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Sanctity of life demands no compromise


At its best, politics is a means of ensuring justice both for the community and the individuals who comprise it. Translated into daily life, though, politics often boils down to the art of the possible; the art of the deal in pursuit of the ideal. It requires an ability to give and take for maximum benefit, and therefore pragmatism, rightly employed, is necessary to our life as a free people.

No democracy works without compromise. But neither does it work without core principles that must not be brokered away. And this is why, when compromise and pluralism serve as an excuse for abandoning the struggle over certain jugular issues, politics can also end in a kind of sickness of the spirit.

For the past 26 years, thanks to the Supreme Court and a generation of bad moral reasoning, we Americans have exercised absolute power over the unborn child -- not just the child’s life and death but the very definition of the child’s personhood and humanity. We don’t have a right to this power. It belongs only to God. We took it by judicial coup in Roe and subsequent court rulings, and like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we now must deal with consequences we never imagined or intended.

Roe violated the fundamental principle that undergirds our nation’s founding: the right to life. Trickling through our legal system for nearly three decades, the ruling is now eroding the foundation on which we base our entire understanding of the sanctity of the human person. The more than 30 million U.S. abortions since 1973 are simply the most obvious damage.

This erosion is what makes John Paul II’s encyclical “The Gospel of Life” (Evangelium Vitae) so urgent in the context of American politics. It also provides the framework for understanding the U.S. bishops’ recent pastoral statement, “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics.”

Americans arguably enjoy the greatest democratic experiment in history. We clearly enjoy the fruits of extraordinary global influence and economic power. But we are undermining our own survival by betraying our first principle -- protection for the right to life.

As scripture says, a house cannot stand divided against itself. We cannot take comfort in better health, education and nutrition programs for some children while we allow the systematic termination of others. And too many of our leaders, including Catholic officials who should know better, have been too easily dissuaded from doing much about it, in the name of a distorted right to privacy and an even more defective appeal to pluralism.

There is no more misleading argument in the current American political lexicon than, “I’m personally opposed to (choose the issue), but ... ” Some things are always and gravely wrong -- so wrong that no excuse, no matter how reasonable-sounding, will suffice.

Direct attacks on human life like abortion and euthanasia can never be excused by majority will or pro-rated away by other policies of social concern. And real pluralism demands that people of conviction will work legally, peacefully, ethically -- but forcefully and tirelessly -- to advance their beliefs in the public square, in our courts and in our legislative chambers.

It’s hard to find virtue in compromise when someone weak dies in the deal. Our laws, after all, like our art, music, literature and architecture, are a window on our soul. They embody who we are. Surely Catholic lawmakers can be encouraged and expected to understand the difference between an unthinking worship of choice and the meaning of real freedom, which draws its life from unchanging truths about the sanctity of the human person. If they don’t, we bishops do them no service by remaining silent or discreet out of false prudence.

Elected officials offer the community their greatest contribution when they cultivate and remain true to enduring moral principles. Character counts. Political leaders who defend the sanctity of life are winners. And even if the cost is sometimes defeat, there are worse things than losing an election: Losing one’s soul is among them. It’s a thought that all of us -- bishops, elected officials and voters -- will reflect on with equal profit.

Abortion and euthanasia are by no means the only human dignity issues that require Catholics’ attention. Respect for human life requires active, untiring efforts on behalf of those who are poor, homeless, hungry or politically marginalized. The sanctity of the human person is a seamless garment and a consistent ethic or it is no ethic at all. I take great pride in the Catholic people and bishops of Colorado for speaking out strongly against the death penalty before and since executions resumed in our state in 1997.

But “Living the Gospel of Life” is a reminder that some sanctity-of-life issues -- those that involve the right to life itself -- are foundational. In the calculus of public policy, they must come first. Catholic voters and elected officials who ignore this build the moral architecture of our culture on sand.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver is a member of the Capuchin Franciscans.

To read Evangelium Vitae on the Vatican's Web site, click the link below to access www.vatican.va Click The Holy See for English, click The Holy Father, then click John Paul II, and, finally, click Encyclicals. Scroll down to find Evangelium Vitae and click on that.

National Catholic Reporter, January 29, 1999