In the context of our continued observance of October as Respect Life Month, this week’s topic reflects the title and contents of the United States Bishops’ document: “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” This document complements the teaching of bishops in the various dioceses of the United States. However, it is not a topic that is new to American Catholics or, for that matter, to Catholics of any age or time.
Love of home and love of the place where we live can be said to be as old as the human race. Perhaps it is a reflection of the fact that our first parents lived in a place which was sacred because of God’s communion with them there in the Garden. The pagan Roman authors wrote of the patria, the land beloved by a people because they lived there. Jesus is very much associated with the places where He was born, where He lived His early life and where He fulfilled His public mission of preaching, teaching, dying and rising for our salvation. We have been created in such a way that we are called to live in a community of persons and the distinct communities we are a part of become important to us.
The development of forms of government
In order to promote the common good and ensure the well-being and safety of individuals, local and national governments have grown out of humanity’s need for order and protection. These governments may take many different forms and they have evolved in different ways over the ages. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that the citizen “owes loyalty to the communities of which he is a part and respect to those in authority who have charge of the common good” (CCC, 1880). In his Encyclical Pacem In Terris, Blessed John XXIII wrote: “Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all” (no. 46).
The relationship of the Church to various types of government has taken on many different forms over the course of her long history. There have been governments which have persecuted the Church and its members, there have been governments which made the Church a part of their identity and there have been governments within which the Church enjoyed the freedom to pursue her mission, with the state being neither friend nor enemy of her beneficial work.
In the United States of America, our own country, the Church has generally enjoyed the freedom to pursue her mission and in turn has brought many benefits to American society, especially through our institutions of charity and our schools. Catholic schools have not only saved taxpayers billions of dollars, they have also taught patriotism and love of country within their walls. I am sure that many of you reading this will recall the patriotism and responsibility to our country that was taught to you when you were a student in one of our parish or archdiocesan schools.
The faithful citizenship of American Catholics
Faithful citizenship has been carried out by hundreds of thousands of Catholic soldiers in defense of our country. It is particularly significant to note the many Catholics who fought during the Second World War because, in many cases, these soldiers were the children or grandchildren of immigrants from the very countries they were fighting, as in the case of the Italian-American and German-American soldiers. Many Irish-American soldiers fought at the side of an ally, the United Kingdom, which at times had been unjust to Catholics in Ireland.
Yet these faithful American Catholics fought bravely for their country. In this age of the “sound bite” and the manipulation of the mind by clever advertising and appeals to emotion, it is important to know history and to see issues in their proper context.
The Catholic Church in the United States has left to “Caesar” the things that are proper to government, when issues do not involve the abuse of human rights or the rights of the natural and divine law. Government has sometimes sought out the support of Church leaders in certain circumstances. For instance, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to pursue friendly relations with Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago in order to receive the Cardinal’s support of his social programs, and Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, in order to reassure American Catholics that it was not immoral to aid communist Russia during World War II.
If an issue involves the common good of the American people or the resolution of a moral question, the bishops of the United States have been willing to be of assistance to the state. However, the affirmation of the Catholic Bishops of Pennsylvania, contained in our recently-issued public statement, remains true: “We bishops do not endorse any candidate or party. Our role is to teach and form consciences” (A Call to Faithful Citizenship and Respect for Life, The Catholic Bishops of Pennsylvania).
Issues involving human dignity can be known by our reason
You know how often I have addressed the dignity of the human person in this column. I have done so in many different circumstances. One aspect of the dignity of the human person is the ability to reason and to know. Another aspect of human dignity is the affirmation of the rights of the individual’s conscience. However, if we fail to acknowledge any natural or revealed norms to guide and properly form our consciences, each of us could wind up justifying almost anything.
The human conscience is always at the service of truth and virtue, but it must be properly formed in order to function properly. We believe that because we are made in God’s image we have within our very nature a fundamental understanding of right and wrong. To us as human persons, this “law of the heart,” as it is sometimes called, requires a responsibility beyond laws enacted by governments.
We have seen an example of this very recently. One hundred Philadelphia police recruits were taken on a tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The leadership of the Philadelphia Police Department wanted these recruits to see examples of cases in which the police in Nazi Germany carried out policies which were legal in that country at that time but immoral and unjustified in the eyes of civilized human persons, whose consciences told them that this was evil.
The conviction of Nazi war criminals after the Second World War was not based on the fact that what they did was illegal but that it was a crime against humanity, which can be recognized by any person of good will. Consequently, these leaders were held responsible for their actions, which had been legal but grossly evil and immoral.
Even in our own country, there were practices such as racial segregation or slavery, which were legal but evil and immoral. We are all familiar with the photographs of Catholic priests and Religious Sisters, as well as many members of the Catholic lay faithful, marching side by side with African-Americans to end the discrimination that was legal but evil and immoral. The Church is not only permitted to proclaim moral truths in the face of opposition but is obliged to do so as a proclamation of the dignity of the human person.
The challenge of our own times
Our own common sense tells us that not every issue is of the same importance. At various times in history, a people or nation is confronted with an issue that transcends others in importance and that demands a courageous response.
The transcending issue of our day is the intentional destruction of innocent human life, as in abortion. We wish with all our hearts that no candidate and no party were advocating this heinous act against the human person. However, since it is a transcending issue, and even supported in its most extreme and horrific forms, we must proclaim time and time again that no intrinsic evil can ever be supported in any way, most especially when it concerns the gravest of all intrinsic evils: the taking of an innocent life.
We bishops of Pennsylvania quoted from the late Pope John Paul II’s Post Synodal Exhortation on the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful and I quote him again here: “The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination” (Christifideles Laici, 38).
At this moment in our country’s history, defense of innocent human life is a moral responsibility for all of us. The same God who thundered from Mount Sinai: “Thou shalt not kill,” thunders still. When life in the womb is destroyed, God thunders: “This is a child!” When by the most barbaric means, unworthy of any civilized people, the brain of a child is sucked out of his or her head by a vacuum, God thunders: “This is a child!” When a baby is left to die of exposure on a shelf because of a failed abortion, and this is considered a “right” by any leader, God, the Source of all law and authority, thunders: “This is a child!” When we are faced with every modern means of education and communication, in addition to the law placed in our hearts at creation, no one, and most especially, no Catholic, can ever say: “I did not know.”
The human dignity that we proclaim works two ways: it affords us a great privilege but it also demands a responsibility. The feeble defense “I did not know” cannot be used by any responsible person in our time when confronted with the reality of abortion. We do know. We know because we can reason and think and see. Along with this position, which is confirmed by modern science, comes a command: “Thou shalt not kill.” It is not a question of politics but a question of the gravest of intrinsic evils; and just as the reality of what it is cannot be explained away, neither can our responsibility.
Throughout our history, Catholics have earned their right to call themselves patriotic Americans. Faithful citizenship not only includes dying for one’s country or working towards its prosperity, it also includes being faithful to a law which is higher than the expediency of the moment with the same generosity of body and heart, and the same courage that is given on the battlefield and in the workplace. We remind ourselves of this as we continue to be called to faithful citizenship and respect for life in the “earthly city” without forgetting that we are ultimately called to live as citizens of heaven forever.