father said in the Gospel of Life (par. 28), “We are facing
an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the
‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life.’ We all have a responsibility
which we cannot escape of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life.”
There is a faulty thinking today that all life issues are equal or the
same. Even some priests and religious and a few politicians try to promote
this. The philosophical fallacy that underpins this argument is called
relativism. It teaches that all things and issues are relative and up to
the individual to decide which is of greater importance. Some elements in
the media favor it as it “squares” in their minds with the sense of strong
individualism fostered by the culture. It goes hand-in-hand with the
attitude, “whatever I think or believe, whatever I value or want, whatever
I feel or desire must be correct.”
The fundamental right
But the teaching of the church, which corresponds with reality and the
natural law, is that all life issues are not equal or the same. In fact,
there is one which is primary, life itself. It is so basic and
foundational that if it is not upheld, all other issues and rights are
Opposition to abortion binds every Catholic under pain of mortal sin
and admits of no exceptions.
It was for this reason that I stated in October of 2000 that you cannot
vote for a politician who is pro-abortion when you have a choice and
remain a Catholic in good standing. For some Catholics this is a hard
teaching, but I am simply repeating church teaching: “Human life is sacred
because from the beginning it involves the creative action of God (Gospel
of Life, par. 53)...the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human
being (abortion and euthanasia) is always gravely immoral (Gospel of Life,
par. 57, 65)...protecting the mother’s health does not justify the
deliberate killing of an innocent human being (Gospel of Life, par. 58).”
As Cardinal Ratzinger has said, “Catholics would be guilty of formal
cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present themselves for Holy
Communion, if they were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely
because of the candidate’s permissive stance on abortion or euthanasia.”
This would separate one from the community of the Church.
If one had a properly formed conscience admitting the grave evil of
abortion and euthanasia, as the Church teaches, and does not share a
candidates stand in favor of abortion and euthanasia, but votes for the
candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation
which can be permitted, Cardinal Ratzinger states, if proportionate
reasons are present, e.g., the candidate would limit abortions.
You cannot form your conscience properly based on popular opinion or
feeling or an article in some news magazine, but only from the Scripture
and the teaching of the church. If your personal belief or feeling is
different from the church, then you need to change.
It is not a matter of one opinion versus another opinion. As the
Catechism states in its section on abortion, when the unborn are not
protected, the “very foundations of a state based on law are undermined.”
(CCC, 2273). Life is “the issue,” because every other right is dependent
upon it. Understand that this is not simply one bishop’s opinion, but is
the truth as revealed to us through the church founded by Christ.
Certainly, each individual conscience has rights, but it also has duties,
and one of the primary duties is to inform our conscience through the
teaching of the church.
The right judgment of conscience is not a matter of personal preference
nor has it anything to do with feelings. It has only to do with objective
truth. “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A
well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its
judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by
the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable
for human beings who are subjected to negative influence and tempted by
sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.” (CCC,
Have you read the Gospel of Life, Veritatis Splendor, the Doctrinal
Notes from the Congregation on Some Questions Regarding the Participation
of Catholics in Public Life, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to
American Catholics, and the Catechism, especially the sections on
abortion, euthanasia and conscience formation?
What have you read?
In all honesty, how could a person oppose Catholic teaching or claim to be
right if they have never read what the church teaches? I urge all
Catholics to properly inform their conscience by reading the relevant
church documents before stating what is believed or not believed!
I join the bishops of the United States in committing myself to
teaching clearly, persuading and mobilizing Catholics and all people of
good will to defend human life and support policies that protect human
life from conception to natural death.
In the Diocese of Sioux Falls, those who act in defiance of these
fundamental principles of life should not be honored or invited to speak
at Catholic colleges, schools or parishes, or hold any office such as
lector, Eucharist Minister, usher, parish council member or religious
While we commit ourselves to maintain communication with public
officials who make decisions every day that touch human life and dignity,
we also remember that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Catholic
life. As we read in the Scriptures, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or
drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of
profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11:27) This means that
all must examine their consciences as to their worthiness to receive the
Body and Blood of our Lord. This examination includes fidelity to the
moral teaching of the church and how we live our personal and public
I think we all have some work to do.
Reprinted from The Bishop's Bulletin, East River, South
Dakota, with permission