During a trip to Ireland this past weekend, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver delivered a talk to the Irish chapter of Human Life International that outlined the “dos and don’ts” for the pro-life movement. Those who claim pro-lifers should avoid the “divisive” issue of ending legalized abortion and focus on providing better support for pregnant mothers are creating a false division, the archbishop insisted.
Following the theme “An American view on how to build a culture of life,” Archbishop Chaput explained that his goal was “to offer some lessons from the American experience that Irish Christians might find useful.”
More than three decades after the legalization of abortion in the U.S., Archbishop Chaput diagnosed Americans’ beliefs on abortion as schizophrenic as he gave an overview of the current situation. “Most believe abortion is wrong. But most also want it legal under some limited circumstances,” he said.
The consequences of holding two such divergent views are that the U.S. has “a large and well-funded abortion industry” and that a “very vigorous prolife movement” has grown up “right alongside the abortion industry,” Chaput observed.
“American pro-lifers have had many setbacks. They never have enough money. They don't get treated fairly 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. Meanwhile they continue to work toward the strategic goal of overturning the 1973 Supreme Court decision.”
With all of this in mind, Archbishop Chaput offered what he sees as six “don’ts” and five “dos” that pro-lifers around the world should learn from their American counterparts.
“First,” he recommended, “don't let yourselves be tricked into an inferiority complex.” Drawing on a point made in his book “Render Unto Caesar,” he told his Irish audience:
“Critics like to say that religion is divisive, or intellectually backward, or that it has no proper place in the public square. … 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 are 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 shield 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.”
The next two “don’ts” cited by the Archbishop of Denver were, “Don't let divisions take root” and “Don’t get trapped by politics -- especially partisan politics.”
He related how as a bishop he has been “baffled” by how much energy is wasted on internal pro-life bickering and that pro-lifers should “never allow our differences to become personal” since infighting within the movement is “a gift to the other side.”
Sticking to one political party is also dangerous, Archbishop Chaput argued. “The more pro-lifers tie themselves to a single political party, the less they can speak to society at large. In the United States, Catholics -- both on the right and the left -- have too often made the mistake of becoming cheerleaders for a specific candidate,” he said.
“Don't create or accept false oppositions,” the archbishop cautioned as he waded into a topic that has caused great debate in the American pro-life community.
“During the last U.S. election,” Chaput recalled, “we saw the emergence of so-called pro-life organizations that argued we should stop fighting the legal struggle over abortion. Instead we should join with ‘pro-choice’ supporters to seek ‘common ground’.”
“Their argument was simple: Why 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,” he explained.
But this argument doesn’t sync with history, Archbishop Chaput stressed.
“Did Americans take a gradual, social-improvement road to ‘reducing’ racism? No. We passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” he pointed out.
Taking the logic a step further, the Denver prelate said, “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 rape illegal -- even though we know it will still sometimes tragically occur -- because rape is 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,” Chaput reasoned, “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, and some will always occur. If we really believe that abortion kills a developing unborn life, then we can never be satisfied with mere ‘reductions’ in the body count.”
The new groups that materialized during the last election seem to operate from an “either/or” mentality, that argued that pro-lifers needed to choose between abortion “reduction” programs and outlawing abortion, the archbishop said. But protecting the unborn child “is not an ‘either/or’ choice. It's ‘both/and’,” he countered.
“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.”
Despite this disagreement, the archbishop’s fifth “don’t” cautioned pro-lifers against hating their adversaries. “Our adversary is an opponent, but never our "enemy." Our enemy is the Evil One,” he said.
Playing off his previous “don’t,” the Denver archbishop focused on adversaries again, saying, “Don't let your adversaries set the agenda.”
President Barack Obama’s recent reversal of the Mexico City policy in office served to illustrate this point for the archbishop. “His reason for signing the executive order was that it was time to put this ‘divisive issue behind us,’ once and for all,” Chaput reminded.
“There's something a little odd about rhetoric that tells that we're the ‘divisive’ ones, and lectures adult citizens about what we should challenge, and when we should stop. In a democracy, we get to decide that for ourselves.
“An issue that involves the life and death of unborn children and the subversion of entire traditional societies can't be ‘put behind us’ with an executive signature.”
Switching gears, the archbishop moved on to give his Irish audience his list of “dos.”
“Do become martyrs,” he challenged as he quipped, “I said it was simple. I didn't say it was easy. Be ready to pay the ultimate price.”
In modern society, you may not have to give your life for the unborn, but you may sacrifice your reputation or have lies told about you, the prelate counseled.
With the annual March for Life fresh in his mind, Archbishop Chaput called on pro-lifers to his second do—“keep hope alive.” “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 hope that emerges from self-sacrifice 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,” he added.
The third “do” offered by Chaput was to “be strategic.” Likening pro-life advocates to “sheep in the midst of wolves,” he told his audience that this “doesn’t mean we can also be dumb as rocks.”
“Being strategic means planning ahead, setting the 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 million Euros we don't have. We need to focus on the ten Euros we do have,” the archbishop said.
Next on the “do” list was a message that echoed Pope Benedict’s recent message for the World Day of Communications—use new technologies to spread your message.
Archbishop Chaput closed out his “dos” by stepping back for a look at the big picture. “Remember that renewing the culture, not gaining power, is our ultimate goal,” he counseled.
Culture is everything, the archbishop stated as he encouraged pro-lifers to make evangelizing it their ultimate goal. “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’," he explained.
Exhorting pro-lifers to continue fighting for this goal, Archbishop Chaput said “cultural trends can be changed. And I'll prove it.”
“Mainline media have been telling us for a decade that the American public is evenly divided between those who consider themselves prolife and those who describe themselves as ‘pro-choice’.”
“This is broadly true. But the devil - or in this case, God -- is in the details.”
Archbishop Chaput went on to cite a national poll by Harris Interactive that came out in December 2008, which found among other things that “fewer than ten per cent of Americans support legalized abortion on demand as it stands today.”
The findings of the poll show that “prolife efforts have made real progress in improving people's awareness of the sanctity of unborn life,” he asserted.
“We need to work to change the culture. And that demands a lifelong commitment to education, Christian formation and, ultimately, conversion. Only saints really change the world. And there 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, welcoming culture.”