"Diminishing respect for the inalienable right to life and...the elimination of legal protections for those who are most vulnerable" threaten American society. That was the warning issued late last month by the National Council of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) in its statement, "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics." On November 22, five days after the NCCB spoke, Doctor Jack Kevorkian appeared on "60 Minutes" to confirm the bishops’ diagnosis in grisly detail. Kevorkian, already responsible for assisting in the suicides of 130 people, now boasts of having taken the inevitable next step: he claims to have directly killed someone. To promote his "cause" and goad law enforcement into arresting him yet again, Kevorkian presented "60 Minutes" with a videotape, which the program dubiously decided to air, of the consenting victim’s final moments. Kevorkian, who has been acquitted in three jury trials on charges of assisting in the suicide of his "patients," is determined to "broaden" still further this culture’s definition of permissible killing.
"Living the Gospel of Life" condemns the seemingly irreversible tide of abortion, the increasing drift toward legalized euthanasia, and the popular resort to capital punishment. It is the first NCCB document explicitly to call Catholic politicians to account on these issues, and as a consequence it was the subject of intense debate within the conference and some significant last-minute revision. The document wisely avoids issuing any broad sanctions against individual politicians. Rights of conscience are too easily abused by such tactics. But neither do the bishops mince words in constructing what Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore called the statement’s "theology of persuasion." These questions cannot be finessed by claiming to be privately opposed to abortion or euthanasia, but supportive of the right of others "to choose." Abortion and euthanasia, the bishops argue, are not merely private matters. "Catholic public officials who disregard church teaching on the inviolability of the human person indirectly collude in the taking of innocent life," they write. "We urge those Catholic officials...to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin....no appeal to policy, procedure, majority will, or pluralism ever excuses a public official from defending life to the greatest extent possible." In short, Catholics must "work peacefully and tirelessly" to change current abortion law and to oppose efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia.
The bishops are most persuasive when they place abortion and euthanasia within the context of the church’s "consistent ethic of life," condemning any resort to violence to defend the unborn, voicing opposition to the death penalty, and reiterating their support for the poor and other victims of injustice. They urge Americans to see how the rights of the unborn and the infirm are grounded in this nation’s great historical and constitutional commitments to democracy and human dignity. No self-righteous indictment, the statement also calls to account the bishops’ own failures: "We need to redouble our efforts to evangelize and catechize our people on the dignity of life and the wrongness of abortion." In fact, the man euthanized by Kevorkian identified himself as a Catholic.
The rejection of recent state referenda criminalizing late-term abortions shows that most Americans remain suspicious of the perceived religious and absolutist tenor of the prolife movement. That is unfair and unfortunate. As liberal prolife Catholics know, absolutism is very much alive on the prochoice side as well. "My own view," the theologian Stanley Hauerwas recently noted, "is that within a hundred years, Christians may be known as those odd people who don’t kill their children or their elderly." The Catholic bishops want to be more optimistic than Hauerwas about American society, but as "Living the Gospel of Life" argues, that won’t be easy unless American Catholics rise to the challenge.
Related: License to Kill, by the Editors