|Coat of Arms|
Building a Culture of Life
Feb. 25, 2011 (Fargo, ND) - Archbishop Chaput addressed laypeople of the Diocese of Fargo, with a presentation titled “Building a Culture of Life.” Archbishop offers a few “dos” and “don’ts” for building a culture of life, based on what he has seen in the American prolife experience throughout the past 38 years.
As I was gathering my thoughts for today, 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. That’s an odd way to begin a prolife discussion, isn’t it – reminding everybody in the room that we don’t have a lot of time.
But I think it’s exactly the right place to start. The time we have in this world is brief. God is good, and the life he gives us is filled not just with problems and sorrow, but with beauty and joy and love and hope and nobility – and these things are worth fighting for. What we do in the world matters. How we use our time matters. And therefore the choices we make matter – precisely because we come this way only once, and the world will be better or worse for our passing.
So our presence here together today 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 to turn our hearts to building the kind of world that embodies his love and honors the sanctity of the human children he created.
Our theme today is “building a culture of life.” All of us here this afternoon know that U.S. Supreme Court struck down restrictive American abortion laws in 1973. That effectively legalized abortion on demand. Since then, abortion has killed more than 50 million unborn American children. It’s also damaged the lives of millions of women and men. The sheer size of this tragedy has had a very curious effect on the American mind, because Americans have always been a religious people – and we still are by the standards of most developed countries. In practice, Americans now have a kind of schizophrenia about the abortion issue. Most of us believe abortion is wrong. But many people – many otherwise good people -- also want it to be legal under some limited circumstances.
This split in the American mind has two results. Here’s the first consequence. The United States has a large and well-funded abortion industry. The industry has very shrewd political lobbyists. It also has a public relations machine that would make George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth look like a gang of amateurs. In practice, the industry runs on an engine of persuasive-sounding lies.
You know some of the lies. I’m sure you’ve heard them a thousand times. There’s the lie that an unborn child isn’t “fully human.” The lie that abortion is a purely private decision without public consequences. The lie that we can be “pro-choice,” and yet not be implicated in where our choices lead -- to the killing of an unborn child.
Here’s the second consequence. Right alongside the abortion industry, our country also has a very vigorous prolife movement. American prolifers have had many setbacks. They never have enough money. They get treated brutally by the media. Too many of their leaders argue with each other too much of the time. But they just won’t give up or die. And so they’ve won quite a few modest but important legal victories. And meanwhile they continue to work toward the strategic goal of overturning the 1973 Supreme Court decision.
Based on what I’ve seen in the American prolife experience over the past 38 years, I’d like to offer a few “dos” and “don’ts” for building a culture of life. And perhaps we can talk about them more deeply in our question and answer session. I’ll begin with six “don’ts.”
First, don’t let yourselves be tricked into an inferiority complex.
Critics like to say that religion is divisive, or intellectually backward, or that it has no proper place in the public square. This kind of defective thinking is now so common that any religiously grounded political engagement can be portrayed as crossing the border between Church and state affairs.
But this is nonsense. Democracy depends on people of conviction carrying their beliefs into public debate -- respectfully, legally and non-violently, but vigorously and without apology. If we’re uncomfortable being Christians in a public debate, then we’ve already lost the war. In America the word “pluralism” is often conjured up like a kind of voodoo to get religious people to stop talking about right and wrong. In reality, our moral beliefs always shape social policy. Real pluralism actually 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 Catholics, or for advancing our beliefs in private or in public.
Here’s the second don’t. Don’t let divisions take root.
Unity is a sign of the Holy Spirit. Division is the sign of someone very different. As St. Augustine said, 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. Nonetheless, as a bishop, I’ve been baffled by how much energy is 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.
Here’s the third don’t. Don’t get trapped by partisan politics. But also don’t undervalue the importance of politics.
Politics is an arena where prolife action can have very practical results. Pope John Paul II said in his apostolic exhortation Christifideles laici, “The charges of careerism, idolatry of power, egoism and corruption that [are] directed at persons in government, parliaments [or] political parties,” are often unwarranted. So is “the common opinion that participating in politics is an absolute moral danger – [on the contrary, these things do not] in the least justify either skepticism or absence on the part of Christians in public life” (42). Or to put it another way: Public office and political activism are not just acceptable for Christians; they can also have real nobility when pursued in the service of truth.
But the fast pace of party politics, and the illusion that politics rules the “commanding heights” of our society and can satisfy our Christian social obligations, makes political life very addictive. And this illusion gets dangerous when defending the unborn child is too closely identified with any particular political leader or, even worse, one specific party. The more prolifers tie themselves to a single political party, the less they can speak to society at large. Here 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.
Here’s the fourth don’t. 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 usually un-Christian. During the 2008 presidential election, we saw the emergence of so-called “prolife” organizations that argued we should de-emphasize the legal struggle over abortion. Instead we should join with “pro-choice” supporters to seek “common ground.”
Their argument was simple: Why should we fight a losing battle on the legal, cultural and moral front 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.
But as we look at 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 the availability of health care 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 the 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, or that some abortions will always occur. If we really believe that abortion kills a developing, unborn human life, then we can never be satisfied with mere “reductions” in the body count.
The U.S. Catholic bishops have argued for nearly 40 years that government needs to improve the economic conditions that can lead some women to abortion. But good programs for economic justice don’t ever absolve Catholics from the legal struggle to end abortion. Protecting the unborn child is not an “either/or” choice. It’s “both/and.” We need to help women facing problem pregnancies with good health care and economic support; and we need to pass laws that will end legal abortion. We need to do both.
Here’s the fifth don’t. Don’t hate the adversary.
People who support an imaginary “right” to abortion are our opponents, but they’re never our “enemies.” Our enemy is the Evil One. 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 power of love -- the true power of God. St. 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.
I’ve always been moved by the story of Norma McCorvey, the woman whose legal case led to the Supreme Court decision that legalized permissive abortion in America. As the years passed after her court victory, McCorvey began to regret her abortion and to examine her life. She converted first to the prolife cause and later to the Catholic faith.
Feeling used and discarded by the abortion industry, McCorvey struggled with depression and fell into a deeply confused life. One day a young prolife Christian couple with children moved in next door to her. Her neighbors always treated her kindly. They often let her talk and play with their children. But she always feared that they would find out who she was -- not just “an enemy” but “the enemy,” the woman who helped legalize abortion.
Norma later discovered that they knew exactly who she was all along. Experiencing their unconditional kindness became the first step on her journey to the Catholic faith and, today, to a life committed to ending abortion.
Here’s the sixth and final don’t. Don’t let your adversaries set the agenda.
In one of his first executive orders back in 2009, President Barack Obama reversed the Mexico City policy, which had blocked U.S. federal money from being used to promote abortion in developing countries. His reason for signing the executive order was that it was time to put this “divisive issue behind us,” once and for all.
There’s something very odd about presidential rhetoric that tells adult citizens what we can or cannot challenge, and when we should be quiet. In a democracy, we get to decide that for ourselves. An issue like abortion – an issue that involves the life and death of unborn children, and the subversion of entire traditional societies -- can’t simply be “put behind us” with an executive signature. It takes a peculiar kind of vanity, or cynicism, or detachment from reality, to think otherwise. And we need to say so – loudly.
Now I’d like to turn to the second part of my talk – the dos.
Here’s the first and most important do. It’s very simple: Do become martyrs. I said it was simple. I didn’t say it was easy. Be ready to pay a price.
During the Great Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II very shrewdly chose St. Thomas More, a martyr, as the patron saint of lawyers and politicians. Thomas More and his friend Bishop John Fisher, both of them executed by the same king for their fidelity to the Catholic faith, are models of how far we should be willing to go for our beliefs.
In the America of our lifetimes, we may never be asked to shed our blood in witnessing for our faith. But we do see character assassinations, mud-slinging and lies used against good people every day in the public media. And we should be ready to pay the same price. 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 Christian 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 done by original sin, is also on our side.
Nothing is more inspiring than happy warriors. I hope some of you will check out the many photos on the web from last month’s March for Life in Washington D.C. Every year it’s an event full of prayer, charity and confidence. Many of the marchers are young, joyful people who radiate a strong hope in the future – and not the shallow hope of political sloganeering, but the real Christian virtue of hope that emerges from self-sacrifice, suffering for justice and the struggle to do God’s will.
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 as dumb as sheep. Thomas More was, in the end, a martyr -- but he was also a very adroit thinker and a shrewd, intelligent and prudent political leader as he tried to avoid execution. 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 extremely resourceful with our modest means.
Being strategic means planning ahead, setting an agenda, 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 for his purposes -- 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 do. Do use the best means to deliver your message; especially – but not limited to -- the new technologies. Obviously we should never neglect old technologies that work, and I mean specifically radio. A ministry like Real Presence Radio is a hugely valuable tool in a prolife media strategy, and it needs our support. But it can’t be our only tool.
Today’s new technologies are a mixed social blessing. But they’re also cheap and extremely useful. While the traditional mainline media, including the printing press, are losing influence, blogs, social networks and YouTube channels are thriving. And they offer very big prolife opportunities. The internet, if used well, can break through the wall of silence prolifers usually face from an unfriendly media establishment. And we have very vivid proof. The recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt would have been far more difficult without the use of the internet and its related technologies.
Here’s the fifth 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 influence has obvious and important 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 John Paul II called the “evangelization of culture.”
We need to work to change the culture. That demands a lifelong commitment to education, Christian formation and, ultimately, conversion. Only saints 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 Polish Pope or the fall of the Iron Curtain either. We may or may not see that day in our own lifetimes, but the children of your grandchildren will see that day. The future depends on our choices and actions right here, right now, today -- together.
I want to end with one final observation. I spent nine of the happiest years of my life as bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota. The reason for that happiness was the people I served. Dakotans -- both north and south -- have a warmth and a goodness about them that will always have a special place in my heart. They also have a sanity that comes from their closeness to the land. In the Dakotas, if you behave like a fool in the way you treat the land, or the weather, or the environment – well, very soon you’re a dead fool. So Dakotans get character, or they get gone, pretty quickly.
Here’s my point: 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 Fargo; and not just for the thousands of other people your actions influence, without your even knowing their names.
Your commitment to human life matters eternally. Some lives will only be lived because your voice made those lives 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: Jesus Christ is Lord. He came to give us life and life abundantly. God is good; and he never abandons his people. And because of his love -- and because of the witness of people like you -- the future is ours. And the best is yet to come.
God bless all of you.
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