Over the past year, abortion has become a wedge dividing American Catholics in an increasingly contentious and politicized debate, much of it centered on the policy moves and appointments of President Barack Obama's administration.
It is no surprise that Catholics find themselves taking differing views. Politics is the art of the possible, and identical moral principles may guide Catholics to very different political calculations as to how best to achieve the common good. Where some Catholics see the best potential in throwing their lot in with a president who, for example, has promised an abortion-neutral health care reform bill and "robust" conscience protections for health care workers, others will decide his failure thus far to match deeds to his words undermines capacity for trust.
Fair enough. But what should not be acceptable is blind partisanship or the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric aimed at one side or the other of fellow Catholics.
It is true that demands for civility sometimes camouflage a less-than-worthy desire to squash legitimate debate. It is also true that speaking the truth, in season and out, sometimes will make listeners uncomfortable.
But there is no justification for mudslinging toward fellow Catholics with whom one does not agree on prudential matters. Yet such incidents are on the rise.
It need not be so. To mark today's celebration in Catholic parishes of Respect Life Sunday, we offer a modest proposal of the way forward.
First, and least controversially, it should be easy to establish what every Catholics can agree upon: As modern embryology has shown beyond the shadow of a doubt, abortion is the killing of innocent human life. As such, it is a grave injustice. All Catholics are duty bound to work for justice, and thus for the end of abortion.
Second, Catholics defend life because they defend the dignity of the human person, in whatever stage of life, health, wealth, ethnicity or geographical origin.
As Philadelphia's Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro-life Activities, wrote in a message for today's celebration: "The right to life is not more important or higher than all other rights. In a sense the highest or supreme right is freedom of religion, because that is the right to do what God created us for, loving and serving him by loving and serving others. But the right to life is the core element of other rights. All other earthly rights involve something more than life itself -- but without life, they are nothing.
"That 'something more' is vitally important," he said. "The defense of life reaches its fullness when it expands to defend the entire range of human flourishing. This is all one vision, and ultimately one issue -- the dignity of the human person. In the words of St. Irenaeus, 'gloria Dei vivens homo' -- 'the glory of God is man fully alive.'"
Third, and consequently, we have our work cut out for us. As Pope Benedict XVI said recently, "The lay faithful must undertake to give expression in real life -- also through political commitment -- to the Christian view of anthropology and the social doctrine of the Church."
Pro-life activists already do yeoman's work in letter campaigns, prayer vigils and crisis pregnancy centers. But creating a culture of life is not something to which only a few of us are called, or which focuses exclusively on the evil of abortion.
The way forward is not just fighting evil but promoting good. In Cardinal Rigali's words, "We need to affirm a great 'yes' to the full range of human living and flourishing."
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