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Defending Life

Reasons for hope in America.
by Father Edward Hopkins, LC | Source:

How is it that half of American Catholics voted against the mind of the Church? We are told that as many as 54% failed to vote for Life.  But at a distance now, great hope is before us. American Catholics must awake to their responsibility to evangelize.

If you are aware of the Church teaching on the dignity of human life, you are likely frustrated. You probably talked to family and friends about the election and maybe couldn’t get them to understand, much less accept the Church’s teaching about voting as a Catholic, with the mind of the Church. “They just seem blinded!” I keep asking myself with the same frustration, why so blind?

In one of my recent homilies, the readings compelled me to touch on the question of how a Catholic must vote. I guess I was rather straight forward and to the point. And the Holy Spirit made that easy. The theme of the Gospel was to think and act with the mind of God. After Mass, as I greeted the parishioners at the back of the Church, I was surprised at how many people appreciated the message and enthusiastically said so. One man said he had waited 10 years to hear it.

There were also some who avoided me as they made their way out. Maybe some were just in a hurry to get home to football and a good dinner. One woman though, made a point of greeting me and thanked me for Mass. And then she added, “I will NOT vote for another 4 years of war.” I nodded and said: “That’s fine, just don’t vote for evil.” She repeated her statement and left. Other parishioners explained that she was a Democrat.

I don’t get it! It shouldn’t matter what party you belong to. Faith should go deeper than a party allegiance. This is a matter of fighting to defend a fundamental and absolute moral injustice, the very right to life. Many of our Bishops stood up courageously and made clear statements that could leave no doubt about the moral principles and implications of voting in this election. Yet so many ‘good Catholics’, who faithfully attend Sunday Mass don’t see it! Why?

Blindness Has Roots

It really should not come as a surprise to us. This inexplicable condition of moral blindness has roots. America’s first Catholic President had promised in 1960 that his Faith would not affect his politics or governance. So why should a Catholic’s Faith affect their election voting? But I think the roots of the problem are deeper than a bad example, where Faith is exiled to “private life”. The hearts of many were revealed in the events of 1968.

Our family thought itself “normal” in those years. I was 11, the second oldest of five children. Four of us being boys, we did sports in the afternoons and fought at night. It seemed normal. I guess we weren’t. Three of us have become priests and my sister became, well, “a sister”. My youngest brother, in his own extraordinary and much needed vocation is getting his doctorate in psychology, maybe to try and figure out the rest of us.

After many years my dad has come to explain our vocations with one word, “fidelity”. Well before Pope Paul VI in 1968 reaffirmed the perennial Teaching of the Church against the use of artificial birth control dad and mom made a decision to accept and live by it. For dad it was an act of faith. He now feels that God has blessed the family because of their obedience. I can’t say he’s wrong.

In that same year of ‘68, in the midst of a cultural and moral rebellion, the sexual revolution and media explosion, Catholics, at least in this country, began to learn that they could just “vote their conscience”. It didn’t begin at the ballot box. It began in the confessional, when many were told to simply follow their conscience in this area of moral decision, even though the mind of the Church was “made up”. “Humanae Vitae” was as clear as it was unpopular.

This lesson was learned not only in the confessional, which of course then soon became a unpopular “pre-Vatican II” practice itself, and why not, if nothing was absolutely wrong and no real solid moral teaching could be offered to help Catholics form their conscience. The same ambiguity showed itself from the pulpit. Obedience was often not modeled even by our own clergy. Of course, it was not too popular a virtue anywhere during those years. Teenagers were learning that it was “politically correct” to simply dissent and argue their own values. Rationalizing was “good reasoning”. The dictatorship of Relativism was already fogging the minds of many.

The confusion, as it is often referred to, also extended to catechesis. And that was only logical. Since teaching against the currant of modern thought was neither popular nor easy. I can recall vividly when in 9th grade Catechism class dramatically changed.

We had been blessed with instruction from religious sisters for as long as I can recall. Most of them did inspire fear. They were generally older nuns, scary at times in their dark black habits and rather stern ways. But they faithfully taught us the Truths of Faith. We knew why we were there. I remember the last sister who taught us though, was younger and really connected with us about many issues of faith and morals, including vocation. I think she was an important instrument in motivating my older brother to attend a Catholic high school the next year, for the sake of his vocation. I was still a bit blind myself, and stayed at public school one more year before being “converted” by my older brother.

It was 1971 when the change came! No one could miss it. We came to the first class of the year. It may even have been in the newly built modern looking Church; the old one was torn down. The teacher was a smiling mom who greeted us with the “6 million dollar word” that would sum up all that was taught that year, “love”.

Looking back I can’t help think that the idea was a good one. We needed to hear about love. It made sense of all that we had learned and would ever learn about Christ and his Church. But it became unfortunately a vague, meaningless concept that spoke to us more of the culture, music and antiwar sentiments than about the radical but concrete teaching of that Jewish rabbi, who was killed for claiming himself God. Feelings replaced Truth and sacrifice. Love was a word that had been hijacked by the moral relativism that was growing all around us. I don’t remember learning anything that year; “our Faith” became very boring.

The Blind Leading the Blind

In teaching, guidance, catechesis and in so many other ways, not to mention Catholic higher education… Catholics were learning to “think for themselves”. This might have been good if it weren’t for the simultaneous loss of our connection with “the mind of the Church”. You could say we were learning “to lose our minds”. If what makes us a Catholic, as opposed to other Christian denominations, is the creed, what we believe, then we were being taught to protest, to be “protestants” in some sense. It wasn’t important what the Church Magisterium said. We were free to believe, ultimately to pick and choose which things we accepted. Relativism was dictating at least what we didn’t need to think or believe.

Yes, Catholics were told to follow their conscience and that was good. But it was only half the truth. We unfortunately are not, individually at least, “infallible”. The human heart is deceitful; our desires tend to guide or at least color understanding. And with so many technological advances and a rapidly changing culture, moral doubts grew along with us. We also needed to be told: “FORM YOUR CONSCIENCE”. But we never heard it.

It should not have been hard to have discovered this need. But it was a time when “thinking for yourself” and having an opinion was what counted. Diversity and tolerance were the absolute values replacing Church Teaching and Truth in general. Freedom ultimately meant forming your own conscience, or better, letting it be formed, according to your own devises, your own whims or at least the whims of the world around you. The Mind of Christ was either not accessible or so allusive that it was not “teachable”. Did Jesus teach? Did he ask his Church (apostles) to teach?

Does the Church Teach?

Why didn’t someone just pick up the Gospel and notice that Jesus never once said follow your conscience? He undoubtedly understood that this was necessary; it’s the way the Father made us. But what was more urgent was to preach and teach the “mind of God”. This he did relentlessly. His words cut to the hearts of his audience. They were clear and unambiguous. “Thou shalt not kill… but I say even he who curses his brother…”

Our Lord’s teaching was often qualified by such phrases as “Amen, amen, I say to you…” And “behold, unless you do this… you shall not enter the Kingdom.” There were obviously matters that were more serious and non-negotiable for anyone who followed Jesus. St. Paul and the first Christians understood it: “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” (2Tim1:13-14)

Why has this changed?

Well, if all that counts is that God loves us. And truth is in fact so relative that only those who try to “impose” it are to be feared. And to be mature we must “think for ourselves”, with no reference to Holy Mother Church… Then, the blindness of so many Catholics today is simply logical. There is no “mind of Christ”! Christ has become mindless.

From here the implications flow forth easily. If there is no “mind of Christ”, there is no need for a Teaching Church. And so, even the authority of Bishops is somewhat superfluous. They can be kept around to maintain some semblance of order in the organizational and operational dimensions of the Church, but they need not speak or teach.

This is a frightening reality. It hearkens back to the days of the Old Testament when Prophets were either scarce or in fact no longer sent by God to his people, because they had become blind and there hearts were hardened. (Lam2:9)

Taught Not to Listen

The real question I should be asking is “why am I so surprised at the attitudes and beliefs of so many Catholics?” They have been taught to be blind. They have learned to ignore the mindless killing of innocence for the past 35 years; that’s half his life for a 70 year old and the entire life of a parent of grade school children.

They have been taught to become indifferent to the Genocide, the new Holocaust; (we have all become necessarily more insensitive to ‘legal murder’ in our own society.) They have been taught by the culture to look the other way, to turn off their minds. They have been taught that it is more important to respect the right to choose evil than to do all we can to save the life of an innocent child. They have been taught that only they have the final say as to what is right and wrong in life and that neither the Church, nor even Jesus himself can help them know. They have been taught that man fixes his own problems as best he can while God looks on helplessly. They have been taught to feel, to fear and to follow their conscience but they have forgotten how to think, to be led (“e-ducare”) and how to believe the voice of Christ resounding in his Church, echoed by his divinely appointed Shepherds, in an uninterrupted 2000 years of Teaching.

To ignore the moral imperative to defend life, of both mother and child, to consider it just one among many issues or to sheepishly leave it up to proven blind judges and politicians is at least blind ignorance and at most cowardice. But one thing it is NOT, is Christian! Christians must act. “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and observe it.”
(Lk 11:28) We have been given sight, faith. “To those to whom more is given, more will be demanded.” And we will be judged more harshly, because we have been told the Master’s Will. (Lk 12:45-48)

Awakening to Hope

My initial reaction to the election results was “depression”. It all seemed rather surreal. “It doesn’t seem possible”, I told myself. Some have told me since that after so much praying and hoping, they felt “let down by God”, even “abandoned by Him”. But these understandable, human reactions soon gave way to faith and hope. We are building a more real Kingdom. And this election will help us build it.

The President elect’s successful campaign showed an extraordinary combination of organization, skill and strategy. I can’t help think of that Gospel insight: “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than the children of light.” Lk.16:8

This was an election of personality and image. People were enticed to vote for their own material well being, rather than more “idealistic” and distant values, like the right to life. These and so many other factors entered in. Yet, the clearest conclusion of all is that we need to learn and teach the Truth that has been revealed to us.

Yes, the Bishops must continue to teach and preach, with an ever more united presbyterite, the Gospel of Life. Priests and religious must find new ways to communicate the message. But every Catholic has this mission. In virtue of our baptism, we are called to spread the Good News to our world. The laity does it in ways and in places where we priests either cannot reach or are not as effective. The truth cries out, like the blood of the innocent, to be taught.

Pope John Paul II left us a great task, which he started in a heroic and unprecedented manner: the New Evangelization. Pope Paul spoke of it in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Nuniandi”: "Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity". Twenty years later Pope John Paul issued “Redemptoris Missio”, on the mission of the Redeemer. Pope Benedict continues to call for this new springtime, as he invites us to consider the example of St. Paul, the apostle.

Card. Rylko, President of the Pontifical Council on the Laity, sums up their teachings:
“It is more urgent than ever today to preach Christ in the great modern areopagus of culture, science, economy, politics and the mass media.  The evangelical harvest is great and the laborers are few (cf. Mt 9:37).  This vital field of action for the Church requires a radical change of mentality, an authentic new awakening of conscience in everyone.  New methods are needed, as are new expressions and new courage [JPII to CELAM, March 9, 1983].  As the Servant of God John Paul II exhorted the Church at the beginning of the third millennium:  “I have often repeated the call for a new evangelization during these years.  I repeat it again in order to emphasize that we must renew that original impulse and allow ourselves to be filled with the zeal of the apostolic preaching after Pentecost.  We must awaken in ourselves those sentiments of St. Paul who exclaimed: “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). [Novo millennio ineunte]  And in his words to the German bishops in Cologne, Pope Benedict XVI manifested a profound apostolic desire: “We must reflect seriously on how we might carry out a true evangelization today, not just a new evangelization, but often a true first evangelization.  People don’t know God, they don’t know Christ.  A new paganism is present, and it is not enough just to maintain the community of believers, although this is very important (…) I believe that together we must find new ways of bringing the Gospel to today’s world by preaching Christ anew and by establishing the faith” [Aug. 26, 2005].

Vatican II called all Catholics to evangelize more than 40 years ago: (cfr. Apostolicam Actuositatem) It is time that we responded! We need to first to dedicate ourselves to learn our Faith anew at an adult level and then find new ways to communicate it. To paraphrase the words of Card. Belvelaqua, emeritus Archbishop of Philadelphia, ‘it is time for the sleeping giant to awake. And that sleeping giant is the Laity.’

Let’s thank God and the election for this awakening, but also cooperate in helping it happen!

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