Documentation: A Pastoral Letter in Defense of Life

To my brothers and sisters in the Catholic community and to all men and women of good will.

Today we observe Respect Life Sunday. It is most important that we take this special moment to become more conscious of the precious and immeasurable gift of human life and stand fast to protect it. For discouragingly, it has been under threat since the beginning of recorded history.

Yet we also note with hope that the constant instinct and effort of men and women of good will is to defend human life and oppose the attacks on it. This instinct, a gift of crea­tion and grace, is a divine impulse. It helps us to love and protect those who suffer or who are deprived of basic needs. It draws us to stand with those who are deprived of human rights. We see an example of this God-given instinct in the outpouring of help for those stricken with famine in Ethiopia as well as the widespread response to Mexico in its recent tragedy.

The Church from the beginning has given voice to this instinct in its constant teaching concerning the preciousness of human life. When the dignity and the very existence of the human person is attacked, the Church has spoken out clearly in opposition to the escalation of the arms race, in support of a living wage, in favor of adequate housing for all and in opposition to economic deprivation. In recent years, the popes and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops have spoken with special intensity about the God-given rights of every human person. Specifically, and with special clarity and force, they have condemned the direct attack on innocent human life in the womb.

In defense of life, then, let us speak again. Underlying all other rights which we have as human beings and as American citizens is the right to life and the right to what is essential to the full development of human life. This right has been described as “the right to have rights.” By Church teaching and widespread civil practice, this basic right has been placed beyond the arbitrary actions of governments and individuals. In our own country, for example, there were anti-abortion laws in all fifty states. This anti-abortion at­titude pervaded medical practice. One can say that such reverence for live in the womb goes back to time im­memorial. Instinctively it was known that it is not man’s prerogative to take human life. We are not the masters of life. God is.

However, in our own time, a phenomenon has taken place which seems without parallel in the history of man’s offense against his brothers and sisters. It is the widespread, systematic opposition to life in the womb.

But the God-given instinct in defense of life is deep, and men and women of good will from varied religious backgrounds have risen up to defend those who cannot de­fend themselves. The Catholic Church, faithful to its long and unbroken tradition, has joined with others to stand up for life. Just six years ago, speaking on another Respect Life Sunday in Washington, D.C ., Pope John Paul II again af­firmed the inviolability of human life at every stage.

“I do not hesitate to proclaim before you and before the world that all human life — from the moment of conception and through all subsequent stages — is sacred, because human life is created in the image and likeness of God. Nothing surpasses the greatness or dignity of a human per­son. Human life is not just an idea or an abstraction; human life is the concrete reality of a being that lives, that acts, that grows and develops; human life is the concrete reality of a being that is capable of love and of service to humanity….

“If a person’s right to life is violated at the moment in which he is first conceived in his mother’s womb, an indirect blow is struck also at the whole of the moral order, which serves to ensure the inviolable goods of man. Among these goods, life occupies the first place. The Church defends the right to life, not only in regard to the majesty of the creator who is the first giver of this life, but also in respect for the essential good of the human person” (John Paul II — Washington, D.C. — October 7, 1979).

The Present Situation

What is the present situation concerning life in the womb and what should be our response to it? One and one half million known abortions are performed each year. There have been over eighteen million since the tragic Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973. Some four to five thousand are performed each day. In our own midst there are active abor­tion centers. Media pressure often favors abortion. The climate which makes it seem acceptable confuses and harms those who are most vulnerable.

The attack continues and it expands. The federal courts have overturned the laws which oppose abortion in all fifty states. In what a dissenting judge called “an exercise of raw judicial power” they have forbidden the enactment of any law protecting life in the womb during the first six or seven months of pregnancy. For all practical purposes the Courts have even made abortion possible in the last months of pregnancy. It has been erroneously claimed that this freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution. Later decisions have said that a father has no right to prevent the abortion of a child he has fathered, and parents have no right to prevent their minor, unmarried daughter from having an abortion.

As a result, many hospitals, not under Catholic auspices, allow abortions and every major city, including our own, has its abortion centers. Abortion is everywhere available and people are coaxed into it every day.

Why We Must Respond

(1) We Must Respond Because of the Offense Done to God.

Abortion represents an offense against the Creator. The freedom sought by those supporting abortion is not true freedom. Indeed most abortions are sought under pressure and out of fear. True freedom, as a gift from God, is the capacity and ability to do the good. While it is true that some people may not be aware of this, abortion places man against God and in it man violates the true freedom with which God has endowed him. As Professor John Noonan has put it:

“These profound cultural drives toward absolute freedom and absolute control are comprehensible as expres­sions of an underlying atheism. If God does not exist, there are no limits — moral, social, or even biological. If God does not exist, it is each individual for himself or herself. If God does not exist, human control must replace divine pro­vidence. This underlying atheism is rarely articulated. Even many religious persons share the modern desires, breathing them in from the surrounding atmosphere, without attending to the atheism which is their source. But when human beings in the name of human liberty assert the power to destroy in­nocent human life, it is plain that they have put themselves in the place of God as the Lord and Giver of Life. Abortion is atheism put in practice” (Noonan, J., Abortion in Our Culture, p. 5).

(2) We Must Respond Because of the Offense Done to Innocent Life.

Consequent upon the Supreme Court decision, an entire group of human beings is made vulnerable and is subjected to the most unjust type of discrimination. Others decide whether these human beings should live or die. The newest scientific advances support and clarify the conviction that human life is present in the womb from conception. The ad­vance of genetic science shows the genetic pattern of a human being whom our faith as well as our own civil tradi­tion calls us to love and protect, especially because this life is so innocent and defenseless. The Church states:

“The first right of the human person is the right to life. He has other goods of which some are more precious, but this one is fundamental — the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others. It does not belong to society, nor does it belong to public authority in any form, to recognize this right for some and not for others: all discrimination is evil, whether it be founded on race, sex, color or religion. It is not recognition by another that con­stitutes this right. This right is antecedent to its recognition; it demands recognition and it is strictly unjust to refuse it.

“Any discrimination based on the various stages of life is no more justified than any other discrimination. The right to life remains complete in an old person, even one greatly weakened; it is not lost by one who is incurably sick. The right to life is no less to be respected in the small infant just born than in the mature person. In reality, respect for human life is called for from the time that the process of generation begins. From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his or her own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already.

“To this perpetual evidence — perfectly independent of the discussions on the moment of animation — modern genetic science brings valuable confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the program of what this living being will be: a man, this in­dividual man with his characteristic aspects well determin­ed. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a human life, and each of its capacities requires time — a rather lengthy time — to find its place and to be in a position to act. The least that can be said is that present science, in its most evolved state, does not give any substantial support to those who defend abortion” (Declaration on Abortion — Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Nov. 18, 1974).


(3) We Must Respond Because of What Abortion Does to Those Who Seek It Out or Perform It.

In preventing and working against abortion we are con­cerned not only with the human being in the womb, we are also concerned to save those who would do harm to innocent life. It is so easy to take what seems the simpler, more com­fortable road, but to overlook the fact that it is a road that leads to scars which may never heal. One theologian has put this quite graphically:

“The beam of insight in Christianity about human value is more focused on our own life than on that of another. For Jesus’ teaching is that when one human eliminates another, worse damage befalls the killer than the killed. Christian teaching on life taking centers less on the value of human life in the abstract than on the need of sus­taining others’ lives lest we perish ourselves.

“The Christian stake in the status of the unborn is not simply that the unborn is human, but that he or she is our brother or sister; and, even more, it is that we shall thrive only if we nurture our brothers and sisters” (Burtchaell, J. Rachel Weeping and Other Essays on Abortion, pp. 118-119).

 Methods of Response in Our Diocese

 Our response in this diocese must correspond with the three areas outlined in the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Ac­tivities issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1975.

 (1) We must teach.

(2) We must give counseling and enlightened pastoral care to young women who find themselves drawn toward having an abortion.

(3) We must make our case in the public arena.

(1) Teaching

In recent years certain assertions have been made, which, because of widespread dissemination through the media, have caused confusion and significant spiritual harm. These assertions claim, under the guise of a false pluralism, that church teaching on certain moral issues represent simp­ly one opinion among many. Such efforts are wrong and misleading. They confuse and lead astray. Legitimate pluralism has to do with various emphases which have com­mon limits. A judgment in opposition to a revealed truth can never constitute legitimate pluralism.

Such an effort took the form of a full-page ad in the New York Times just one year ago. It is important to look at what was claimed in this ad and to examine the response of the American Catholic Bishops to this claim. Here is what the advertisement said:

“Statements of recent Popes and of the Catholic hierar­chy have condemned the direct termination of pre-natal life as morally wrong in all instances. There is the mistaken belief of American society that this is the only legitimate Catholic position.”

This last sentence is wrong and caused confusion. For this reason and out of concern for the rights of the faithful to hear the truth, the Catholic bishops of the United States responded immediately through their Committee on Doc­trine. This response shows clearly that the opinion in the New York Times ad “contradicts the clear and constant teaching of the Church. . . .”

Lest there be any doubt about what is authentic Church teaching and in order to give further clarification concerning this matter, let me quote part of the response of the bishops. I present this statement as one duly appointed by Christ — through the Church — to teach the truth. I present it as one who bears the sacred responsibility as bishop of this beloved diocese to present to you Church teaching with full clarity and without any hint of confusion.

“This statement says it is mistaken to believe that the Catholic Church teaches that deliberately chosen abortion is morally wrong in all instances, and it suggests that abortion can sometimes be a legitimate moral choice.

“As the Committee on Doctrine of the National Con­ference of Catholic Bishops, responding to the general con­cern of our brother bishops, we want to affirm that such an opinion, however sincerely motivated, contradicts the clear and constant teaching of the Church that deliberately chosen abortion is objectively immoral. It is not a legitimate moral choice.”

To repeat, then, there is only one legitimate Catholic position on abortion, a position which was stated in the Sec­ond Vatican Council where abortion is called “an abominable crime.”

(2) Counseling

We must give counsel and guidance to young women whom our culture or their own confused circumstances draw towards abortion. There are already many such programs in Fort Wayne, South Bend and other places. I pledge the diocese towards further expansion of these efforts. Such ef­fort must include education, pregnancy counseling, nutritional advice assistance to those who are poor, attempts to change the life-style of young men and women which leads them to illicit premarital sex, and the extension of adoption services. My heart goes out especially to the young unmar­ried woman and her parents who find themselves “thinking the unthinkable.” I urge all our priests, religious, deacons and lay ministers to stand with them at this time of decision, to pray for them, to walk hand in hand with them. They ex­pect, and have a right, from you and me to that advice which leads them to do what is right. When you help them not to have an abortion you are on the one hand standing with Christ while also showing true love and concern for all those involved.

I pledge the expansion of our already substantial efforts in this direction of pastoral counseling and guidance.

(3) The Public Arena

The public debate grows ever more strident. But these public officials, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who defend and support legislation to protect unborn children, are fighting the good fight and are acting in the highest tradition of American civil responsibility. For ours is a legal tradition which defends the right of individuals regardless of age or condition. The Supreme Court decision violated a long­standing American tradition of protecting those whose rights are violated by others.

Some elected leaders say that they “oppose abortion but do not wish to impose this view on others.” Such a posi­tion did not hold and was never asserted in the struggle for civil rights. In the Dred Scott decision in 1857, it was held that a slave was a non-person and had no rights. Brave and intelligent men and women instinctively sensed the error of that decision which said that a human person had no rights and they worked to overturn the decision and set this country on track again. We expect no less from our elected officials in restoring rights to human beings in the womb and as good citizens we must continue to assert our convictions in the public square. It is especially here that we need the enlightened experience of Catholic lay leaders, lawyers, journalists, doctors, elected officials.

Hence, it is not only our Catholic teaching but our basic American political philosophy and tradition which calls us to this. This tradition at its best sees true liberty as a gift by which one is able to do the right thing, not as a license to do anything one pleases. It also sees rights as having conse­quent duties and obligations and these obligations are directed towards the common good. As a recent Nobel Prize winner said in her acceptance speech:

“To me, the nations with legalized abortions are the poorest nations. The great destroyer of peace today is the crime against the innocent unborn child” (Mother Teresa — Nobel Prize speech — 1979).

A Final Word

The ultimate defense against abortion is union with Christ. Spiritual renewal comes through prayer, meditation on God’s word, prayer to Our Lady and frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance, through all of which we receive the strength to avoid sin. By these means we are given the necessary helps which each person needs. Above all, devout regular reception of the Holy Eucharist combined with personal prayer will prevent more abortions than anything else. Hence, we must all look, in due course, for an effort at spiritual renewal which must be geared to reach every person so that all will see themselves and all others as God’s creatures — and so that all will seek to do His will in all things.

Abortion must be seen for what it is. It is evil. Thus we must, on the one hand, use all necessary means to increase awareness of the preciousness of human life. On the other side, we must see that what” we have here is still another chapter of the Church’s age-old battle against evil.

We should enlist every human means in this battle. But we have to remember that, “Our fight is not against human foes, but against cosmic powers, against the authorities and potentates of this dark world, against the superhuman forces of evil in the heavens.” Therefore, as St. Paul continues, we have to take up special weapons, truth, integrity, the Gospel, faith, the Holy Spirit, “the words that come from God.” “Give yourselves wholly to prayer and entreaty. Pray on every occasion in the power of the Spirit. To this end keep watch and persevere, always interceding for all God’s peo­ple” (Eph. 6. 12ff.).

I would like to close by asking for myself what Paul asked from the Church at Ephesus. “And pray for me, that I may be granted the right words when I open my mouth, and may boldly and freely make known his hidden purpose for which I am his ambassador” (Eph. 6. 19).


  • Most Rev. John Michael D'Arcy

    John Michael D'Arcy (1932 – 2013) was an American prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. He was the eighth diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. He was succeeded as diocesan bishop by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, who was named to the post by Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday, November 14, 2009. Until then, Bishop Rhoades had been bishop of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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