Signs of the Times

March for Life Speakers Enthused About Congress, President

Speakers at the kickoff rally on Jan. 22 for the 30th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., expressed optimism that the current Republican-dominated Congress and White House could change abortion laws in this country. “For eight years, the folks at the White House blocked us at every turn. But they’ve moved on, and we have a friend in George Bush,” said Representative Steve Chabot, Republican of Ohio, a Catholic.

In a phone call from St. Louis, President Bush told the tens of thousands protesting the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decisions legalizing abortion that he admired their perseverance and “devotion to the cause of life.” Bush told the crowd that the basic freedoms of American civilization—the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—must be defended.


Respect for the right to life calls people to “protect the lives of innocent children waiting to be born” and to “defend the sick and the dying, persons with disabilities and birth defects,” he said. “You and I share a commitment to building a culture of life in America, and we are making progress,” he asserted, adding that he hoped the Senate would pass a bill this year banning partial-birth abortion, which he would sign.

Catholics Must Not Promote Laws Attacking Human Life

Catholics must not promote or vote for any laws that would lead to attacks on human life, said a new document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. While freedom of conscience leaves Catholics free to choose among political parties and strategies for promoting the common good, they cannot claim that freedom allows them to promote abortion, euthanasia or other attacks on human life, the congregation said.

The 18-page Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life was approved by Pope John Paul II and released on Jan. 16 at the Vatican.

“Those who are involved directly in lawmaking bodies have a ‘grave and clear obligation to oppose’ any law that attacks human life,” it said. “For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.”

“A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals,” it said. Nor does a Catholic who focuses exclusively on one issue fulfill the obligation to work for the common good by promoting the values encompassed in Catholic social teaching, the document said. “The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility toward the common good,” it said.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he hoped the document would give encouragement to Catholics already working in the political sphere to protect basic moral values and remind everyone of the duty “to work without exception or reservations for all of the goods rooted in our human nature.”

The central focus of the document is its explanation that in a democracy, Catholics have a right and a duty to vote according to their consciences, as formed by church teaching. Especially in European countries with a Catholic majority, some commentators have tried to paint political debates on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, cloning and divorce as a debate between those who favor democracy and those who want to impose church teaching on society.

“Living and acting in conformity with one’s own conscience on questions of politics is not slavish acceptance of positions alien to politics or some kind of confessionalism,” the document said. Rather, the congregation said, it is the way in which Christians offer their contributions to building a society which is more just and more respectful of human dignity. “This would include the promotion and defense of goods such as public order and peace, freedom and equality, respect for human life and for the environment, justice and solidarity,” it added.

The document pointed out that Catholics have a special responsibility to defend the truth about the meaning and dignity of human life when proposed laws come up against “moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation,” particularly regarding abortion and euthanasia. Laws must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death, it said.

The congregation also quoted Pope John Paul II’s encyclical The Gospel of Life (1995), in which he said that in situations where it is not possible to repeal a law legalizing abortion or to stop it from becoming legal, “an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.”

The doctrinal congregation also listed as particular obligations: “the duty to respect and protect the rights of the human embryo,” to safeguard the family “in the face of modern laws on divorce,” to oppose attempts to legally equate cohabitation or homosexual unions with marriage and to defend the rights of parents to educate their children.

Other obligations it listed included: protecting children; fighting “modern forms of slavery,” including drug addiction and prostitution; promoting religious freedom; working for justice and solidarity in the economy; and promoting peace. The congregation said: “Peace is always ‘the work of justice and the effect of charity.’ It demands the absolute and radical rejection of violence and terrorism and requires a constant and vigilant commitment on the part of all political leaders.”

Lay Review Board Moving Ahead in Efforts on Clergy Sex Abuse

The lay board set up by the U.S. bishops to monitor their handling of sexual abuse cases has authorized Kathleen L. McChesney, the former F.B.I. official who directs the bishops’ new Office for Child and Youth Protection, to begin negotiations with agencies to provide professional assistance in drawing up reports and studies.

Alice Bourke Hayes, president of the University of San Diego and a member of the board, said a statistical study McChesney would oversee was designed to show the scope of the problem of sexual abuse by compiling information on the numbers of priest-abusers and victims, the ages of victims and other data. She said the board also wanted the study to include financial information, the amount of money the various dioceses have paid in settlements with victims, lawyers’ fees and other costs. The board hopes to complete this study by June, Hayes said.

A second project on which McChesney is working, scheduled for completion by December, will present an audit of how well the bishops are implementing the new measures they agreed on at their Dallas meeting in June and laid out in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Robert S. Bennett, a Washington lawyer who is a board member, said if a bishop failed to cooperate “everybody is going to know about it,” and the laity was “not going to tolerate” a refusal of cooperation.

Bennett, who chairs the board’s research committee, reported progress on a longer-term study to analyze the causes of the current crisis. It does not focus on individual priests but on “systemic problems,” such as those that led to transfers of offending priests from parish to parish and diocese to diocese, he said.

Attorney Says Scandal Adding to Pressures on Church’s Rights

Last year’s clergy sexual abuse scandal is exacerbating pressures on religious constitutional rights, according to the top attorney for the U.S. bishops. “Catholic institutions were already under tremendous pressures from regulators, legislators and litigants to conform their operations to the prevailing cultural pressures,” said Mark Chopko, general counsel to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a lecture at The Catholic University of America law school on Jan. 15. The damage done to the church’s credibility because of the abuse scandals and the way abuse cases were mishandled by some church leaders only worsened the situation for religious institutions, he said.

“The damage done has been great, and the costs in trust and good relations with the people of God are only now being counted,” he said. Chopko said child abusers should be brought to justice, those who hide misconduct can and should be held personally responsible, and the church as an institution also faces liability because of what its leaders knew. The scandal itself is decades old and was merely given new life in 2002, he said. It will not quickly pass from the scene, either, he believes.

“This is the church’s Enron,” he said. “Our leaders didn’t enrich themselves at the expense of the faithful or their works, but some of them rather failed in a more fundamental way: We set high standards for ourselves and the world, and we should not be surprised when those same standards are applied to us.” Chopko said that in an institution founded to lead people to truths about salvation and eternal life, “some of its leaders did not trust the people with the truth about their own ministers.” Failure to answer adequately people’s legitimate questions about who was allowed to minister to them led to people’s loss of faith in the ability or willingness of the church’s leaders to tell the truth, he said.

“Because the processes themselves were secret and accountable only to the bishop, there were additional concerns about how things got the way they did,” said Chopko. “In turn the faithful called for the increased scrutiny of the government because the responses by the church were considered at best incomplete and unreliable—at worst, downright dishonest.”

The church’s own wrong actions have opened the door for the government to “step more vigorously across the constitutional boundary between the business of religion and the business of government, and remake the church in dangerous ways,” he explained.

Jesuit Journal Suggests Oil Is True U.S. Motive for Iraqi War

La Civiltà Cattolica, an influential Jesuit magazine published in Rome, rejected U.S. justification for a potential “preventive war” against Iraq, suggesting America’s true motives were interest in Iraq’s oil reserves and a U.S. sense of a “messianic vocation” to democratize humanity. None of the United States’ stated reasons for war on Iraq hold up under close inspection, because many other countries have committed similar offenses and pose similar threats, La Civiltà Cattolica (Catholic Civilization), said in an unsigned editorial in its Jan. 18 issue. “It seems that the root motive is the geopolitical position that Iraq occupies in the Middle East region,” said the magazine, which is reviewed prior to publication by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and is thought to reflect Vatican thinking.

Restating arguments it had made in an editorial in November, the magazine rejected the concept of “preventive war” as immoral, illegitimate under international law and likely to unleash “wars without end.” It also carried a point-by-point rebuttal of America’s stated reasons for striking militarily against Iraq:

• Iraq has violated 91 U.N. resolutions, the magazine said, but Israel and Turkey, two U.S. allies, have violated 59 U.N. resolutions without prompting U.S. military intervention.

• Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a dictator who has committed serious crimes against his people, “but in today’s world, dictatorial regimes are many and are not less tough or ferocious than the Iraqi regime; some of them are friends of the United States and enjoy [U.S.] political protection and economic grants.”

• Iraq may possess biological and chemical weapons, “but it should be said that biological and chemical weapons are produced and possessed by many other states, in particular by those that are most powerful and advanced, first among them the United States and Russia.”

• Iraq hopes to develop nuclear weapons, but “many states” who did not sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty already have such weapons.

• Despite accusations that Iraq has assisted international terrorists, there is no sure proof. If Iraq is accused of encouraging Palestinian terrorism, it should also be remembered that Iran supports three known Palestinian terror groups, the magazine said.

News Briefs

• Caritas Internationalis, the church’s international confederation of Catholic aid agencies, condemned a potential pre-emptive attack on Iraq, saying war would be immoral, illegal under international law and disastrous for Iraqi civilians.

• Concerned that Vatican officials have too hastily rejected the idea of “preventive war” against Iraq, the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Jim Nicholson, has invited Michael Novak to address the issue at a symposium to be held in early February, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican.

• Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem did not attend a meeting of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican on Jan. 18 because of security difficulties he encountered at Ben Gurion International Airport. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said Israeli airport security officers, “not respecting the diplomatic passport of the Holy See held by the prelate,” subjected the patriarch to such excessive checks that he decided not to proceed to Rome.

• Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Policy, has asked Israel to end the “exclusionary practice” of denying visas and work permits to Catholic clergy, religious and lay people.

• New statistics on abortion from the Alan Guttmacher Institute showed a 5 percent drop in the abortion rate between 1996 and 2000, but found that the number of partial-birth abortions tripled during that period.

• A study published in the January 2003 issue of the Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey concluded that women who undergo abortions face increased risks of premature delivery, maternal depression, suicide and other serious health consequences.

• The pollster George H. Gallup Jr. reports that the percentage of Catholics who say they attend church at least once a week declined dramatically to 28 percent in December from 39 percent a year ago. For the first time, Catholic attendance fell below the Protestant figure (35 percent). He also noted a significant decline in the percentage of Catholics who described religion as “very important” in their lives during that period, while the Protestant numbers rose slightly. He blamed the sexual abuse crisis.

• Readers of The Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s most popular Chinese-language newspaper, ranked Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun as the territory’s most significant person of the year 2002.

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