What a week in Washington! What a week on Trinity’s campus! No sooner had we said goodbye to our National Guard campout friends and put away our inaugural boots and ballgowns than we were greeting bishops, cardinals and hundreds of Catholic faithful who came to Notre Dame Chapel for two Masses as part of the January 21-22 March for Life in Washington. Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee, concelebrated the afternoon mass for major donors. Later that evening, nearly 800 Kansans packed the chapel as Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City celebrated the second liturgy.
The confluence of Barack Obama’s inauguration as 44th President of the United States with the annual March for Life that occurs on January 22 each year — the date of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Roe v. Wade 36 years ago, the opinion that legalized abortion — provided an interesting framework within which to consider the American values of justice and freedom alongside the moral teachings of the Catholic Church on the dignity of human life and the immorality of abortion.
Too often, the Church’s teaching on abortion gets reduced to sound bites and political litmus tests — for? against? Nuances not allowed. As I listened to Cardinal Rigali and Archbishop Naumann give their homilies, I heard the larger social justice framework for the Pro-Life movement that often disappears in the political fray. Eager to align the Church’s teaching with the “better history” (Obama’s speech, see previous blog) of the American struggle to defeat slavery and achieve justice for all, the bishops reminded the congregations that the essential principle of justice is to protect human life. The bishops also united the Church’s teachings on the grave evil of abortion with reminders of the Church’s strong condemnation of racism and all forms of human oppression.
Some commentators believe that aligning pro-life arguments with President Obama’s breakthrough achievement is exploitive. Particular criticism has arisen over a commercial, first aired on BET, that makes an anti-abortion statement using Obama’s personal story. Click here to see the ad — I’d be interested in reader comments.
On Tuesday, President Obama called upon all Americans to come together with a greater sense of purpose and responsibility to work together to address the considerable challenges of this moment in history. On Wednesday and Thursday, the American Catholic bishops called upon the faithful to redouble efforts to protect human life. There are those who say that supporting President Obama’s call to collective action is incompatible with fidelity to our religious beliefs, since President Obama supports the legality of abortion.
Faithful citizenship in this vast land of diversity and democracy is a lot more complicated than this either-or balance. The very same values of freedom and justice that led to President Obama’s triumphant inauguration also make it possible for hundreds of thousands of believers to march on the Mall, lobby Congress, and call for political action to protect the right to life. In other countries around the world — places where American troops are giving their lives for democratic ideals right now — only one point of view can be expressed, the point of view of the rulers. In America, two million people can stand together in the cold cheering for a new president even while they may have significant differences of opinion and belief about how the political process should work, about the legal choices before our legislatures, about the actions the president should take.
Religious teachings shape individual conscience and moral choice. The Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion is clear: this act is a grave moral evil, murder. Morally, there is no legitimate choice in favor of abortion, which is why the Church does not use “pro-choice” language. The Church believes that this moral principle is so essential to the construction of a just and free society that the protection of human life from conception must be paramount, and that this principle must be enshrined in law, otherwise, the society itself betrays its principles.
I know of few people who actually disagree about the core moral teaching about abortion; the debate that continues to course through American life is on the latter point, about the extent to which law and policy must reflect the moral principle. Most people agree that abortion should not occur; many also believe it should not be treated as a criminal act; others believe that abortion is murder and must bear the most severe social penalty.
The Church exercises its freedom and responsibility when it advocates for stronger laws to protect life. Citizens exercise their freedom and responsibility when they cast their votes and participate in the democratic discourse. I do not think it’s realistic to expect an end to the debate; rather, as citizens, we owe it to our religious beliefs and our national values to engage the debate thoughtfully and respectfully, not forcing a choice between religious belief and full citizenship. Our citizenship in this democracy means that we have the privilege of being, at once and robustly, Pro-Life, Pro-Justice, Pro-Freedom.