Wednesday, March 9, 2011
The “Dos” and “Don’ts” for Building a Culture of Life
Archbishop Chaput addressed laypeople of the Diocese of Fargo, with a presentation titled “Building a Culture of Life.” Archbishop offers a few “dos” and “don’ts” for building a culture of life, based on what he has seen in the American prolife experience throughout the past 38 years.
As I was gathering my thoughts for today, a line from Psalm 89 came back to me again and again: [Lord,] make us know the shortness of our life that we may gain wisdom of heart. That’s an odd way to begin a prolife discussion, isn’t it – reminding everybody in the room that we don’t have a lot of time.
But I think it’s exactly the right place to start. The time we have in this world is brief. God is good, and the life he gives us is filled not just with problems and sorrow, but with beauty and joy and love and hope and nobility – and these things are worth fighting for. What we do in the world matters. How we use our time matters. And therefore the choices we make matter – precisely because we come this way only once, and the world will be better or worse for our passing.
So our presence here together today has a meaning much larger than a nice meal and a good conversation about shared values. It’s an opportunity to remember that God put us here for a purpose. He’s asking us to turn our hearts to building the kind of world that embodies his love and honors the sanctity of the human children he created.
Our theme today is “building a culture of life.” All of us here this afternoon know that U.S. Supreme Court struck down restrictive American abortion laws in 1973. That effectively legalized abortion on demand. Since then, abortion has killed more than 50 million unborn American children. It’s also damaged the lives of millions of women and men. The sheer size of this tragedy has had a very curious effect on the American mind, because Americans have always been a religious people – and we still are by the standards of most developed countries. In practice, Americans now have a kind of schizophrenia about the abortion issue. Most of us believe abortion is wrong. But many people – many otherwise good people -- also want it to be legal under some limited circumstances.
This split in the American mind has two results. Here’s the first consequence. The United States has a large and well-funded abortion industry. The industry has very shrewd political lobbyists. It also has a public relations machine that would make George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth look like a gang of amateurs. In practice, the industry runs on an engine of persuasive-sounding lies.
You know some of the lies. I’m sure you’ve heard them a thousand times. There’s the lie that an unborn child isn’t “fully human.” The lie that abortion is a purely private decision without public consequences. The lie that we can be “pro-choice,” and yet not be implicated in where our choices lead -- to the killing of an unborn child.
Here’s the second consequence. Right alongside the abortion industry, our country also has a very vigorous prolife movement. American prolifers have had many setbacks. They never have enough money. They get treated brutally by the media. Too many of their leaders argue with each other too much of the time. But they just won’t give up or die. And so they’ve won quite a few modest but important legal victories. And meanwhile they continue to work toward the strategic goal of overturning the 1973 Supreme Court decision.
Based on what I’ve seen in the American prolife experience over the past 38 years, I’d like to offer a few “dos” and “don’ts” for building a culture of life. And perhaps we can talk about them more deeply in our question and answer session. I’ll begin with six “don’ts.”
First, don’t let yourselves be tricked into an inferiority complex.
Critics like to say that religion is divisive, or intellectually backward, or that it has no proper place in the public square. This kind of defective thinking is now so common that any religiously grounded political engagement can be portrayed as crossing the border between Church and state affairs.
But this is nonsense. Democracy depends on people of conviction carrying their beliefs into public debate -- respectfully, legally and non-violently, but vigorously and without apology. If we’re uncomfortable being Christians in a public debate, then we’ve already lost the war. In America the word “pluralism” is often conjured up like a kind of voodoo to get religious people to stop talking about right and wrong. In reality, our moral beliefs always shape social policy. Real pluralism actually demands that people with different beliefs should pursue their beliefs energetically in the public square. This is the only way a public debate can be honest and fruitful. We should never apologize for being Catholics, or for advancing our beliefs in private or in public.
Here’s the second don’t. Don’t let divisions take root.
Unity is a sign of the Holy Spirit. Division is the sign of someone very different. As St. Augustine said, we need to be united in the essentials, free in the debatables, and charitable in all things. Diverse prolife opinion is part of the movement’s richness. Nonetheless, as a bishop, I’ve been baffled by how much energy is wasted on internal prolife bickering. We can never allow our differences to become personal. Acrimony within the prolife movement is a gift to our opponents. It’s also a form of theft from the unborn children who will suffer the consequences of our division.
Here’s the third don’t. Don’t get trapped by partisan politics. But also don’t undervalue the importance of politics.
Politics is an arena where prolife action can have very practical results. Pope John Paul II said in his apostolic exhortation Christifideles laici, “The charges of careerism, idolatry of power, egoism and corruption that [are] directed at persons in government, parliaments [or] political parties,” are often unwarranted. So is “the common opinion that participating in politics is an absolute moral danger – [on the contrary, these things do not] in the least justify either skepticism or absence on the part of Christians in public life” (42). Or to put it another way: Public office and political activism are not just acceptable for Christians; they can also have real nobility when pursued in the service of truth.
But the fast pace of party politics, and the illusion that politics rules the “commanding heights” of our society and can satisfy our Christian social obligations, makes political life very addictive. And this illusion gets dangerous when defending the unborn child is too closely identified with any particular political leader or, even worse, one specific party. The more prolifers tie themselves to a single political party, the less they can speak to society at large. Here in the United States, Catholics -- both on the left and the right -- have too often made the mistake of becoming cheerleaders for a specific candidate.
Here’s the fourth don’t. Don’t create or accept false oppositions.
Dialectical thinking, and by that I mean the idea that most of our options involve “either/or” choices, is usually un-Christian. During the 2008 presidential election, we saw the emergence of so-called “prolife” organizations that argued we should de-emphasize the legal struggle over abortion. Instead we should join with “pro-choice” supporters to seek “common ground.”
Their argument was simple: Why should we fight a losing battle on the legal, cultural and moral front since – according to them -- we haven’t yet made serious progress in ending legalized abortion? Let’s drop the “divisive” political battle, they said, and instead let’s all work together to tackle the economic and health issues that might eventually reduce abortions.
But as we look at recent American history, did Americans take a gradual, social-improvement road to “reducing” racism? No. We passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nor have I ever heard anyone suggest that the best way to deal with murder, rape or domestic abuse is to improve the availability of health care and job training. We make sexual assault illegal -- even though we know it will still sometimes tragically occur -- because it’s gravely evil. It’s an act of violence, and the law should proscribe it. Of course, we also have a duty to improve the social conditions that can breed domestic and sexual violence. But that doesn’t change the need for the law.
Likewise, if we really believe that abortion is an intimate act of violence, then we can’t aim at anything less than ending abortion. It doesn’t matter that some abortions have always occurred, or that some abortions will always occur. If we really believe that abortion kills a developing, unborn human life, then we can never be satisfied with mere “reductions” in the body count.
The U.S. Catholic bishops have argued for nearly 40 years that government needs to improve the economic conditions that can lead some women to abortion. But good programs for economic justice don’t ever absolve Catholics from the legal struggle to end abortion. Protecting the unborn child is not an “either/or” choice. It’s “both/and.” We need to help women facing problem pregnancies with good health care and economic support; and we need to pass laws that will end legal abortion. We need to do both.
Here’s the fifth don’t. Don’t hate the adversary.
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at 1:50 PM