Cardinal O'Connor's Response to Violence at Abortion Clinics

Author: Cardinal O'Connor


Cardinal John O'Connor

Yesterday was confession day again, my normal Saturday indoor sport. But this time I felt a bit melancholy before I went to confession. I'm not sure why. Maybe because this is the last Sunday I will be only 74 years old. With a birthday coming next week, I'm finally having to face middle age! But my wonderful confessor cheered me up as he always does. He talked about the beautiful light that came from the infant Jesus at the first Epiphany, when the Wise Men from the East followed his star and came to see him face to face. "Where is the newborn king of the Jews?" they asked, according to the Gospel read today. "We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage."

My confessor went on to talk about how that same light of Christ bathes us today, fills us with understanding and peace, leads the way through the darkness of every one of our problems and pains and sorrows. He went on, then, to speak even more beautifully about the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ that we receive in holy communion this day, through this Mass. This is our Epiphany today.

The shepherds saw the light of Christ and rejoiced. The Wise Men saw the light of Christ and rejoiced. But neither the shepherds nor the Wise Men received Christ into their very beings as we do. They saw him, and that was a wonderful gift, but although we cannot see him except with the eyes of faith, under the appearance of bread and wine, we receive his body and blood, we receive the living Christ, the same baby Jesus born in Bethlehem, the same Jesus, God become man, who died on the cross and rose from the dead.

And even more: The living Christ sweeps us up into his divinity, into his divine light. This is what Epiphany means today. He not only reveals himself, he gives himself, totally and unconditionally. And in the light from his face we cannot only see him as he is; we can see ourselves in him. We can come to know what it means to be truly human, to be made in his image and likeness, whoever we are, whatever our religion, our color, our sex, our orientation, our sins. In him we see ourselves as he wants us to be. We see ourselves as sacred human beings. We see every individual in the world as equally sacred, of immeasurable worth and dignity.

Seeing ourselves and others this way is one of our reasons for treasuring every human life, the life of the hungry, the homeless, the drunk, the drug-ridden, the unborn, the elderly, those with cancer, those with AIDS, the rich, the poor, the famous, the unknown. The feast of the Epiphany, then, is a great day to celebrate the great gift of life, life in general, the life of Christ, our own lives in and because of Christ.

It is this sense of the sacredness of every human life that has prompted my very close friend, His Eminence Cardinal Law, archbishop of Boston, to denounce unconditionally the recent killings and woundings that took place in two abortion clinics in his archdiocese. I joined him in that unconditional denunciation and expressed my deep sorrow for the victims and their loved ones, as I have done on previous occasions. Indeed, on this current occasion I have repeated publicly what I have said before and mean, with every fiber of my being: "If anyone has an urge to kill an abortionist, kill me instead." That's not a grandstand play. I am prepared to die if my death can save the life of another.

Cardinal Law, one of the strongest pro-life leaders in the United States, knows the situation in Boston as I and others do not, and has called for a moratorium on pro-life demonstrations outside abortion clinics. As would be expected by everyone who knows Cardinal Law, what he actually said in calling for such a moratorium is carefully reasoned and respectful. I quote in part from his column in his archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot (Jan. 6, 1995).

"I do not imply that such demonstrations are poorly motivated, or that they are not peaceful, or that they are illegal. It is, for me, a matter of prudential judgment. Prudence sometimes calls for one to refrain from something that is good in itself. That is the case here. I have in mind peaceful, prayerful, legal demonstrations. Any demonstration characterized by violence would, of its very nature, be out of order.

"My motive in asking for this moratorium is to avoid, on the side of the pro-life movement, anything which might engender anger or some other form of violence. The pro-life message cannot be heard in the midst of violence, whether that violence be in thought, word or deed. We need to focus calmly and prayerfully on the pregnant woman and the child she bears. In this calm, perhaps our society will hear more clearly the words of Isaiah: 'Turn not your back on your own flesh.'

"Within the next several weeks I will designate a church in each of the five regions of the archdiocese where there will be scheduled times of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament for pregnant women and the children they bear. Hopefully, those who have engaged in prayer before abortion clinics will accept this as an appropriate way to heed the advice of St. Paul: 'Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer' (Rom. 12).

"These have been most difficult days in which we have seen the tragic complexity of evil. May we not lose heart as we seek to affirm life and reject all forms of violence."

It is quite possible that were I the archbishop of Boston I would be inclined to call for such a moratorium in the Boston area, at least for a period of time, while trying to sort things out. Indeed, I intend to borrow at least one page from Cardinal Law's book and ask that every week a different pastor in each of the 19 regions of the Archdiocese of New York schedule a period of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in the cause of human life. I would ask, however, that this be in addition to any prayer vigils that responsible individuals or groups believe that they should conduct legally and non-violently within the Archdiocese of New York in the vicinity of abortion clinics.

The rosary vigils led by my brother bishop in Brooklyn, Bishop Thomas Daily, are wonderful examples of peaceful processions and prayers in the vicinity of abortion clinics. I cannot imagine that any people of good will could object to them, and certainly no one would deny their constitutionality. To my knowledge, prayer vigils held here in New York have been equally peaceful and non-violent.

Here in the Archdiocese of New York, however, I too would be prepared to call for a moratorium on these peaceful prayer vigils on condition that a moratorium be called on abortions. The first is within my power, to call a moratorium on prayer vigils, although I would respect those who might disagree with me and carry out such vigils anyway.

The second, a moratorium on abortions, is obviously not within my power, but only within the power of those who operate abortion clinics. Perhaps during a moratorium on both abortions and prayer vigils here in New York, both sides could meet to determine whether there is anything that can legitimately be the subject of dialogue.

I am convinced that fair-minded people do not want to permit an act of madness that has resulted in killing sacred human persons in abortion clinics to "demonize" the hundreds of thousands of gentle, caring, non-violent individuals in the pro-life movement or to end the movement itself.

And certainly no one wants to see a revival of what is described by Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson, M.D., in his book <The Abortion Papers: Inside the Abortion Mentality.> In a 32-page chapter called "Catholics," he details how he and other abortionists designed strategies and propaganda explicitly to discredit the Catholic Church herself, to divide Catholics from one another and to revive all the old anti-Catholic fears and prejudices about the enormous power of the pope or the insidious efforts of Catholics to dominate the government and impose its will on the people. Dr. Nathanson accepts the blame for presiding over 60,000 abortions and influencing legislators to legalize abortion before he recognized the horror of what he had been about. He now rejects abortion.

I cannot imagine that any decent person or organization would want to revive the tactics Dr. Nathanson describes. I find it equally difficult to imagine that anyone could believe that in New York today such tactics could dissuade the church from continuing to appeal for the unborn or the aged and the vulnerable—for all whose lives are threatened.

At the same time, as many know, never once have I condemned any girl or woman for having an abortion. I know the pressures too well. I know that even parents who truly love a daughter may urge her to have an abortion rather than permit a pregnancy to disrupt her life. I know that many women are poor, many have nowhere to turn, many have been deserted by the fathers of their unborn children. This is why, on Oct. 15, 1984, I announced that any woman, of any religion, of any color, race or ethnic background from anywhere, who is pregnant and without funds can come to New York, and the church will make every effort to arrange for her medical expenses, hospitalization and other needs. If she wishes to keep her baby she will be welcome to do so; if she wishes to give the baby for adoption, she will be equally welcome.

I understand that since I first made that offer, which I have repeated many times since, we have helped approximately 50,000 women and have expended more that $5 million.

I guessed in advance that such would be the case, since the Alan Guttmacher Institute's own figures reveal that at most 8 percent of all abortions in America are for reasons of rape, incest or the life of the mother. I agree with Cardinal Law that government and society should do a lot more to provide alternatives to abortion, and that is worth dialoguing about. I offer what the church does as only one aspect of what government and society should be doing, in my judgment.

The church in New York has 23 separate agencies, every agency certified, to take unwanted babies. When Mayor Ed Koch told me some years ago that there were some 60 or 80 babies with AIDS in hospitals, with no one to take them, I said, "We will take them all." And we did, as Mayor Koch can verify.

That the church cares as deeply about the born as about the unborn should be obvious to all. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars that we have to struggle for in order to keep our Catholic schools open, where 85 percent are minorities, 50 percent from families below the poverty line, 50 percent children of single parents, large percentages not Catholic. We have the largest number of beds designated for persons with AIDS in the private sector in the United States. Some 1,547,840 persons are taken care of by Catholic Charities each year in New York. The church has built 10,812 units of low—and moderate—income and senior-citizen housing in New York. When a mayor asked us to take in the homeless during the winter, we opened 100 facilities for doing so. And so on. None of this is a boast. It's what we should be doing because we are church. And nothing could be done except for your generosity toward those in need.

I must conclude. The New York Post of Jan. 5, 1995, editorially asked, "Why the readiness to tie the Boston killings to the pro-life movement?" The Post answered its own question: "To marginalize the movement in the eyes of the general public." And it concluded: "Thus far, moreover, the effort seems to be working—which is a pity." I would like to believe, however, that the current outcries against the pro-life movement are a reflection of frustration rather than a concerted effort to marginalize millions of non-violent, peaceful people whose only sin is their love for every human life, the life of every baby, the life of every mother. If there is a concerted effort, however, I cannot believe it will "work" for very long. Too many wonderful people in the pro-life movement have sacrificed too much for too long to give up now.

I conclude for the record: I categorically abhor and denounce violence. I categorically denounce the hypothesis that to kill an abortionist is justifiable in order to save babies. I have publicly denounced the violence of an abortion clinic bomber. I have signed every renunciation of the use of capital punishment published by the Roman Catholic bishops in New York and the nation. I have publicly denounced even verbal violence in labor negotiations and strikes. I have consistently denounced violence against persons based on their sexual orientation. Such denunciations and many more have been heard by thousands of people in this cathedral, millions throughout the world. That is a matter of record which cannot be blotted out by any efforts to indict my pro-life efforts or those of the church as inciting murder or other violence. Anyone who would make such charges would have to be desperate, indeed, and has my sincere sympathy.

Cardinal Law has encouraged us not to lose heart as we seek to affirm life and reject all forms of violence. Today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah is a masterpiece of hope. "See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance."

That was said, of course, of the Christ who was yet to come. That Christ is now here. As he revealed himself on the first Epiphany, so he reveals himself now, in every life made in his image. He lives in you, his good and decent peaceful people, who try every day to do what is right. You are, indeed, his light in the world. As long as he lives in you, death cannot prevail. The Wise Men risked a lot to find him, for they guessed that to find him was to find life. Millions of good, decent, non-violent pro-life people of every religious persuasion do what they do so that infants made in his image and likeness will have life and that their mothers will never have to regret their deaths.

I urge all of you to pray that His Eminence Cardinal Law will be successful in what he is trying so courageously to achieve. I do not pretend to have a monopoly on how best to save human life. Only Jesus is the expert, and he did it only by dying on a cross.

Cardinal John O’Connor of New York in a homily, Jan. 8 at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.