Give Me Freedom of Conscience or Give Me Death!

At the very founding of our nation, words of wisdom from Patrick Henry and other patriots helped to form the American soul in understanding the true nature of freedom. Freedom of conscience is the essence of freedom. He said, “A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, are incompatible with freedom.”

A Call to Conscience; A Call to Action

And yet it is that very freedom that is threatened today because our nation’s conscience is becoming corrupt and compromised by what the Holy Father has called a “culture of death.” It is this corruption of the “public conscience” that allows the culture of death to continue its rampage throughout our world.

The marvelous little booklet, The Five Issues That Matter Most, was not written as a pious exercise of a couple of motivated people who like to write about Catholic things. It is not just a teaching tool for the uninitiated. Rather, it is a call to conscience and a call to action. The authors and publishers are well aware that busy people like us do not have time to read theological treatises on justice. The helpful essays and facts found in this booklet are given to us as a means to help us form our consciences, but the real value of this work will only be found in the way we use it to transform our world after we have transformed ourselves.

In the landmark pro-life encyclical of John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, the Holy Father makes a number of remarkably insightful comments about our responsibility to participate in this transformation of culture. He knows well the power of the culture of death and the potential disastrous consequences for our world if Christians sit back and do nothing. He says:

No single person has a monopoly on the defense of and promotion of life. These are everyone’s task and responsibility. On the eve of the third millennium, the challenge facing us is an arduous one: only the concerted efforts of all those who believe in the value of life can prevent a setback of unforeseeable consequences for civilization (n. 91).

These are extremely challenging words! They call us all to accountability not just for our society, but for our civilization.

He says elsewhere that we must be willing to take a prophetic stance if we wish to turn back the gains of the culture of death. In Evangelium Vitae, he continues: there are “… crimes which no human law can legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection” (n.73). Given the power of the culture of death, the institutionalization of injustice in our legal system and the pervasiveness of the anti-mentality in our world, it almost seems as if this prophetic Christian stance should have us continually objecting to the way in which our world is structured.

This, however, is exactly the point of the booklet. The “concerted efforts” to overcome the culture of death oblige all of us all of the time — not just once every four years when we pick a president. Our objection to the culture of death must even go far beyond the five issues highlighted in this booklet . Conscientious objection is a way of life and has to work its way into the very fabric of our existence if we are to be true to our Christian calling to be “salt and light” to the world. Each and every one of us must form our consciences in the truth of our ancient and apostolic Faith and then exercise our authority to purify our world of the poison of the culture of death. There is no template everyone can fit into for conscientious action. Each one of us is conscientious in our own unique way, and as long as we make the effort, our efforts will bear fruit. Allow me to illustrate this by a short story about a small apostle of life.

The Power of One Conversation

One day as I stood in front of an abortion mill praying and counseling I spoke to an eight-year-old girl and her cadre of friends that were passing by. I chose to speak to them about the evil things that were going on inside the killing center in their neighborhood, and my simple message to them was that they must do anything possible to help women not to go into that place of death. I asked these kids to be heroic in their efforts to defend life at all costs. As Providence would have it, the eight-year-old was at home two weeks later when her 16-year-old sister announced to her mother that she was pregnant out of wedlock. The mother immediately told her that she did not want to raise a grandchild for another 18 years and that the daughter had to get an abortion. Overhearing this conversation, the eight-year-old apostle of life immediately screamed out: “You will not have an abortion! I will raise your baby!” And she meant it. By the force of this mighty objection to the pending destruction of her unborn niece, she prevailed on both her sister and her mother, and the teenager did not have an abortion! Seven months later they were all rewarded with a healthy, bouncing baby girl to give them hope for the future.

If just one conversation with a group of kids on a street corner of a non-descript neighborhood bore such immense fruit for life, imagine what our “concerted efforts” can do. Everyone has some task for challenging the culture of death, and everyone must act.

I offer the following two simple considerations for the work of “evangelizing” the culture of death. These are ideas that flow out of more than a dozen years of watching good people work on the front lines of the pro-life movement, not just in the United States, but in every part of the world, and their purpose is to motivate the readers to live more fully our Christian vocation. Ideally each person should ask the Lord for the insight to know how to best exercise his or her conscientious objection to the culture of death in order to make our world a place where life is lived according to God’s plan.

First, we must never be silent in the face of evil, any evil. We must always register our voices in opposition to evil in our society, no matter how grave. We may not be able to stop it, but we will give courage to other people if we speak out. Sadly, public and private protests of immoral legislation and actions are often short-lived if they happen at all. For example, there was very little public outcry when abortion was legalized in the United States because so few people raised the cry of outrage during the period when the abortion lobby was openly advocating the change of laws all over the country. There was not even an organized “pro-life movement” in the United States at the time. The time to have spoken out was before the Supreme Court institutionalized the killing of innocents in one fell swoop. Had there been a general call to arms and a vigilant awareness of the open abortion agenda before the fateful January 22, 1973, we may not have had to contend with 30 years of abortion on demand and 45 million victims of this great holocaust.

Where We Have the Greatest Impact

The effort at speaking out in one form or another does not mean that we will convert those who are the most committed promoters of the culture of death. That is not where we have our greatest impact. Our speaking out will influence the weak and vulnerable who are looking for guidance in the tough moral decisions they face. We must talk about our values and Catholic principles especially with the young and with those in our families in particular. They are the objects of the culture of death, and need the guidance — even when they seem to reject it. Other types of public speech like letters to the editor, articles in newspapers and publications, etc. all help the cause of educating for life.

Secondly, we must exercise our right to conscientious objection in concrete ways. Voting for pro-life candidates who uphold objective moral principles — the substance of this booklet — is the most definite way for each citizen to help change the culture of death. Decisions to institutionalize evil are made by men and women in elected and non-elected public office, and we put them there through the electoral process. We thus can exercise our right to change public officials when their values and decisions do not conform to the common good and the will of God. The obligation and the exercise of the right to vote is a quintessentially American trait. James Madison said that “we have staked the future…on the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the commandments of God.”

Participation in boycotts of companies that promote the culture of death, pickets and protests of immoral actions and programs, prayer and counseling at abortion mills, attendance at school-board meetings, phone-calling and letter-writing campaigns, etc., are other good ways to make our voices heard in the midst of so much propaganda for all that is wrong.

Finally and most importantly, in the midst of our anti-life culture we must always keep in mind our last end. One day we will stand before the judgment seat of God and we will be asked one question about living in this age of death. The question will not be, “Did you stop abortion?” or “Did you overturn Roe v. Wade?” or even “How many babies did you save?” The question will simply be, “Were you silent in the face of so much evil?”

Fr. Tom Euteneuer is president of Human Life International.

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