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On the Front Lines for Life

October 22, 2009

On the Front Lines for Life

I wish I could tell you that Church leaders were brave, countercultural and prophetic," I can still hear him say, "but that would not be the truth."

"With very few exceptions," he went on, "Catholics in the United States did little or nothing to condemn the dramatically moral evil of slavery, and demand its end. And that is to our shame to this day."

Those words came from my mentor, friend and teacher, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, the legendary professor of the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, during his sobering lecture on the Church and slavery, when I was a graduate student at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps we have learned our lesson, for Catholic leaders—committed laity, religious sisters and brothers, clergy, bishops—have been on the front lines of the premier civil rights issue today, the right to life. And that is to our credit. And that's good to ponder during October, Respect Life Month.

The comparison of abortion to slavery is an apt one. The right of a citizen to "own" another human being as property—to control him/her, use him/her, sell him or decide her fate—was, prior to 1865, constitutional, sad to say.

That "right" to own a slave was even upheld by a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court (whose Chief Justice at the time, Roger Brooke Taney, was a Catholic, "personally opposed" to slavery!) in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott Decision, declaring that a slave who had escaped and claimed freedom had to be returned to his "master," because he had no rights at all.

Tragically, in 1973, in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court also strangely found in the constitution the right to abortion, thus declaring an entire class of human beings— now not African-Americans, but pre-born infants—to be slaves, whose futures, whose destinies, whose very right to life —can be decided by another "master." These fragile, frail babies have no civil rights at all.

Our faces blush with shame as we Catholics admit we did so little to end slavery; but we can smile and thank God that the Church has indeed been prophetic, courageous and counter cultural in the right to life movement. As an evangelical pastor recently commented to me, "We may criticize you Catholics for some things, but we have sure been inspired by your early and courageous leadership in the pro-life movement."

A few years ago, I met with a prominent philanthropist, who described himself—and I always know I'm in for trouble when I hear this—as a "former Catholic." Now, he went on to say, he was a "progressive," and would consider a large gift to the Catholic Church "if you changed your position on abortion."

I must admit I'm afraid I made no headway at all when I patiently tried to explain to him that this was hardly a "position" of the Church that could change, but a conviction grounded in natural law, shared by most other world religions, and, for that matter, dramatically obvious in our American normative principles, which hold that certain rights are "inalienable"—part of the inherent human makeup—the first being the right to life itself.

Many issues and concerns in addition to protecting the baby in the womb fall under the rubric of the right to life—child care, poverty, racism, war and peace, capital punishment, health care, the environment, euthanasia—in what has come to be called the consistent ethic of life. All those issues, and even more, demand our careful attention and promotion.

But the most pressing life issue today is abortion. If we're wrong on that one, we're just plain wrong.

When our critics—and their name is legion—criticize us for being passionate, stubborn, almost obsessed with protecting the human rights of the baby in the womb, they intend it as an insult. I take it as a compliment.

I'd give anything if I could claim that Catholics in America prior to the Civil War were "passionate, stubborn, almost obsessed" with protecting the human rights of the slave. To claim such would be a fib. But, decades from now, at least our children and grandchildren can look back with pride and gratitude for the conviction of those who courageously defend the life of the pre-born baby.

I well remember being in Baltimore two years ago for the installation of their new archbishop, Edwin F. O'Brien, a native son of this archdiocese in whom we are very proud. He gave a stirring homily, recounting how his predecessors had often been on the forefront of promoting issues of justice in our country: Cardinal James Gibbons came up, of course, for his defense of the rights of labor back in the 1880s; Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan, who was jeered at a City Council meeting in 1965 for speaking on behalf of open housing for African-Americans; Cardinal William Keeler, criticized for advocating the rights of immigrants. And now, the new archbishop concluded, the tradition has to continue, as the Church must be on the front lines of the premier justice issue of the day: the protection of the right to life of the baby in the womb.

It's October, Respect Life Month.