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We are called to stand apart in defense of life


Last year our bishop, Daniel Reilly, became the first leader of our diocese to join a protest at the Planned Parenthood clinic. In May 1998, he went a step further by refusing to attend Assumption College’s graduation because Lt. Gov. Jane Swift, an abortion rights advocate, was scheduled to receive an honorary degree. His actions were consistent with strong recent statements by the pope and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

On Nov. 14, though, Reilly celebrated what he called a “Red, White and Blue Mass” to honor veterans at Worcester’s Cathedral of St. Paul. Led by a military band, more than 200 veterans and members of the military reserves marched to the cathedral in camouflage and dress uniform. Some of them carried their guns into the flag-filled church where military chaplains, veterans and other soldiers acted as concelebrants, lectors and eucharistic ministers.

No one disputes that veterans have suffered. As a Catholic Worker, I have helped to shelter hundreds of veterans of many different wars. Many were recruited under false pretenses, like those in 1918 who entered “the war to end all wars.” Others were drafted. None could leave freely once they were inducted. Too many were killed, maimed or traumatized so badly that they will never be the same. Most were ordered to kill other human beings with bullets, bombs, land mines or missiles. Few ever heard the church say that killing in the military is wrong. Even fewer received good treatment from the Veteran’s Administration once they returned home. All things considered, it’s not surprising that Pope Paul VI insisted, “War never again!”

While military policemen guarded the doors, the bishop lavished praise on the veterans, going so far as to salute the American flag on the altar.

As a member of the Ss. Francis & Therese Catholic Worker, I stood outside the cathedral with a dozen others holding banners that proclaimed, “Thou shall not kill [Exodus],” “War no more [Isaiah],” “Love your enemies [Matthew]” and “Do not follow leaders who train you to inflict death [Pope John Paul II].”

We distributed a leaflet that praised the bishop for his strong stance on abortion while calling him to recognize that modern war is also an instrument of indiscriminate killing of the innocent.

Unlike peace vigils during the Second World War, when Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day had to rely heavily on scriptural and early church pacifism, we were able to draw on numerous recent papal and episcopal statements condemning war, militarism and the blind patriotism that discounts civilian deaths as “collateral damage.”

Indeed the U.S. Catholic Conference issued a statement Oct. 20 that stressed “Our teaching calls us to protect human life from conception to natural death, to defend the poor and vulnerable and to work toward a more just society and a more peaceful world.” Pope John Paul II made this call tangible when he condemned the Gulf War as “useless slaughter.” Bishop James McHugh of Rockville Centre, N.Y., did likewise when he described the recent Balkan War as “indiscriminate bombing and relentless destruction ... an unjust war,” making us “victims of the culture of death.”

With land mines, cluster bombs, missiles and depleted uranium shells killing many times more civilians than soldiers, a conscientious Catholic need not be a pacifist to insist that the military needs to be severely criticized if not rejected altogether.

But if we are to progress toward a truly consistent ethic of life, it seems to me that we need to risk becoming unpopular. In their October statement the bishops say, “Our moral framework does not easily fit the categories of right or left, Democrat or Republican. Our responsibility is to measure every party and platform by how its agenda touches human life and dignity.” Unless we want to pit life in the womb against life outside it, we are called to stand apart, even to the extent of not voting at all. As Catholic Worker Ammon Hennacy used to say, “If God wanted us to vote, He would have given us candidates.”

Lest we sit in self-righteous judgment of Reilly’s archaic patriotism, we each need to reflect deeply on our own inconsistency. How many vigorous opponents of war subscribe to progressive long distance telephone servers that also contribute generously to Planned Parenthood?

How many of us are quick to ridicule conservatives like Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) while giving liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) a free ride? The willingness of liberal politicians to defend even partial- birth abortions is every bit as demented as the willingness of conservatives to send children and the mentally retarded to death row.

We are all at a crossroads. If the church adheres to a truly consistent ethic of life, we will lose much of our secular respectability as we take prophetic stances. We may lose income, privilege and political power, not to mention personal popularity, but I believe we will become stronger advocates for the defenseless. Toward this end, we will begin a prayer vigil and fast outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. For three weeks of Advent we will call for an end to the killing of children by abortion, war, the death penalty and sanctions. Please consider a similar witness in your own diocese.

Scott Schaeffer-Duffy is a member of the Ss. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker House in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999