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Archbishop Chaput: 'Building and Promoting a Culture of Life'

By Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap
February 11th, 2009
Catholic Online (

Because of the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection, the future is ours. And the best is yet to come.

DENVER (Catholic Online) - One of the great champions of the dignity of every human person from conception to natural death is the Archbishop of Denver, Charles J.Chaput. His courage in speaking out during the U.S. Presidential campaign gave great solace, driection and encouragement to all Pro-Life people.

His unapologetic defense of the truth concerning the right to life and clear call to a true understanding of faithful citizenship is set forth in his recent best selling book "Render Unto Caesar". On February 8, 2009 he spoke in Ireland to a gathering sponsored by Human Life International. We set forth his entire address for our readers. The text is found on the web site of the Archdiocese of Denver:

Building and promoting a culture of life: An American view

It's a blessing to be here today. The Irish are a privileged tribe. You live in a country whose missionary spirit changed the face of Catholic life throughout the English-speaking world, especially in the United States.

So let me start by honoring the thousands of Irish priests, religious and lay people who crossed the Atlantic to build a new life. They succeeded better than anyone could have imagined. And they infused their new life in America with the Catholic faith and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church in the United States owes them a huge debt. So may your ancestors inspire our time together today.

My theme is "an American view on how to build a culture of life." But my goal is to offer some lessons from the American experience that Irish Christians might find useful. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down restrictive American abortion laws in 1973. That effectively legalized abortion on demand. Since then, abortion has killed more than 40 million unborn American children. It's also damaged the lives of millions of women and men. The sheer volume of this tragedy has had a very curious effect on the American mind, because Americans have always been a religious people - especially by recent European standards. Americans now have a kind of schizophrenia about the abortion issue. Most believe abortion is wrong. But most also want it legal under some limited circumstances.

This split in the American mind has two results. Here's the first consequence. The United States has a large and well-funded abortion industry. The industry has very shrewd political lobbyists. It also has a public relations machine that would make George Orwell's Ministry of Truth look amateur. In fact the industry runs on an engine of persuasive-sounding lies.

You know some of the lies. I'm sure you've heard them here in Ireland. There's the lie that an unborn child isn't really "fully human." The lie that abortion is a purely private decision without public consequences. The lie that we can be "pro-choice" and not be implicated in where our choices lead -- to the killing of an unborn child.

Here's the second consequence. Right alongside the abortion industry, the United States also has a very vigorous prolife movement. American prolifers have had many setbacks. They never have enough money. They don't get treated fairly by the media. Too many of their leaders argue with each other too much of the time. But they just won't give up or die. And so they've won quite a few modest but important legal victories. Meanwhile they continue to work toward the strategic goal of overturning the 1973 Supreme Court decision.

So let me share with you, from their experience, a few "dos" and "don'ts" for prolife action that we can talk about more deeply in our discussion session. I'll begin with six "don'ts."

First, don't let yourselves be tricked into an inferiority complex.

Critics like to say that religion is divisive, or intellectually backward, or that it has no proper place in the public square. This wrong thinking is now so common that any religiously grounded political action can be portrayed as crossing the border between Church and state affairs.

But this is nonsense. Democracy depends on people of conviction carrying their beliefs into public debate -- respectfully, legally and non-violently, but vigorously and without apology. If we are uncomfortable being Christians in a public debate, then we've already lost the war. In America the word "pluralism" is often conjured up like a kind of voodoo shield to get religious people to stop talking about right and wrong. In reality, our moral beliefs always shape social policy. Real pluralism actually demands that people with different beliefs should pursue their beliefs energetically in the public square. This is the only way a public debate can be honest and fruitful. We should never apologize for being Catholics.

Here's the second don't. Don't let divisions take root.

Unity is a sign of the Holy Spirit. Division is the sign of someone very different. As St. Augustine said, we need to be united in the essentials, free in the debatables, and charitable in all things. Diverse prolife opinion is part of the movement's richness. As a bishop, I've been baffled by how much energy is wasted on internal prolife bickering. We can never allow our differences to become personal. Acrimony within the prolife movement is a gift to the other side. It's also a form of theft from the unborn children who will suffer the consequences of our division.

Here's the third don't. Don't get trapped by politics -- especially partisan politics.

Politics is an arena where prolife action can have very practical results. Pope John Paul II said in his apostolic exhortation Christifideles laici, "The charges of careerism, idolatry of power, egoism and corruption that [are] directed at persons in government, parliaments [or] political parties," are often unwarranted. So is "the common opinion that participating in politics is an absolute moral danger - [on the contrary, these things do not] in the least justify either skepticism or absence on the part of Christians in public life." (42)

But the fast pace of party politics, and the illusion that politics rules the "commanding heights" of our society and can fulfill our Christian social obligations, makes political life very addictive. And this illusion gets dangerous when defending the unborn child is too closely identified with any particular politician or, even worse, one specific party. The more prolifers tie themselves to a single political party, the less they can speak to society at large. In the United States, Catholics -- both on the right and the left -- have too often made the mistake of becoming cheerleaders for a specific candidate.

Here's the fourth don't. Don't create or accept false oppositions.

Dialectical thinking, and by that I mean the idea that most of our options involve "either/or" choices, is usually un-Christian. During the last U.S. election, we saw the emergence of so-called prolife organizations that argued we should stop fighting the legal struggle over abortion. Instead we should join with "pro-choice" supporters to seek "common ground."

Their argument was simple: Why fight a losing battle on the legal, cultural and moral front since - according to them -- we haven't yet made serious progress in ending legalized abortion? Let's drop the "divisive" political battle, they said, and instead let's all work together to tackle the economic and health issues that might eventually reduce abortions.

But as we look at recent American history, did Americans take a gradual, social-improvement road to "reducing" racism? No. We passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nor have I ever heard anyone suggest that the best way to deal with murder, rape or domestic abuse is to improve the availability of health care and job training. We make rape illegal -- even though we know it will still sometimes tragically occur -- because rape is gravely evil. It's an act of violence, and the law should proscribe it. Of course, we also have a duty to improve the social conditions that can breed domestic and sexual violence. But that doesn't change the need for the law.

Likewise, if we really believe that abortion is an intimate act of violence, then we can't aim at anything less than ending abortion. It doesn't matter that some abortions have always occurred, and some will always occur. If we really believe that abortion kills a developing unborn life, then we can never be satisfied with mere "reductions" in the body count.

The U.S. Catholic bishops have argued for more than 30 years that government needs to improve the economic conditions that can lead some women to abortion. But good programs for economic justice don't ever absolve Catholics from the legal struggle to end abortion. Protecting the unborn child is not an "either/or" choice. It's "both/and." We need to help women facing problem pregnancies with good health care and economic support; and we need to pass laws that will end legal abortion. We need to do both.

Here's the fifth don't. Don't hate the adversary.

Our adversary is an opponent, but never our "enemy." Our enemy is the Evil One. Abortion-friendly lawmakers and organizations, and even people who despise us for what we believe, are not our enemies. They're brothers and sisters. We need to trust in the power of love -- the true power of God. St. Irenaeus of Lyon warned early Christians that we've been sent like sheep into the midst of wolves. The moment we become wolves ourselves, we lose.

I've always been moved by the story of Norma McCorvey, the woman whose legal case led to the Supreme Court decision that legalized permissive abortion in America. As the years passed after her court victory, McCorvey began to regret her abortion, to examine her life, and then converted first to the prolife cause and later to the Catholic faith.

Feeling used and discarded by the abortion industry, McCorvey struggled with depression and fell into a deeply confused life. One day a young prolife Christian couple with children moved in next door to her. Her neighbor always treated her kindly. They often let her talk and play with their children. But she always feared that they would find out who she was -- not just "an enemy" but "the enemy," the woman who helped legalize abortion.

Norma later discovered that they knew exactly who she was, all along. Experiencing their unconditional kindness became the first step on a journey to the Catholic faith and, today, to a life committed to ending abortion.

Here's the sixth and final don't. Don't let your adversaries set the agenda.

In his first week in office, President Barack Obama reversed the Mexico City policy, which had blocked U.S. federal money from being used to promote abortion in developing countries. His reason for signing the executive order was that it was time to put this "divisive issue behind us," once and for all.

There's something a little odd about rhetoric that tells that we're the "divisive" ones, and lectures adult citizens about what we should challenge, and when we should stop. In a democracy, we get to decide that for ourselves. So I'm glad that a Catholic prolife congressman promptly offered a bi-partisan bill, U.S. House Resolution 708, demanding the reinstatement of the Mexico City policy. An issue that involves the life and death of unborn children and the subversion of entire traditional societies can't be "put behind us" with an executive signature.

Now in my remaining time, I'd like to turn to the positive part of my talk - the dos.

Here's the first and most important do. It's very simple: Do become martyrs. I said it was simple. I didn't say it was easy. Be ready to pay the ultimate price.

Pope John Paul II very shrewdly chose St. Thomas More, a martyr, as the patron saint of lawyers and politicians. Thomas More and his friend Bishop John Fisher, both of them executed by the same king for their fidelity to the Catholic faith, are models of how far we should be willing to go for our beliefs.

In today's world, we may never be asked to pay the ultimate price. But we do see character assassination and calumny against good people every day in the public media. And we should be ready to pay that price too. We have some very good recent examples of heroism. Two months ago, Grand Duke Henry of Luxembourg rejected a bill legalizing euthanasia passed by his nation's lawmakers.

The Duke is the grandson of Grand Duchess Charlotte, the country's heroine in World War II, and the last person to receive from a Pope the Golden Rose, the highest papal honor available to a Catholic woman sovereign.

Of course, some politicians immediately demanded that Luxembourg's constitution be changed to strip the Duke of his power.

A similar fight arose in Belgium two decades ago when the late King Baudouin refused his Royal Assent to a bill legalizing abortion. His refusal was a formality, since the king had little real power. But it was an unprecedented public act by Baudouin, who was a deeply faithful Catholic man. The Belgian Parliament declared him unable to reign. Baudouin abdicated for one day, and the bill became law without his approval.

The lesson here is that nothing, not even our good name, should stop us from doing what we know to be right.

Here's the second do. Keep hope alive.

Cultivating a spirit of Christian joy is not an act of self-deception. It's a way to acknowledge that God is on our side, and that human nature, created by God and despite the damage of original sin, is also on our side. Nothing is more inspiring than happy warriors. I hope some of you will go on the web and check out some of the photos from the annual March for Life in Washington D.C. It's an event full of prayer, charity and confidence. Many of the marchers are young, joyful people who radiate a strong hope in the future - and not the shallow hope of political sloganeering, but the real Christian hope that emerges from self-sacrifice and the struggle to do God's will.

I've never in my life seen a joy-filled pro-abortion event. And I've always found that instructive.

Here's the third do. Be strategic.

Being sheep in the midst of wolves doesn't mean we can also be dumb as rocks. Thomas More was finally a martyr -- but he was also a very adroit thinker, and a shrewd, intelligent and prudent political leader as he tried to avoid execution. Prolife organizations are always outspent by pro-abortion forces. Our efforts are dwarfed by their money. We rarely have their access to friendly media, foundations and circles of power. But this can be a blessing disguised as a curse. It forces us to be creative, long-term thinkers and extremely resourceful with our modest means.

Being strategic means planning ahead, setting the agenda, working together and outsmarting our adversaries. To achieve these goals, we need a big dose of realism. We should never dream or whine about all the things we could do with the million Euros we don't have. We need to focus on the ten Euros we do have.

Two fishes and five loaves of bread, well invested - in other words, given to the Lord -- fed a multitude. History shows that guerrilla wars, if well planned and methodically carried out, can defeat great armies. And we should never forget that the greatest "guerrilla" leader of them all wasn't Mao or Che, but a young shepherd named David, who became a king.

Here's the fourth do. Use the best means for your message, especially the new technologies.

Today's new technologies are a mixed social blessing. But they're also cheap and extremely useful tools that prolifers can use very effectively. While the traditional mainline media, including the printing press, are losing influence, blogs, social networks, and YouTube channels are thriving. And they offer huge prolife opportunities.

Here's an example. Lila Rose is a 19-year-old young woman who just received one of the six prestigious Life Prizes awarded by the Gerard Health Foundation in the United States. Since the age of 15, armed with a little courage, a lot of ingenuity, an audio recorder and a small video camera, Rose has run several undercover investigations, including one that exposed racism and a statutory rape cover-up by Planned Parenthood. Her main tool was YouTube videos that became viral and were picked up by the secular media, forcing Planned Parenthood to apologize and fire some staffers.

Lila Rose and many other agile young users of the new technologies have shown that the new internet, if used well, can break through the wall of silence prolifers often face from an unfriendly media establishment.

Here's the fifth and final do. Remember that renewing the culture, not gaining power, is our ultimate goal.

Culture is everything. Culture is our "human ecology." It's the environment where we human beings breathe not only air, but ideas, beliefs and values.

Bill Clinton's presidential campaign strategist James Carville once coined a slogan that led his boss to the White House in 1992. To keep the campaign on message, Carville hung a sign in Clinton's Little Rock headquarters that read: "It's the economy, stupid!"
It's a clever phrase, and it got the job done - if the goal was the short-term exercise of power by Bill Clinton. But that's not what prolifers are about. Our real task, and our much longer-term and more important goal, is to carry out what John Paul II called the "evangelization of culture."

Many things in the developed world today promote a spirit of greed, despair and self-delusion. Our adversaries often have far more resources than the Church and the prolife movement can possibly marshal.

But cultural trends can be changed. And I'll prove it. Mainline media have been telling us for a decade that the American public is evenly divided between those who consider themselves prolife and those who describe themselves as "pro-choice."

This is broadly true. But the devil - or in this case, God -- is in the details.

A national poll done by Harris Interactive two months ago found that fewer than ten per cent of Americans support legalized abortion on demand as it stands today. Ninety-five percent favor laws ensuring that abortions be performed only by licensed physicians. Eighty-eight percent favor informed-consent laws - in other words, laws that require abortion providers to inform women of potential health risks and also about alternatives to abortion. Seventy-six percent favor laws that protect doctors and nurses from being forced to perform or refer for abortions against their will, Seventy-three percent favor laws that require giving parents the chance to be involved in their minor daughter's abortion decision. Sixty-eight percent favor laws against partial-birth abortion. And sixty-three percent favor laws preventing the use of taxpayer money for abortions.

These figures are very revealing. They show that prolife efforts have made real progress in improving people's awareness of the sanctity of unborn life. These good results may have been impossible just two decades ago.

We need to work to change the culture. And that demands a lifelong commitment to education, Christian formation and, ultimately, conversion. Only saints really change the world. And there lies our ultimate victory: If we change one heart at a time, while we save one unborn life at a time, the day will come when we won't need to worry about saving babies, because they'll be surrounded by a loving, welcoming culture.

Will I see that day with my own eyes? I can't hold my breath that long. But then I never expected to see a Polish Pope or the fall of the Iron Curtain either. We may not see that day in our own lifetimes, but the children of your grandchildren will. The future depends on our choices and actions right here, right now, today -- together.

No matter how tired you get, no matter how hard the work becomes, no matter who praises you or who condemns you, the only thing that finally matters is this: Jesus Christ is Lord, and he came to give us life, and life abundantly. Because of the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection, the future is ours. And the best is yet to come.

God bless you!

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is the author of the bestselling book "Render Unto Caesar".He is one of the preeminent voices of the Church speaking prophetically into the culture and calling Catholics, other Christians, other people of faith and all people of good will to do the same.

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