Protecting and promoting the inviolable rights of persons is the most solemn responsibility of civil authority. As Americans and as religious leaders we are committed to governance by a system of law that protects human rights and maintains the common good.
We are reminded
that "the Church must be committed to the task of educating and supporting lay people involved in
law-making, government and the administration of justice, so that legislation will always reflect
those principles and moral values which are in conformity with a sound anthropology and advance the
common good" (The Church in America, no. 19, quoting Synod for America, proposition
The Declaration of Independence, written more than two hundred years ago, speaks of the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" before making this historic assertion: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Today we see the tensions increasing between these founding principles and political reality. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the continuing effort to ignore the right to life of unborn children, as well as in efforts to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a "Gospel of life." It invites all persons to a new life lived abundantly in respect for human dignity. We believe that this Gospel is not only a complement to American . . . principles, but also the cure for the spiritual sickness now infecting our society. . . . We cannot simultaneously commit ourselves to human rights and progress while eliminating or marginalizing the weakest among us. Nor can we practice the Gospel of life only as a private piety. American Catholics must live it vigorously and publicly, as a matter of national leadership and witness, or we will not live it at all. (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 20)
The law is not the only means of
protecting life, but it plays a key and often decisive role in affecting both human behavior and
thinking. Those called to civil leadership, as Pope John Paul II reminds us, "have a duty to make
courageous choices in support of life, especially through legislative measures." This is a
responsibility that cannot be put aside, "especially when he or she has a legislative or
decision-making mandate, which calls that person to answer to God, to his or her own conscience and
to the whole of society for choices which may be contrary to the common good" (The Gospel of
Life, no. 90).
Public officials are privileged in a special way to apply their moral convictions to the policy arena. We hold in high esteem those who, through such positions and authority, promote respect for all human life. Catholic civil leaders who reject or ignore the Church's teaching on the sanctity of human life do so at risk to their own spiritual well-being. "No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life" (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 32).
It is imperative to restore legal protection to the lives of unborn children and to ensure that the lives of others, especially those who are disabled, elderly, or dying, are not further jeopardized.
A comprehensive public policy program should include the following long- and short-term goals:
A public policy program requires well-planned and coordinated advocacy by citizens at the national, state, and local levels. Such activity is not solely the responsibility of Catholics but instead requires widespread cooperation and collaboration on the part of groups large and small, religious and secular. As U.S. citizens and religious leaders, we see a critical moral imperative for public policy efforts to ensure the protection of human life. We urge our fellow citizens to see the justice of this cause and to work with us to achieve these objectives.
Laws Less Than Perfect
While at times human law may not fully articulate the moral imperative—full protection for the right to life—our legal system can and must be continually reformed so that it will increasingly fulfill its proper task of protecting the weak and preserving the right to life of every human being, born and unborn. In The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II explains that one may support "imperfect" legislation—legislation that, for example, does not ban all abortions but puts some control on a current more permissive law by aiming to limit the number of abortions—if that is the best that can be achieved at a particular time. In doing so one seeks to limit the harm done by the present law: "This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects" (no. 73).
A great prayer for life is urgently needed, a prayer which will rise up throughout the world. Through special initiatives and in daily prayer, may an impassioned plea rise to God. . . . Let us therefore discover anew the humility and the courage to pray and fast so that the power from on high will break down the walls of lies and deceit: the walls which conceal from the sight of so many . . . the evil of practices and laws which are hostile to life.
—Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life, no. 100
Participation in the sacramental life of the Church sustains each of
us. We encourage dioceses and parishes to sponsor programs of prayer and fasting as well as
paraliturgical programs and to encourage Catholics to adopt programs of private
We ask priests and deacons to preach the truth about the dignity of all human life, born and unborn, and about the moral evil of the purposeful destruction of innocent human life, including abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and infanticide. We urge them to encourage parishioners and others to treat with compassion those who find themselves in stressful situations, and to offer practical assistance to help them to make life-affirming decisions. Parishes should give special pastoral attention and offer special prayers for those who have suffered the loss of an unborn child due to miscarriage, abortion, or other cause. The readings of the Church's liturgy give ample opportunity to proclaim respect for the dignity of human life throughout the year. The Liturgy of the Hours as well as paraliturgical services also offer opportunities for the celebration of life and instruction in the moral teaching of the Church.
Parishes should include in the petitions at every Mass a prayer that ours will become a nation that respects and protects all human life, born and unborn, reflecting a true culture of life.
Each year, in conjunction with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade (January 22), a National Prayer Vigil for Life is held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Thousands travel from all corners of the country to take part in the opening liturgy and all-night prayer vigil. Dioceses and parishes might conduct similar prayer vigils so that those unable to travel might participate in this prayer occasion. This date is also designated as a particular day of penance in the Roman Missal.
Prayer is the foundation of all that we do in defense of human life. Our efforts—whether educational, pastoral, or legislative—will be less than fully fruitful if we do not change hearts and if we do not ourselves overcome our own spiritual blindness. Only with prayer—prayer that storms the heavens for justice and mercy, prayer that cleanses our hearts and our souls—will the culture of death that surrounds us today be replaced with a culture of life.
respect for human life in our society is an essential task of the Church that extends through all
its institutions, agencies, and organizations and embraces diverse tasks and goals. The following
schema suggests a model for organizing and allocating the Church's resources of people, services,
institutions, and finances at various levels to help restore and advance protection in law for
unborn children's right to life and to foster a true culture of life.
We ask that the Committee for Pro-Life Activities periodically inform the full body of bishops on the status of the implementation of this pastoral plan.
State Coordinating Committee
The state Catholic conference or its equivalent should provide overall coordination in each state on matters concerning public policy. The state coordinating committee may comprise the state Catholic conference director and the pro-life directors from each diocese. At least several committee members should have experience in legislative activity. The primary purposes of the state coordinating committee are to
Diocesan Pro-Life Committee
The diocesan pro-life committee coordinates activities of the pastoral plan within the diocese. The committee, through the diocesan pro-life director, will receive information and guidance from the national episcopal conference's Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities and from the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment.
The diocesan committee is headed by the diocesan pro-life director, a person appointed by and responsible to the diocesan bishop. Its membership, in addition to the diocesan pro-life director, may include the following: the diocesan respect life coordinator (if a separate post); representatives of diocesan agencies (e.g., family life, education, youth ministry, post-abortion ministry, diocesan newspaper, liturgy, health apostolate, social services, etc.); representatives of lay organizations (e.g., Knights of Columbus, Catholic Daughters of the Americas, Daughters of Isabella, Council of Catholic Women, Holy Name Society, etc.); medical, legal, public affairs, and financial advisors; representatives of local pro-life groups (e.g., state Right to Life organization, pregnancy aid center); and representatives of parish pro-life/respect life committees. The diocesan pro-life committee's objectives are to
Actively promoting a renewed respect for human life is the responsibility of every Catholic. The parish pro-life committee assists in a special way by helping to make the parish a center of life, a place where parishioners understand the issues and the importance of meeting the needs of those who are most vulnerable—especially mothers and their unborn children, and those who are seriously ill or dying and their families. It may be a distinct committee, or it might be a subcommittee of another parish organization. Whatever its structure, its membership should include representatives of both adult and youth parish groups, members of organizations that represent persons with disabilities, persons of minority cultures, and those responsible for education and pastoral care.
The chairperson of the parish committee is appointed by the pastor, and it is important that the two be able to work well together. The chair recruits volunteers to help meet the needs the committee serves. Parish committees should be mindful of the need for renewal from time to time in regard to membership, talents, and interests.
The parish committee relies on the diocesan pro-life director for information and guidance. The committee should play a vital role in parish life and enjoy the strong support of priests and other key personnel. The committee should also dovetail its efforts from time to time with other programs of the parish. For example, in many parts of the country, parishes conduct programs where parishioners study and discuss the teachings of the faith. Members of the pro-life committee should take part in such programs and invite other program leaders to take part in pro-life initiatives.
The objectives of the parish pro-life committee are to
Public Policy Effort at the Local Level
To secure federal pro-life legislation or to pass a constitutional amendment requires the support of members of Congress. Efforts to persuade members to vote for such measures are part of the democratic process and are most effective when carried out locally. This can be done through activities organized on a congressional district basis (sometimes called a "congressional district action committee") comprising citizens within a particular congressional district (involves people of different faiths or none), or it can be accomplished through effective parish efforts. Regardless of how it is carried out, its purpose is to organize people to persuade their elected representatives to support pro-life legislation. The following program objectives can be met effectively by a small group of politically aware and dedicated people:
In this regard it should be noted that the Church does not engage in partisan politics. Rather, it fosters the responsibility of every Catholic to exercise his or her citizenship faithfully by being well informed on issues, and it recognizes the right to vote as a privilege and a civic responsibility.
It has been more than a quarter-century since the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities was first issued and Catholics responded to the call to help restore respect for human life in our society. Through their hard work, prayers, and generosity, especially on the part of those in parishes across the nation, much has been accomplished:
Yet the federal
law on abortion has changed very little. Roe v. Wade continues to make impossible any
meaningful protection for the lives of human beings from the time they are conceived until after
they are fully born.
The abortion decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court must be reversed. For it is impossible, as our Holy Father reminds us, to further the common good "without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop" (The Gospel of Life, no. 101).
Our own commitment will not waver. Our efforts will not cease. We will speak out on behalf of the sanctity of life wherever and whenever it is threatened.
We hold in high esteem all who proclaim and serve the Gospel of life. Through their peaceful activism, education, prayer, and service, they witness to God's truth and embody our Lord's command to love one another as he loves us. We assure them of our continuing prayers. And we renew our appeal to all in the Catholic community to join with them and with us in building a "culture of life."
May the "people of life" constantly grow in number and may a new culture of love and solidarity develop for the true good of the whole of human society.
- – Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life, no. 101
John Paul II, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) (Washington, D.C.: United
States Catholic Conference, 1995).
John Paul II, The Church in America (Ecclesia in America) (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1999).
Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). In Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: Vol. I—The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, new rev. ed. (Northport, N.Y.: Costello Publishing, 1996).
U.S. Catholic Bishops, Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections on the Social Mission of the Parish (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1994).
U.S. Catholic Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1998).
U.S. Catholic Bishops, Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities: A Reaffirmation (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1985).
U.S. Catholic Bishops, Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1998).
Respect Life Program. This annual program begins each year on the first
Sunday of October. To assist in its implementation, the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities makes
available each year by mid-summer a program packet with articles on critical issues, program and
resource suggestions, liturgical and homily suggestions, posters, and clip art. Brochures are
available for distribution to parishioners. Contact: Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, 3211
Fourth St., NE, Washington, DC 20017. Telephone (202) 541-3070; fax (202) 541-3054; see also www.usccb.org/prolife.
Word of Life. Liturgical suggestions throughout the year, with occasional homily notes; issued monthly. Sign up for monthly emails (select Word of Life), or download from our website.
Post-AbortionMinistry: A Resource Manual for Priests. Available from the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. Information about abortion's aftermath and listings for Project Rachel programs nationwide can be found at www.hopeafterabortion.org.
National Committee for a Human Life Amendment (NCHLA). For information concerning efforts to pass pro-life legislation, contact NCHLA, 733 15th St., NW, Suite 926, Washington, DC 20005. Telephone (202) 393-0703; fax (202) 347-1383; www.nchla.org. . . .
Newsletters. Available from the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities (no subscription fee; annual donation appreciated):
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