Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The Catholic Duty to Be Pro-life

by Austin B. Vaughan


Bishop Vaughan focuses on the issue of abortion in this article. The Second Vatican Council said of abortion and infanticide something it did not say of anything else. It said that both of them are unspeakable crimes. This article was adapted from a talk give at The Church Teaches Forum.

Larger Work

The Catholic Faith

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, January/February '98

The topic given to me is “The Catholic Duty to be Pro-life” and you all know that “Pro-life” takes in a whole lot of things. It takes in unborn children. We are still killing one and a half million of them every year in our own country. It takes in some people who are physically or mentally disabled who were not given all the gifts that other people were but who are still precious to God and who should be precious to us. It takes in people who are aging and in our society there are more and more people constantly who are in that category for whom this is an important part of life. It takes in some who are sick and poor. It takes in some people who are prisoners. And we know from those pro-lifers who have been in prison for an extended period (this may seem strange) that the prisoners are practically all on our side. It takes in people who are foreigners who very often have little help or protection in an alien land. It takes in the matter of war and peace because if a cataclysmic war comes then many people end up being killed.

The reason that all of those issues are important to us is that the Lord Himself has told us there is a special claim on us for people who are in need. People who are not able to manage by themselves. It is a kind of care and attention that a mother gives to a sick child. It does not mean that she does not love the others, but the others are better able to care for themselves. It is the kind of care that Jesus showed for all of us by suffering and dying for us because we are sinners. St. Paul said it is not too hard to find a person who once in a while will be willing to give up his life for someone who is very good. Jesus gave up His life for us when we were still sinners. We were not worth too much or anything at all.

I am going to focus on the matter of abortion. The reason is the Second Vatican Council said of abortion and infanticide something it did not say of anything else. It said that both of them are unspeakable crimes. I do not know if you ever make the connection that an unspeakable crime has happened in our own country tens of millions of times, when almost all of us were alive for the whole of that period.

Why is this issue important? The first reason is because we believe, as a matter of faith, in the worth of every human being. I do not have baptisms very often but when I do, usually the text from Scripture that I use, just before the homily, is the passage in which Jesus tells the Apostles, “Let the little children come to Me,” when they are trying to chase them away. The early fathers of the Church thought that the reason that the passage (a kind of an insignificant incident) was included in the Gospels was because there were some people who said we should not baptize little babies. We should not bother with them. And they wanted to bring home the fact that these children were important to Jesus right from the very beginning. I usually mention after saying that in the homily that we believe that every child born into the world is a child about whom it can be said there has never been one like this before or since. Most of the time you do not have to convince the parents of that; they have already reached that conclusion.

But it goes deeper than that. It is a matter of faith for us. We believe that when the body of a child is formed through the union of its parents its souls is created directly by God. Why did it take a creative act on God’s part to bring a soul of a tiny baby into existence? The reason is simple. It is because there has never been one like this before and there never will be again. There has never been anybody with this mind, with this heart, with this will, with this mission in life, with this eternal destiny. The day is going to come when there will no longer be the world around us. It could come next week; it could be a million years away. But someday it is going to come. There will not be any more sun or moon, or stars or mountains, or lakes or valleys. The day will never come when the tiniest human being that has come into existence will stop existing. They all are going to go on living for all eternity. What that means is the tiniest, frailest, weakest of human beings is more precious to God than the sun, the moon and the stars and the things around us.

We are living in an age when people very often speak of some babies as unwanted. There has never been a child conceived that was unwanted by God and there never will be; and if that is true then we have no right to deal with each child as anything less than that.

This is the first reason we believe in the worth of a human being, but it goes beyond that. We believe that worth is increased because of the Incarnation. The first encyclical Pope John Paul II wrote was called the “Redeemer of Mankind,” from the words of its first sentence which tells us that Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of Mankind, is the center and the focal point of all human history and all human events. What it says, in effect, is that every single one of us has been affected and changed by the fact that God sent His Son into the world. For nine months the center of the whole universe was the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The most important Person in the world was the Person who was living and growing inside of her womb. It is not an accident, I think, that in the Scriptures the first person, after Mary, who adored Jesus when He came into the world was St. John the Baptist. Elizabeth says to Mary that as soon as your voice was heard the infant leaped in my womb for joy. The second person who ever worshipped Jesus after Mary was an unborn baby and I think God made it that way to tell us in our day and age the worth and importance of every individual right from the very beginning of life.

God sent His Son into the world to become one of us, to suffer for us and to die for us. He redeemed us by dying on the Cross, but that redemption is carried out in a very special way. Jesus taught us that His Father was our Father. The second encyclical of John Paul II was “Rich in Mercy,” in which he said that the heart and core of the message of Jesus is that His Father is our Father. And the Pope said that if he had to pick one passage in the whole of the New Testament that summed up the rest, he would pick the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the parable that portrayed God as a Father going out into the road longing for the return of his straying child. Jesus taught us that His Father was our Father.

As Christ hung on the cross, He gave us His Mother to be our Mother. The Italians have a saying that you may have heard. I think you know Italian people pay a lot of attention to the importance of godfathers and godmothers. There is a saying among Italians that the reason a godfather is so important, is that life here on earth is so tough one father is not enough; you need a second one to get by. I am not sure that is true but I am sure God Himself has given each of us a second Mother. A Mother who is perfect. A Mother who will love us when we cannot find much worth loving in ourselves. Jesus not only taught us that His Father is our Father, He gave us His Mother to be our Mother. He taught us that we have to try to be brothers and sisters to each other if we really want to be brothers and sisters to Him. Sometimes that is easy. I find it easy to love a lot of people in the world. I have no trouble loving the Chinese and the Mongolians. They are on the other side of the world. They do not cause me any trouble. I have more difficulty with the people living next door. I have a lot more difficulty with people who go out of the way to make life hard for me, who convey the message that they would be just as happy if I would dry up and blow away. And yet Jesus did not ask something of us without doing it Himself first — He hung on the Cross and people threw stones at Him and insulted Him. His response to that was to say, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And He has told us that if we want to be brothers and sisters to Him, we have to try to act as brothers and sisters to all others.

We believe that Jesus has redeemed us and invites us to be a part of His Church, and His Church is a family. And if it is a family, it is a family that has to have care especially for those who are least able to care for themselves, who are not able to provide for themselves in any way at all. I knew a chaplain for a prison apostolate in my own diocese. One of the things that come under that is celebrating a Mass each Memorial day in Potters Field, which is on an Island north of the Bronx. In the last one hundred and ten years more than three quarters of a million people have been buried in that Potters Field. I used to think they were people who are unknown but that is true of very few of them. Most of them had names, some of them have addresses — all it means to be buried there was that when they died there was nobody who claimed the body or was prepared to do anything about it. The thought has often struck me if there was nobody to claim the bodies the chances were very strong that there was nobody to pray for the souls, that they were not important enough to anybody to reach out to them. We as a church have a special obligation to those who are not able to care for themselves.

The third reason behind the worth of a human being for me is the fact that we believe God has put every individual into the world with a mission even though that seems to others to be just a burden.

The first year I was in the seminary we had a philosophy professor who had been a chaplain during the Second World War. He told us a story I have never forgotten. He was stationed at a place somewhere in the southern part of our country and became friendly with a family. They invited him to supper on a Sunday evening. He went and a couple of times during the meal the children said to their mother: Mommy are you going to show Father the angel? She said after we have finished eating I will show Father the angel. He said he thought the angel was probably a drawing that one of the youngsters had done in kindergarten of which they were very proud or maybe a statue. After the meal the mother showed him the angel. It was not a drawing; it was not a statue. It was another one of her children who had been born very badly deformed, who had never grown to full maturity. She explained the name to the priest. She said, “Father, my children know he’s not an angel. They know he is a human being and they know he is their brother, but I told them because the fact that he is baptized, we can be sure God’s life is in him and because by the fact that he is never going to be able to commit a sin we can be absolutely sure right now that one day he is going to be completely and perfectly happy with God with all the knowledge and the love he cannot have now.” She said, “I told them in a way it is a blessing for us to have him here because as long as he is here we are always sure that God’s grace is present in our house.” It is interesting what that woman had done. She had not tried to sugar coat the situation. She had not told the children that this little boy was pretty, because he was not. She had not told them he was no trouble, because that was not true either. The time might come when they could not care for him at home and they might have to institutionalize him. But this woman had been able to look with the eyes of faith beyond what showed on the surface to a reality that is there and it changed the whole meaning of the presence of that child in the house. He was not just a burden. He was not a curse from God. He was not a punishment that had come to them. He was someone precious who had been entrusted to them and who helped each one of them to grow in their own love for him.

Many years ago during the summertime I used to fill in for chaplains in some of the large public hospitals in New York when they went on vacation. I spent about 5 or 10 years in the biggest public hospital in the Bronx. In all the time I was there the one person who made the greatest impact on staff, visitors and everybody else was not a doctor, not a nurse, not an administrator, not a worker there. The person who made the greatest impact was a five year old girl who was dying of a very virulent form of cancer that not only left her with an enormous amount of pain for which very little relief could be provided, but whose very skull had been misshapen as a result of this disease. That little girl’s courage and patience and perseverance and cheerfulness in the face of that, used to reduce doctors and nurses to tears. She did more to teach all of the rest of us the genuine worth of the human being than any number of books or sermons would ever do at all. We believe that God has a role for everybody in life even those who seem to be most helpless and their contributions may be of enormous importance to the salvation of all the rest of us.

When I was still in my teens, the Second World War ended. When our soldiers went into the death camps — Auschwitz, Dachau, Buschwald — the reaction in our own country was horror. These people were monsters, brutes, to have carried out this kind of slaughter. Here in our own country in the last twenty-five years we have killed many more than the Nazi’s ever did and we do not react at all. It is just a part of everyday life. It does not interfere with anybody eating, sleeping, drinking or doing anything else at all. It is almost as if it does not exist. It is beyond the screen. It did not exist for many people in Germany but they had an excuse. They did not have a Center for Disease Control that put out the number of people being killed in their death camps regularly. We do. But that is only the beginning of harm. It does not say anything about the harm done to mothers.

I was at a seminar in Princeton for a week on the twentieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae. There was a woman psychiatrist from New England there who told me that she now spends all of her time with women who have had abortions. I asked her in my naiveté when they come to her. I figured the answer was going to be maybe three months or six months after the abortion. She said almost all the people that come to her come to her ten years after. They not only have not forgotten but it is much more vivid than ever before. Since then I have listened to groups of women exploited by abortion — “WEBA” — and they told me that most of the time after abortion, there is a period of denial for at least five years. The woman does not even look at it but then sometimes, occasioned by seeing a child that is the same age that hers would have been, it suddenly floods back in and this time there is nobody to help. Nobody to offer any kind of consolation, nobody to offer to steer them in any direction at all. The people that first steered them into abortion clinics will not even admit that this exists as a problem, with the result they do not even want to hear of it, much less cope with it.

Abortion has had a horrendous effect on the whole medical profession in our country. Thirty years ago if you went to a medical school graduation, the high point symbolically would have been all the new doctors taking the Hippocratic Oath. This goes back 500 years before the time of Christ to pagan times. Nobody takes the Hippocratic Oath anymore because there is an explicit pledge in it requiring the doctor to promise not to perform abortion. They cannot do that in our country at the present time. What it means is that the whole orientation of this profession to protect every human being in life and health is now gone, has disappeared. Another thing is the problem of a corruption of our whole legal criminal justice system — police are now forced to arrest people who are trying to prevent the murder of unborn babies.

That is horrendous when you think of it in those terms. They are faced with the prospect of doing it or losing their jobs. Most states in our country have a conscience clause that would exclude doctors and nurses from performing abortions or taking part in them. There is not a single community in the United States that has a conscience clause for policemen that would protect them if they refused to arrest people who were trying to protect the lives of unborn babies.

Abortion is having an effect on the courts. I must admit my own experiences in court so far have left me shaking my head and wondering where the system is going. For me there has not been much at stake one way or the other. The biggest penalty that could be given me was not very great. When I was tried in a court in a suburb of New York City on charges of disorderly conduct, which meant you refused to obey the order from a policeman to move, the young assistant district attorney, I am sure just fresh out of law school, wanted to forbid any mention of abortion. He said this is not a forum on abortion, this is a case of trespass. The only thing that is under consideration is the matter of trespass.

I said to him and to the judge I did not come down here from my own home town to sit in front of a grocery store. Obviously what you are doing has some kind of impact or importance on what is going on. I said if I were in here for a traffic ticket and pleaded guilty with an explanation, I could give the explanation. How could you refuse an explanation in this case? The judge said we could make our explanation and in the end he struck it all from the record, saying it was irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant is New York state law. I said, you know judge, at Nuremberg we tried and convicted and jailed people whose defense was that. They had done what people on top told them to do. They had obeyed the Nazi voice. We stuck them in jail for that and we said they should have known enough not to obey that, to do something different. And the judge, who was an old man about to retire, and I am sure in his own way sincere, said that was totally irrelevant. Those were Nazis; we are talking about New York state laws.

Well, the big difference is that we have killed many more since Roe v. Wade than the Nazis did. I came out of that court shaking my head and wondering what would have happened if I were an illiterate black or Mexican in that court on serious charges and justice was administered in the same way. It left me a little bit worried and concerned. Abortion has had a bad effect on all of us. If you lived along side of a horror for a number of years and it does not seem to impinge on your own life, in a way it profoundly effects you — you get used to it, you almost do not notice it any more.

We are in that kind of situation. Abortion is a horror of what portends for the future. We have a lot to learn from the history of Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Euthanasia was not introduced by the Nazi’s; it was approved in the time of the Wiemar Republic, between 1930 and 1933. The next step was not from the Nazi’s either. In the late 1930’s German psychiatrists asked the Nazi’s for permission to use euthanasia on incurable mental patients. Several years ago there was a story in one paper in New York that two German doctors, each of them 78 years old, had been convicted in a court in Munich of having been responsible for the death of one hundred ten thousand mental patients between the years 1938 and 1940. They were each sentenced to three years, though the paper said they would probably never serve the three years because there would be appeals and they would probably be dead before it comes off. The 110,000 people killed were all Aryans. At that time euthanasia was a privilege that was denied to the Jews but it is obvious, once the Nazis saw what had happened there, they adopted it and used it as their final solution to the “Jewish problem.” So six million Jews were killed. And after them slave laborers from other countries who no longer could pull their weight were killed. By the end of the war the Nazi’s had plans on paper (to extend the slaughter still further) that were never executed because the war ended.

They used euthanasia on badly wounded German soldiers, who had now become a burden to society. There is a message in that to us. Once you pull away the right to life, to existence, of one whole group of people, none of us ultimately is safe. All it takes is somebody to come into power who thinks the world would be better off without you or without me. In all honesty, for everyone of us there are already people who think the world would be better off without us. If I had said that a few years ago, people would have said, “Pipe dreams.” They would say, “It happened in Germany, but those were Nazi’s; it will never happen to us.”

I am told by Bernard Nathanson that in many of the major medical centers in the United States — he is not thinking of the medium sized hospitals — these are the big places — if a child is born fairly badly deformed and it also has a kind of an obstruction in the throat that makes it impossible for it to be fed — an obstruction that can be removed by an operation with no danger — it would take five minutes in most instances, the baby now is left to starve. Starving is not an easy way to die, whether you are sixty, twenty or two days old. This is not the 21st century; this is going on right now.

Christians suffered horrendous tortures in the time of Nero. Nero tried to blame the burning down of half of Rome on the Christians. And all the Christians he could find were crucified and then set fire to. The children, the little children they had, were wrapped in animal skins and set loose in the coliseum to be torn apart by wild dogs. The whole of our history is filled with people like that, all the way down. In October, there is a feast of the men who were ordained in Louvain, Belgium, at the time when no Catholic seminary could operate in England, and were subsequently martyred. In a hundred years there were about one hundred sixty priests who were ordained there, returned to England, and eventually were hanged, drawn, and quartered. It is a tough way to die. Most of them not surviving as much as three years of apostolic work in England before they were caught. The English police were very good and strong at that time. They caught them very early and yet these men kept coming. Why did they keep coming? Because it was needed. The last person to be executed on Tyburn Hill in England was the Archbishop of Dublin, named Oliver Plunkett, who has been canonized. Back a few years ago the Holy Father beatified a Mexican priest who was shot by the government the same year I was born, a Jesuit named Miguel Pro. The whole of our history right from the very beginning has indicated that there are times when we have to stand up for what is right even if it puts us in a opposition to our government.

What is the obligation of Catholics with regard to Right To Life? Let me list a number of our obligations. There are all things that are familiar to you — obviously not to have an abortion and not to encourage it for others. The reason I mention that is I have found that often the girls who are having abortions are not there with any enthusiasm. They are being pushed either by boy friends or parents. Sometimes by parents who, among other things, are very religious but when this happens they panic. That is an easy solution. Horrendous for the girl, horrendous for the family and for everybody else.

There is a second obligation. We have to pray for those who are concerned, pray for the mothers, pray for the unborn babies, pray for abortionists, pray for the medical personnel, pray for the lawyers, and pray for the politicians, and maybe especially for the politicians. The question often comes up of whether Catholic the politicians who oppose this should be excommunicated. I do not favor excommunication because it would simply be used to attract attention for them. I do favor saying very clearly that a Catholic politician who knows his Faith, who votes to fund abortion or to continue abortions in any way at all, and dies in that state of soul without repentance I think he is going to go to Hell. That is not an easy prospect but it seems to me everything we ever learned from the Catechism told us that. If somebody dies responsible for something serious without repenting of it, that is where he is.

I am not trying to take the place of God, but on the other hand I do not think we should look the other way when God has communicated to us the responsibility. Pray for abortionists. If they turn around they can be a great help. There is probably no one who is more effective in arguing against abortion in our country now than Bernard Nathanson, who performed 60,000 abortions himself but who can speak not just from experience but with an enormous expertise. The former governor of our own state who once got an award from NOW because of his support for abortion, Hugh Carey, says it was the biggest mistake he ever made and now speaks out publicly against it.

We believe in the power of prayer. We believe it can and does make a difference. You all know that over 60 years ago Pius XII picked as co-patroness of the missions along with Francis Xavier, the greatest missionary we have had since St. Paul, a woman who had never set foot in the missions, who died at the age of 24, who spent the last nine years of her life in a cloistered convent. He picked the Little Flower. The reason he picked her was because he was convinced that the most important factor in effectiveness in the Apostolate is the graces that are called down from Heaven by those who pray.

A third obligation of Catholics is to work to help people with problems: people who are poor, women who are single mothers. We need to provide a home for them that will supply some kind of moral support. We can help by providing adoptions especially for those children who would most likely be passed over. We can provide much more education to the general public of young people on what an unborn child looks like at the phase of development and what an abortions looks like. We have failed to get that across to our own people. Almost anybody who sees the films that are now available that were not available twenty years ago would find it very hard to even tolerate abortion much less to support it. You can help by writing to newspapers. You can help by putting pressure on politicians to change laws. You may help to save souls if you can do that. We can help by resolving to live chastely. We believe that as a matter of Faith that God made sex not only an important part of human beings but He intended it to be related to love, to the origin of life and family. We have almost given up on teaching that, not because we do not believe it, but because we believe it is impossible to get it across in our society. All it means is that it is a bigger part of our responsibility. You can help by witnessing to the importance of human life and I think that applies especially to woman, maybe especially to young woman.

It was summed up for me in the experience of a priest I know who is one of the best, probably the best, medical moral theologian in the western world. When he was in North Carolina he wound up in a discussion on abortion. Some lady got up and said he had no right to speak because he was not a woman, so abortion did not affect him. He got up and said to the lady: “By God, abortion is a matter that has to do with babies and, by God, I was a baby.” I believe that is an issue that profoundly affects all of us and we all have an obligation to be involved, but it is also obvious that abortion is an issue where childbearing pregnancy is an issue that affects women more directly than it does men. When they speak of single parents in our country now almost inevitably a single parent is a woman who has been abandoned by the man or men who fathered her children. Now very often they are left in poverty with almost no resources to care for this child at all. So for that reason women do bear the burden of this, both during pregnancy, and after, the testimony of women is much more forceful and much more significant, much more important in this than anything I say.

At the time of Humanae Vitae I wound up on a television broadcast in Canada on a panel of five priests. It really was a panel I formed when I got there that wound up four versus one. The audience was made up of college professors and their wives in a Catholic college. The hardest time I got on this was from the wives of the college professors who asked what right I and the Pope, aging celibates that we were, had to say anything about this matter that affected women. Well, that hurt me because the Pope was twenty five years older than I was at the time. I did not think I was quite as aging, but the message remains. For these people that was enough reason to write us off at that time.

I would ask you to try to make reparation for the sin of abortion. Several years ago, I got an awful jolt of shock when I went down to Atlanta and spoke at the very end of the rally the day before the first Rescue there. During that time Operation Rescue people were very badly beaten and badly handled. One minister from Indiana almost died. The speaker before me was an evangelical minister.

I heard only five minutes of his talk. And what he was saying was that we should not be blaming the abortionists, we should not be blaming the Supreme Court, we should be blaming ourselves; because, he said, the situation would not be so bad if we had not allowed it to continue for sixteen years; and, he said, we owe reparation to the Lord for our own failure. I had not heard the word reparation in the Catholic Church for twenty years. When I was young it was always a part of the devotion to the Sacred Heart which we would have had at least on First Fridays and in some places every week. It disappeared and now I suddenly hear it from a young Protestant minister. But what he was saying was true. We do believe in the worth and value of reparation. We do believe that we owe reparation to the Lord. I ask you to trust in God’s providence. Even at times when things go bad. People ask me what I think is going to happen in Roe v. Wade. I do not know. I have heard stories both ways. There is a good reason to be hopeful but even if it turns out for the worst, all that means is we have to try harder as time goes on. We believe that God brought our redemption about out of what the Apostles thought was the worst disaster in the history of the world, the Crucifixion of Jesus. The destruction of the one truly great Man and three days later they were able to see that as the greatest blessing. God has the power to take situations that are bad and awful and not only bring relief to them but to turn them into enormous blessings. I would ask you to try to keep working in the face of apparent failures even if they come along. I would ask help and to encourage all of those who are working to save babies in any way at all.

When I was a seminarian at Dunwoodie in 1946, a Maryknoll priest came back from Japan who had been interned during the war. He was one of the first Maryknollers to go to Japan in 1922 and he told us that when he came he brought out the first two Japanese allowed to leave the country by the occupation forces. The first two were two young men who were going to study for the priesthood in Rome. He said that when he arrived in Japan in 1922 for the first time, he had met French missionaries who had worked there for a quarter of a century and who could count the number of their converts on the fingers of two hands. When he came out in 1946 there were so many people asking to become Catholics that they could not give instructions to them all. His explanation was simple. He said that they were now reaping the fruits of what these men had done without seeing any great results for so long before. I believe in that. The Lord Himself has taught us that Paul plants, Apollos waters, and God gives the increase in His own way in His own time. I would like to conclude with the words from Matthew 25. The Lord Himself has described the judgment at the end of the world and the basis on which He describes Himself as judging us on what we have done for those who are most in need and most powerless: “As often as you did it to one of these the least of My brethren, you did it to Me.”

Bishop Vaughan was an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of New York. He died at 72 years of age of heart failure on June 28, 2000. Bishop Vaughan became a prominent figure in the pro-life movement as the first American bishop to be arrested for blocking abortion clinic entrances.

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