Action Alert!

Bishops must shoulder their responsibility in the pro-life struggle

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 25, 2013

Cardinal Sean O’Malley is certainly right to call for fasting and prayer this week, as we sadly observe the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The abortion issue—the ongoing slaughter of countless millions of innocent children—is not just another ordinary political question like the “fiscal cliff” debate. This is not merely a political contest but a spiritual battle.

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12)

Pro-lifers have been fighting the political battle against abortion for 40 years, and still the bloodshed continues. Perhaps it is time to recognize that the culture of death is one of those evils that “cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

Yes, certainly we should fast and pray. It’s appropriate to use spiritual weapons in spiritual combat. For that matter, in a struggle of this importance we should use every means at our disposal, every tool in our drawers. All the different forms of pro-life work—the lobbying and educational campaigns, the pregnancy-help centers, the fundraising, the speeches and demonstrations—have their place in a coordinated strategy. We should all be doing everything in our power, in the natural order as well as the supernatural, to end the abomination of legal abortion on demand.

But there is one powerful tool that has not yet been put to use in the pro-life struggle, and one group of people who have not yet done what they can do for the cause. I refer to the American Catholic bishops, and the use of ecclesiastical discipline.

Forty years after Roe there remain dozens of prominent politicians who identify themselves as Catholics, but actively promote the culture of death. These “pro-choice Catholics” are a source of confusion to the public and scandal to the Church.

The US Catholic bishops have issued many fine statements on the evils of abortion and the dignity of human life. But statements are one thing, actions another; and when one’s actions do not match one’s public pronouncements, those statements lose value. The bishops have warned that Catholic politicians who promote abortion are separating themselves from the communion of the Church. But they have not followed up, as necessary, by taking disciplinary action against those politicians who have not heeded their warning.

If a Catholic in his diocese is promoting abortion, a Catholic bishop has a solemn obligation to take three steps:

First, admonition. The bishop should call the erring politician to a private meeting, rebuke him, and warn him that he is putting his soul in jeopardy.

Second, denunciation. If the politician remains obstinate, the bishop should make his rebuke public, letting the world know that the Church views the politician’s actions as gravely wrong. A specific public statement, naming names, is necessary to address a public scandal, and to counteract the widespread impression that abortion is only one of many issues in which the Church takes an interest.

Third, exclusion from Communion. The Code of Canon Law (#915) instructs clerics to protect the Eucharist from scandal, by refusing to administer the sacrament to those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.” The enforcement of Canon 915 is not optional; it is a moral obligation. Yet the American bishops have chosen to ignore that obligation.

As long as our bishops are not doing all that they can do (and only they can do), the American pro-life movement is not doing its utmost to fight for an end to abortion. Yes, we should fast and pray. Yes, we should engage in practical pro-life activism. But we should also beg our bishops to shoulder their own responsibility in this battle. Prayer and fasting can work wonders. However, as we pray, we must also do whatever we can, on the natural order.

Imagine that your doctor tells you that you must lose weight quickly or your life will be in danger. You pray that you will meet your weight-loss goals, and ask your friends to join with you in those prayers. Good. But if you continue routinely to tuck into second helpings of dessert, can you really expect those prayers to be answered?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Mr.C - Feb. 07, 2013 9:36 PM ET USA

    I, believe the remedy is difficult (for the clergy and many of the laity) for this problem we all look at it in an obvious and sometimes and logical catholic way; we are looking for strong leaders, And I believe so often we expect perfection or something close, now imagine how our Lord felt with his Apostles at times doubting, thinking only of the here and now. the answer is in the second paragraph... so Pray Pray Pray.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 29, 2013 12:40 PM ET USA

    Phil, it seems to me that as a hierarchical institution, the bishops are not the court of last resort here. Does Rome bear no duty or responsibility in this matter?

  • Posted by: williiam ronner - Jan. 28, 2013 12:34 PM ET USA

    Canon 915 requires clergy to deny Communion to those who obstinately engage in manifest grave sin. Does the cleric then compromise his salvation by refusing to accept the codes mandate?

  • Posted by: JP810 - Jan. 26, 2013 10:20 AM ET USA

    Right on the money!! As a former high school teacher, I cannot imagine, that if I had a problem with a student, and explained why his/her action(s) in class is not appropriate, and again, and again, remind that student that bad behavior in class will not be tolerated, and not follow up with the appropriate discipline when bad behavior continues?? I think we have the same problem here with politicians who continually flaunt the Church in regards to abortion and are permitted to support it!

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Jan. 25, 2013 6:45 PM ET USA

    If the Catholic Bishops had done what Phil is suggesting back in 1973 and served notice that no Catholic, under pain of mortal sin, may support any pro-abortion politician of any party, Roe v. Wade would have been overturned a long time ago, and the Democrat Party's platform would not be what it is today. Now the Republicans are deciding that they lose elections by being pro-life. Can't really blame them when they couldn't even get the Catholic vote by being pro-life.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jan. 25, 2013 4:31 PM ET USA

    jg--I think it's the reverse. Once bishops ceased to discipline the laity for sacreligious Communions, the fix was in. I read somewhere that a young French man asked his mentor how to kill his conscience. The answer: Commit a mortal sin. Then receive Communion.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 25, 2013 2:37 PM ET USA

    In my opinion, nothing has hurt the pro-life movement as much as the bishops' cowardice (and that is exactly what it is, the fear of widespread disapproval by the usual suspects in every state and diocese in the country). After their complicity in covering up homosexual rape, this is the worst failing on the part of the bishops.