I have been praying outside of abortion clinics for more than three decades. I have spent cold mornings in the snow, and hot afternoons under a blazing sun. I have prayed more decades of the rosary and chaplets of Divine Mercy than I can recall.
As a young priest, during the days of Operation Rescue, I was arrested numerous times for my pro-life witness. Just a few weeks ago, I led a Eucharistic procession of hundreds around the Planned Parenthood facility here in Lincoln.
I am always humbled, and have marveled for decades, at the heroism of men and women who are faithful prayer warriors at abortion clinics across this country—praying for mothers and their children and offering help to women in crisis.
Legally protected abortion is our national shame. Abortion has taken the lives of millions of children and has scarred the lives of millions of women and men. There is no moral justification for abortion, and no circumstance under which it should be afforded the protection of law—period.
I have sat with men and women who are overcome with the shame, guilt, and depression that abortion often triggers. I have seen them held captive by those burdens and have then witnessed them being set free by the awesome power of God’s mercy. I know, through faith, reason, and experience, that the sin of abortion has very gravely wounded our nation. I grieve for women and men suffering its effects, and I mourn for babies killed before they were born.
Abortion is a serious matter. And when the Church teaches about it, I pay attention.
This week, Pope Francis sent Gaudete et exsultate, a pastoral letter on holiness, to the entire Church. The letter, the pope said, was written to “repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time.”
There is much to reflect on in the text, and I will read it carefully in prayer in the weeks to come. That which I have already read is wise, direct, and encouraging.
But of course, the letter has already begun to generate controversy. And that controversy is over abortion. In a section about attitudes that can hinder our growth in holiness, Pope Francis warns against those who are critical of the apostolates of others, and against those who diminish, or exaggerate, the importance of particular social issues.
Pope Francis writes that “our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development.” He continues by saying that the lives of the poor, the vulnerable, those in danger of being euthanized, victims of human trafficking and slavery are also sacred.
The pope says that all of those lives matter. And, as a bishop who has long been committed to the cause of life, I want to be clear: the pope is right.
The idea that every single person, without exception, is created in the image of God means just that: that every human life has value and dignity, and that our choices must always endeavor to respect, protect and uphold that unique dignity.
Again, as a long-time pro-life activist, I want to be clear: commitment to ending abortion will never justify blatantly disregarding the dignity of all people, especially those subject to injustice.
Here’s the good news: in decades of pro-life work, I have rarely, if ever, encountered Catholics who only take seriously the lives of the unborn. When I encounter pro-life people in this country, I notice that they are also the people running parish food pantries, giving sandwiches to the homeless even while they are praying at abortion clinics, adopting foster children, and caring for their neighbors.
In my experience, commitment to protecting the dignity of the unborn spills over into the rest of our lives, so that the pro-life people I know are among the most charitable and active Catholics; sincere witnesses to holiness.
The pope is right: we cannot uphold the sacredness of life for the unborn while disregarding it for those who are born. I thank God that the pro-life people I have met have not exhibited this attitude—that instead, they have been witnesses of charity and generosity.
Pope Francis points out that a Christian cannot consider the dignity of migrants and others on the periphery to be less than the dignity of the unborn. He is right. Every single soul stands equally dignified in the eyes of God. The pope has also affirmed, though, that a society which tolerates abortion will never achieve real and lasting justice. And his words do not conflict with the truth: that when the unborn are in danger of being aborted, it is virtuous to invest our energies in saving their lives, even while remaining in sincere solidarity with those who are suffering other serious injustices.
Pope Francis beautifully describes the Church as a field hospital. In a field hospital, where every patient has dignity, those who are closest to death are usually the first to be seen. This is not a rejection of the dignity of all, or a denial that all deserve to be treated with mercy and love, it is an affirmation of the extraordinary gift of human life.
The pope is also right to call to accountability political leaders who profess support for the unborn, but do not exhibit compassion for other people suffering injustice. We need to insist that our politicians work to end abortion, and, at the very same time, that they work to protect the sovereignty of families, the rights of immigrants and laborers, and the dignity of the poor and the vulnerable. We ask our politicians to be consistent in their commitment to human dignity, which is why blind partisanship is inconsistent with our faith.
Pope Francis is wise to remind us of the dignity of every human person, and of the importance of the gift of life. I am glad that the pro-life people I have known are witnesses to what the pope affirms in his exhortation. Their model of holiness encourages me. I think of them as I pray that all of us might become holy as Christ is holy, and that we might rejoice with joy.