Pro-Life Message from Fr. Christopher in Honor of Respect Life Sunday – 2020
Particularly with the process of choosing a new Supreme Court Justice going on, it is important to make a statement on the issue of pro-life. There is a vast amount of disinformation going on, including that which is coming from priests and bishops who suggest, like the Rev. James Altman from Lacrosse, Wisconsin, that “you cannot be Catholic and be a democrat,” and anyone who is inclined to be democrat should “repent of your support of that party or face the fires of hell.” Those comments made in a widely distributed video, were endorsed by Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, and echo the recent comments of Fr. Frank Pavone, the founder of Priests for Life. The vast segment of the United States who define themselves as Democrat were called “godless’ and “clueless baptized Catholics.” (The Diocese of Lacrosse has denounced Father Altman’s “judgmental and angry tone” and his “generalization of entire groups.”) Indeed, it is such divisive sentiments that are propelling many Catholics to vote for the present president who is ‘using’ and cultivating Catholics with the admittedly important issue of abortion and the appointing of conservative judges to the Supreme Court who will challenge (I refuse to use the loaded word “overturn”) Roe v. Wade.
Because Minnesota demands that a person request a particular party ballot, the Archdiocese of Minnesota suggested that its priests should not vote in the primary, because it “could be seen as ‘partisan’ political activity to align oneself with a party and to vote in its primary.” The Church generally asks clergy not to be so partisan as to endorse particular candidates. Since the new Minnesota regulation asks a person to be “in general agreement with the principles of the party,” it could be especially “tricky” says the Minnesota Catholic Conference since none of the Democrats on the ballot have campaigned on the side of traditional Catholic issues like birth control, abortion or LGBTQ issues. Nowhere, however, have I read anything condemning the denial of one’s civic responsibility!
It is not a “mortal sin” to vote for either candidate in any election, as some might suggest. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has made it clear in their election document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” that “We bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth. We recognize the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election.” Catholic Priests, unlike Evangelicals, are always counseled against the inappropriateness of being “partisan in the pulpit,” and the Catholic Church is tax-exempt, and under IRS guidelines it is prohibited from engaging in explicit political activity. As Pope Francis has said, we are called to “form consciences, not replace them.”
All of this is not to diminish the importance of the abortion issue. Indeed, it is “preeminently” important says the USCCB. Anyone who knows me, knows I am pro-life to my core, and pro-life in the “seamless garment” way of the late Cardinal Bernadin. I admit the sadness of the Supreme Court decisions of 1973, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, released on the same day, which suggested that abortion is a “constitutional right,” superseding in the strangest of ways the more fundamental constitutional right to “life.”
During this confirmation of a new Supreme Court Justice you will hear a lot of euphemisms: “women’s health,” “women’s rights,” “women’s right to choose what to do with her own body,” “uphold (this disgraceful part of) the Constitution.” The reality is Roe v. Wade was a bad decision, and one we should not have to apologize for if we are against Roe v. Wade. Indeed, there are millions of people opposed to “abortion on demand,” the result of the January 22, 1973, two rulings, and the “unreasonable restrictions” (pro-abortion people will say) are merely the result of people with good consciences recognizing how abhorrent abortion truly is, especially if it is left unchecked. If you truly value “life,” then it is surely sad that the Democratic Party made abortion part of its ‘eternal’ platform, and the litmus test for any Supreme Court Justice.
But, what if it is not ‘eternal’? What if we were able to change the hearts and minds of enough people to recognize the absurdity of all the language used to defend abortion on demand, especially in light of what appears to be the new era of Black Lives Matter? Perhaps it is time to challenge all democrats to be accountable for their language on black lives, immigrants, children in cages, police brutality, guns, health care, LGBTQ rights, capital punishment, taxes, and the economy. Everything that is said by Democrats concerns the very fundamental dignity of the human person which, when recognized, demands a certain response. I would like to believe that, in spite of what divides us, the protests following the unfortunate death of James Floyd, have demonstrated the extraordinarily broad consensus on certain values, values that could be extremely important when discussing and reviewing the 1973 decision on abortion. I would like to believe that the possibility of changing hearts and minds to understand the need to review Roe v. Wade is greater than ever, and the possible appointment of a third conservative Judge by the president, is enough for us to assume the mantle of changing hearts and minds, and not just sit back and rely on the Supreme Court to make it law (a mantle most priests have never put on).
Since we will hear “she wants to overturn Roe v. Wade” thousands of times during this confirmation process, it is great to ask ourselves would that be such a bad thing? People will say, “but it’s the law of the land”! If they were alive in the mid-eighteen hundreds would they have said the same thing? In March of 1857, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford, that black people “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.” It passed with a 7-2 margin! The argument was made that at the time of the Constitution’s drafting, a “perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one they had reduced to slavery.” That Supreme Court decision stood for eight years until people of good will recognized the error of such an abhorrent decision.
It should not be news that the Supreme Court can make a bad, very bad, decision, and the Dred Scott decision is almost “universally condemned as the U.S. Supreme Court’s worst decision.” I would like to suggest if that is true, then the second worst decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court is the Roe v. Wade/Doe v. Bolton decision making abortion the law of the land. It took eight years, and a Civil War, for America to come to its senses and overturn Dred Scott, when the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments guaranteed citizenship for all. Regrettably, more than one-hundred years later, the Honorable, and recently departed, John Lewis would still be fighting for those rights proclaimed at the end of the Civil War. Nevertheless, a precedent was formed in 1865 when the Dred Scott decision was overturned. Sadly, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton has stood for more than 48 years, and millions of people of good will have marched on the anniversary of that decision expressing their regret that such a decision was inserted into the Constitution which governs and guides all Americans.
My point is that the Supreme Court decision could be overturned, without imposing the criminal penalties for abortion which existed in many states in the 1970’s. The division caused by this issue is a sign in and of itself that the scope of the 1973 decision was not only inopportune, but way too broad. Further, had the Democratic Party not gone so far as to place it in its Platform, some of the discussion about the upcoming presidential election might not be happening. The platform’s position on abortion should not be a thing which any democrat is particularly proud of, for it expands neither “women’s health care” nor “women’s rights,” both of which are good, but they should not be built on a foundation which requires the death of the most vulnerable and innocent person who happens to be in the womb. Science, which has come under attack of late, clearly indicates that the child in the womb, at any time, is not just a “part” of a woman’s body, in spite of the numerous women who will proclaim “I am the only one who has a right to do with my body what I wish – others cannot tell me what to do with my body.” What grows and is nurtured in a woman’s body, is a completely and uniquely-singular body with its own DNA, and given time and good health will become its own individual.
As important as the abortion issue is, Catholics should never be a ‘single issue’ faith. Elections in any year, but perhaps especially this year, are extremely complex events. As important as abortion and genuine religious freedom are, so is truth, so are immigrants, so is racial injustice, so is taking care of our world’s climate, and so is the way people are treated, especially the poor and disenfranchised. With an incumbent one needs to ask if genuinely Christian values have been obvious in the exercise of power; did an administration have the needs of all as a foremost priority; was a national crisis, such as a pandemic, handled in the best way possible; is the president’s language something that one can be proud of; and are the economic challenges faced by everyone treated equitably across the board, from the poor to the wealthy. Further, are people treated with respect; are people insulted or demonized; is the previous administration and the person running for office desirous of uniting people, and not dividing them? Lastly, has a respect for our Constitution been clearly demonstrated, or are there threats to the very democracy that is so foundational for our great country? Indeed, elections are complex events, and we have an obligation to be informed by truth, and knowledgeable about all of the important issues that might be faced over the next four years. Our vote, for whoever, is performed at the deepest level of our conscience, and no one has a right to question or diminish it. Being pro-life, and voting pro-life, is not just as simple as appointing judges to the Supreme Court. A vote to change the circumstances of the average American, may also diminish the desire to procure an abortion, and thus be a vote for life.
A paragraph from Pope Francis (“Gaudete et Exsultate,” # 101) rejected by the American Bishops for inclusion in their “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” flyer, states that: “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm, and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”
Whoever is elected the next President of the United States, the task of men and women of faith is to continue its quest for a genuine respect for life. The appointment of conservative judges to the Supreme Court, while helpful to the pursuit of pro-life issues, does not absolve us from the responsibility of calmly and intelligently changing hearts and minds to see the incredible dignity of all human life, especially life in the womb. In my experience, the changing of hearts and minds should begin in the pulpit, and it will take some doing to get the country’s clergy on board, who have appeared reluctant to get involved in what can truly be a contentious issue. All Christians need to come to grips with what it means to be genuinely pro-life. Fully understanding what being pro-life entails, may challenge our views on immigration, gun control, police brutality, euthanasia, and capital punishment. May all of us seek to be recognizably pro-life, and hold up the value of all human life, from womb to tomb.
Rev. Christopher Senk