Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Pennsylvania Pro-life Federation Dinner
Harrisburg, Pa., Sept. 29, 2016
For the past 43 years we’ve been living the consequences of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized abortion on demand. And the abortion struggle of the past four decades teaches us a very useful lesson. Evil talks a lot about “tolerance” when it’s weak. When evil is strong, real tolerance gets kicked out the door. This in turn explains a lot about our current cultural climate. To put it simply: Evil cannot bear the counter-witness of truth. It cannot co-exist peacefully with goodness, because evil insists on being seen as right, and worshiped as being right. Therefore, the good must be made to seem hateful and wrong.
The very existence of people who refuse to accept evil and who seek to act virtuously burns the conscience of those who don’t. And so, quite logically, people like the people in this room, people who march and lobby and speak out to defend the unborn child will be – and are – reviled by political leaders and news media and abortion activists who turn the right to kill an unborn child into a shrine for personal choice.
Seventy years ago, abortion was a crime against humanity. Four decades ago, abortion supporters talked piously about the “tragedy” of abortion and the need to make it safe and rare. But not today. Not anymore. Now abortion is not just a so-called “right,” but a right that claims positive dignity, the license to demonize its opponents and the precedence to interfere with constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech, assembly and religion. We no longer tolerate abortion. We celebrate it. We venerate it as a totem.
People sometimes ask me if we can be optimistic, those of us who are religious believers, about the future of our country. My answer is always the same. Optimism and pessimism are equally dangerous for the believer because both God and the devil are full of surprises. But the virtue of hope is another matter. We have every reason to hope. Scripture tells us we must live in hope, and hope is a very different creature from optimism. Hope is the grace to trust that God is who he claims to be, and that in serving him, we do something fertile and precious for the renewal of the world.
Our lives matter not because of who we are. They matter because of who God is. His mercy, his justice, his love — these are the things that move the galaxies and reach into the womb to touch the unborn child with the grandeur of being human. And we become more truly human ourselves by seeing the humanity in the poor, the weak, the elderly and the unborn child — and then fighting for it.
Over the past 43 years, the prolife movement has been written off as defeated and finished too many times to count. Yet here you are tonight again, disappointing your critics and refusing to die. And why is that? It’s because no court decision, no law and no political lobby can ever change the truth about when human life begins and the sanctity that God attaches to each and every human person, born or unborn.
As I was gathering my thoughts for tonight, 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. The time we have in this world is brief. The choices we make have real substance – precisely because we come this way in life only once, and the world will be better or worse for our passing.
So our presence here together tonight 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 turn our hearts to building the kind of world that embodies his love and honors the sanctity of the human children he created.
So based on what I’ve seen in the American prolife experience over the past 43 years, I’d like to offer a few “dos” and “don’ts” for building a culture of life. I’ll begin with the “don’ts.”
First, don’t let yourselves be bullied into silence.
Democracy depends on people of conviction carrying their beliefs into public debate — respectfully, legally and non-violently, but vigorously and without apology. Real pluralism 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 prolife, or for advancing our beliefs in private or in public.
Second, don’t let divisions take root.
St. Augustine said that 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. As a bishop, I’ve always been baffled by how much energy can be 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.
Third, don’t get trapped by politics — especially partisan politics.
The more prolifers tie themselves to a single political party, the less they can speak to society at large. 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.
Fourth 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 deeply misleading. Back during the 2008 presidential election, we saw the emergence of so-called prolife voices that argued we should stop fighting the legal struggle over abortion. Instead we should join with “pro-choice” supporters to seek “common ground.”
Their argument was simple: Why fight a losing battle on the legal, cultural and moral fronts 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.
Of course, many of these voices turned out to be flacks for the Obama presidential campaign. In reality, the Obama White House has been extraordinary for its refusal to compromise on anything involving so-called “reproductive rights,” and for its belligerent hostility to prolife and religious liberty concerns.
But we need to look beyond the current White House to 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 people’s access to psychotherapy 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 a 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, and that some abortions will always occur. If we really believe that abortion kills a developing, human life, then we can never be satisfied with mere “reductions” in the body count.
Fifth and finally, don’t hate the adversary.
People who support a so-called “right” to abortion are our opponents, but they’re never our “enemies.” Abortion-friendly lawmakers and organizations, and even people who despise us for what we believe, are not our enemies. They’re brothers and sisters. We need to trust in the long-term power of love — the true power of God – to convert the human heart even in the face of our own failures. We can never allow ourselves to become bitter. The great second century Church Father, Irenaeus of Lyon, warned early Christians that we’ve been sent like sheep into the midst of wolves. The moment we become wolves ourselves, we lose.
OK, so much for the don’ts. What about the “dos,” how should we proceed?
Here’s the first and most important do. It’s very simple: Do become martyrs. Be ready and willing to pay a price for your beliefs. In today’s world, we may never be asked to shed our blood in witnessing for our faith. But we do see character assassinations, mud-slinging and lies against good people every day in the public media. And we should be ready to bear the cost. Nothing, not even our good name, should stop us from doing what we know to be right.
Here’s the second do. Keep hope alive.
Cultivating a spirit of joy is not an act of self-deception. It’s a way to acknowledge that God is on our side, and that human nature, created by God and despite the damage of original sin, is also on our side. Nothing is more inspiring than happy warriors. I’ve never in my life seen a joy-filled pro-abortion event. And I’ve always found that instructive.
Here’s the third do. Be strategic.
Being sheep in the midst of wolves doesn’t mean we can also be dumb as rocks. Prolife organizations are always outspent by pro-abortion forces. Our efforts are dwarfed by their money. We rarely have their access to friendly media, foundations and circles of power. But this can be a blessing disguised as a curse. It forces us to be creative, long-term thinkers and resourceful with our modest means.
Being strategic means planning ahead, working together and outsmarting our adversaries. To achieve these goals, we need a big dose of realism. We should never dream or whine about all the things we could do with the millions of dollars we don’t have. We need to focus on the real dollars we do have.
Two fishes and five loaves of bread, well invested — in other words, given to the Lord — fed a multitude. History shows that guerrilla wars, if well planned and methodically carried out, can defeat great armies. And we should never forget that the greatest “guerrilla” leader of them all wasn’t Mao Zedong or Che Guevara, but a young shepherd named David, who became a king.
Here’s the fourth and final do. Remember that renewing the culture, not gaining power, is our ultimate goal.
Culture is everything. Culture is our “human ecology.” It’s the environment where we human beings breathe not only air, but ideas, beliefs and values. Getting political power has its short-term value. But it’s not what prolifers are finally about. Our real task, and our much longer-term and more important goal, is to carry out what the late Pope John Paul II called the “evangelization of culture.”
We need to work to change the culture. And that demands a lifelong commitment to education, formation and, ultimately, conversion. Only genuinely holy persons really change the world. And therein lies our ultimate victory: If we change one heart at a time, while we save one unborn life at a time, the day will come when we won’t need to worry about saving babies, because they’ll be surrounded by a loving and welcoming culture.
Will I see that day with my own eyes? I don’t think I can hold my breath that long. But then I never expected to see a Pope from Argentina or the fall of the Iron Curtain either. We may not see that day in our own lifetimes, but the children of your grandchildren will. The future depends on our choices and actions right here, right now, tonight — together.
I want to end with one final thought. I spent nine happy years of my life as a young bishop in Rapid City, South Dakota. The reason for that happiness was the people I served. Dakotans have a sanity that comes from their closeness to a very beautiful but also a very hard land. In the Dakotas, if you behave like a fool in the way you mistreat the land, or ignore the weather, or abuse the environment – well, very soon you’re a dead fool. So Dakotans get character or they get gone, pretty quickly.
Pennsylvania is a long way from South Dakota. It has its own beauties and its own problems. But the human realities are very much the same. Pennsylvanians can be a skeptical breed. The cultural, legal and political terrain here can be very rough. It takes people of exceptional character, people with the courage to fight the good fight at great personal cost, to endure and achieve anything good.
A lot of those good people are in this room tonight. Your character, your faith and your dedication to the sanctity of the human person matter. They matter not just now; and not just here in our Commonwealth; and not just for the thousands of people your work influences without even knowing their names. Your commitment to human life matters eternally, because some lives will be lived only because your voice at the decisive moment for a young mother made them possible.
So no matter how tired you get, no matter how hard the work becomes, no matter who praises you or who condemns you, the only thing that finally matters is this: God is good; he never abandons his people; and because of his love, and because of the witness of people like you in the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, the future is ours. And the best is yet to come.
So may God bless the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, and send it the supporters and resources and generous donors it needs, because we’ve never needed its witness and its service to human dignity more than we do today.