Both as a U.S. Senator and as a Catholic layman, I share the frustration of pro-life Americans of all faiths whose government doesn’t uphold the sanctity of life.
Even so, the Born Alive Infants Act was passed in the 107th Congress, giving pro-lifers some hope. This act ensures that babies who survive abortion have legal rights as persons under the United States Constitution. This was passed despite the fact that Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a staunch pro-abortion advocate, has made it impossible to move other pro-life measures or confirm judges who understand the legal and moral consequences of Roe v. Wade.
Given these obstacles, it’s more important than ever for pro-lifers to stand together in defense of innocent human life. That’s why it’s upsetting to discover that the Archdiocese of Washington recently bestowed a high honor—its first annual Monsignor George Higgins Award, for the pursuit of social justice—upon AFL-CIO president, John J. Sweeney.
While Sweeney has advanced parts of the bishops’ overly expansive national agenda on labor law and immigration, on the central issue of life, he has helped advance a culture of death. In his official capacity—the capacity in which the Archdiocese of Washington honored him—Sweeney is probably the individual most responsible for the pro-abortion majority in the U.S. Senate. The tens of millions of dollars he wields in political campaigns throughout the country assists pro-choice candidates almost exclusively. Yes, he may be simply pursuing his organization’s interests, and that’s his prerogative, but for the Archdiocese of Washington to honor him is contrary to the Church’s teachings to promote life.
The Second Vatican Council, in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), praises men and women who have a vocation to public office. In fact, it encourages active citizenship: “In pursuing the common good, citizens should be conscious of their specific and proper role in the political community: They should be a shining example by their sense of responsibility and their dedication to the common good.”
In a document issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” the duty of public officials to uphold the Church’s teachings on abortion is made clear: “Both as Americans and as followers of Christ, American Catholics must be committed to the defense of life in all its stages and in every condition.” The document demands that all U.S. Catholics, “especially those in positions of leadership—whether cultural, economic or political, must recover their identity as followers of Christ and be leaders in the renewal of American respect for the sanctity of life.”
Sweeney may be, as the popular saying goes, “personally pro-life,” but as the USCCB’s document clearly points out, a Christian must uphold his beliefs both in private and public life. According to the USCCB, “They do this not by unthinking adherence to public opinion polls or by repeating empty pro-choice slogans, but by educating and sensitizing themselves and their constituents to the humanity of the unborn child.”
Sweeney’s award is disheartening to those on the pro-life front lines, from those in Congress to those protesting outside abortion clinics. However, Sweeney isn’t the only pro-choice liberal hailed by the Archdiocese of Washington. Unfortunately, when our diocesan social justice coordinators from around the country met last year in the nation’s capital for their annual round of policy briefings, who do you think was chosen as their keynote speaker to represent the social justice ideals of the Church?
Not pro-life leaders like Congressmen Chris Smith or Henry Hyde—both courageous defenders of the unborn. Rather, the speaker was none other than pro-choice Senator Patrick Leahy.
The award for Sweeney and the selection of Senator Leahy to keynote the conference are parts of a much larger pattern in which actions speak louder than words. When Church leaders and institutions deplore the prevalence of abortion, but invite pro-abortion leaders to speak at policy forums, give them honorary degrees, and praise them for their liberal positions on other policy issues, the message is that the Church cares more about its legislative priorities than it does about unborn children. What you promote in the public square is, in fact, what you honor.
These choices made by the Archdiocese of Washington contradict its responsibility to call Americans—including political leaders of the Catholic faith—to uphold the sanctity of life. As stated in Veritatis Splendor, it’s part of the pastoral ministry of the Church and bishops “to see to it that [the Church’s] moral teaching is faithfully handed down, and to have recourse to appropriate measures to ensure that the faithful are guarded from every doctrine and theory contrary to it.”
All citizens, particularly Catholics, have a duty and privilege to build a culture of life. As the USCCB reminds us, Catholics who are privileged to serve in public leadership positions have “an obligation to place their faith at the heart of their public service, particularly on issues regarding the sanctity and dignity of human life.” Moreover, Scripture calls us to “be doers of the word and not hearers only… for faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 1:22, 2:17). To be a Christian is to bear active witness to the truth and to life.
Pro-life words, moral support, and lobbying are not enough. The leadership of the Church must confront the culture of death at every turn. As St. Gregory prophetically urged: “Let us be neither dogs that do not bark nor silent onlookers, nor paid servants who run away before the wolf. Instead, let us be careful shepherds watching over Christ’s flock. Let us preach the whole of God’s plan to the powerful and the humble, to rich and to poor, to men of every rank and age, as far as God gives us the strength, in season and out of season.”
Let’s not let sleeping dogs lie. Rather, let us fulfill God’s law in promoting a culture of life.