The most consequential cultural and political event in American history in the past half century was the Roe v. Wade decision of January 22, 1973. An argument can be made that it is rivaled by September 11, but that fateful day did not result in the deep realignment of religious, cultural, and political dynamics resulting from the Supreme Court’s ukase, which established an unlimited abortion license that wiped from the books of all fifty states any legal protection of unborn children. It is not true that, as Justice Ruth Ginsburg and others have contended, Roe v. Wade simply speeded up what was already happening in the states. On the contrary, the country was, with the exception of a few states, moving in a pro-life direction (although the term pro-life was not in general use at the time). See, for instance, Russell Hittinger’s October 1994 First Things essay, " Abortion Before Roe ."
This Monday marks the thirty-fourth anniversary of Roe v. Wade . On January 23, 1973, the New York Times reported that the Court had "settled" the dispute over abortion. Thirty-four years later, there is no more intensely contested issue in our public life. This is in itself a powerful tribute to pro-life conviction and determination. When Roe v. Wade came down, it was cheered by every major opinion-making institution in the country¯the mainstream media, the prestige academy, the legal establishment, the medical establishment, the philanthropic world, and all the major religious institutions, except one.
Among the religious institutions of national influence, the Catholic Church stood alone in protesting the immediate evil and long-term implications of Roe v. Wade . Although it is largely forgotten today, evangelical Protestantism was in support of Roe v. Wade . Years after the decision, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant association in the country, was passing resolutions in favor of a woman’s "right to choose." (See Timothy George’s 2005 Erasmus Lecture, " Evangelicals and Others ," reprinted in the February 2006 issue of First Things .) Evangelicals viewed the protection of the unborn as a "Catholic issue," and anti-Catholicism in evangelicalism was much stronger than it is today.
Thanks to the indefatigable labors of Francis Schaeffer, importantly assisted by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, evangelicalism was in the late 1970s being brought around to understand the evil of the abortion license and what it portended for the future defense of the dignity of the human person. Today evangelicals and Catholics stand solidly together, but by no means alone, in the defense of innocent human life, as witness, for instance, the recent statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, " That They May Have Life ."
In the January issue of First Things , I used the occasion of a remarkable article by historian George McKenna to offer an extended review of the ways in which the Catholic bishops have over the years led, and failed to lead, in the defense of the unborn. That reflection documents how¯contrary to reasonable expectations as late as the early 1970s¯the Democratic party became the pro-abortion party and the Republicans became the pro-life party in our national politics. Crucial to that change was the no doubt well-intended but disastrous effort, led by the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, to make abortion but one issue among others in a "seamless garment" of moral concerns. The goal of "contextualizing" the abortion question resulted, also for many Catholics, in the relativizing of the abortion question.
Nonetheless, by the 1990s the bishops were regaining their nerve and their footing. In 1998 they published a magnificent statement, " Living the Gospel of Life ," underscoring the truth that, while the house of human dignity, like any house, has many parts, the foundation is the right to life, without which the house collapses. (See the analysis in "How We Got to Where We Are," Public Square, January.) Many bishops, perhaps most bishops, have in recent years been forthright, persistent, and persuasive in their public advocacy of what John Paul II taught the world to call "the culture of life."
On the other hand, many Catholics, including clergy and laity, say they have been confused, even scandalized, by the apparent ambivalence of some bishops. Amy Welborn at Open Book has given expression to this concern in connection with the non-response of Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s highlighting of her Catholic credentials. I will return to that below.
At the time of the 2004 election, there were intense divisions among the bishops about how to respond to Catholic politicians who claimed that their Catholic allegiance was not compromised by their persistent support of the abortion license. The attention was focused on presidential candidate John Kerry, but of course there were many other Catholic politicians similarly situated. What the bishops like to think of as their fraternal solidarity was badly shaken when it appeared that, in the meeting of the bishops’ conference, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, then archbishop of Washington, misrepresented to them a communication from then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI). As it turned out, Ratzinger had said that, when all pastoral efforts of persuasion failed, it would be appropriate to advise those who publicly and persistently reject the Church’s teaching that they should refrain from Communion and, if they still refused to do so, to deny them Communion.
The bishops resolved to prepare a pastoral statement on these difficult questions, and the statement was adopted at last November’s meeting of the conference. It is titled " On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist ." The wise decision was made not to single out politicians or public figures but to re-catechize, or catechize for the first time, all Catholics on the Church’s teaching. But, of course, politicians and other public figures are clearly included in the directives set forth.
The statement says, among other things: "In order to receive Holy Communion we must be in communion with God and with the Church . . . . If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain."
The statement goes on to address the question of public scandal. "To give scandal means more than to cause other people to be shocked or upset by what one does. Rather, one’s action leads someone else to sin." The statement then quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church : "Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged."
Which brings us to two recent incidents that have caused deep consternation among many faithful Catholics. When the aforementioned Nancy Pelosi orchestrated a four-day gala in Washington celebrating her familial, ethnic, and¯very explicitly¯Catholic identity, people were alert to what would be said by the new archbishop of Washington, Donald Wuerl. He said nothing. Part of the festivities was a Mass at Trinity College, a Catholic institution in Washington. The celebrant of the Mass was Father Robert Drinan, a Jesuit who, more than any other single figure, has been influential in tutoring Catholic politicians on the acceptability of rejecting the Church’s teaching on the defense of innocent human life. Asked by a reporter, Archbishop Wuerl responded that Fr. Drinan has "faculties" in Washington, meaning he is authorized to celebrate the sacraments. That was it.
Also recently, Edward Cardinal Egan of New York gave a rare television interview in which he was persistently asked whether the pro-abortion position of Catholic politicians, notably Rudolph Giuliani and outgoing governor George Pataki, posed a problem for him. He just as persistently said he refused to be drawn into politics and answered, "They are my friends." But of course he was making a statement of momentous political consequence, in that he seemed to be saying, as far as he is concerned, that the Church has no problem with pro-abortion politicians. It is understandable that Catholics and others have drawn the conclusion that, for both Wuerl and Egan, bishops of the two most prominent sees in the country, rejecting the Church’s teaching on the human dignity of the unborn child is not a big deal.
Note that the politicians in question in these instances are not struggling with the moral questions involved or trying to reconcile their position with the Church’s teaching. At least there is no public evidence of such struggle, nor any suggestion by the bishops that their longstanding and adamant support for the unlimited abortion license should be a matter of concern.
And so the story told by George McKenna of ambivalent Catholic leadership in advancing the culture of life continues to be ambivalent. Nonetheless, and as mentioned before, there are many other bishops who continue to be consistent, courageous, and pastorally persuasive in their public witness. I would mention, for instance, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and Archbishop John Myers of Newark, except that I wouldn’t want to leave out the many others.
Thirty-four years after the infamous Roe v. Wade decision, the pro-life movement is solid and growing, and increasingly composed of the successor generation, as will no doubt again be evident in the annual January 22 march in Washington. The pro-life movement of the twentieth century laid the groundwork for the pro-life movement of the twenty-first century; the contention for the culture of life will continue until Our Lord returns in glory. Today there are additional issues posed by biotechnology, such as embryonic stem cell research, the selling of embryos, fetal farming, and cloning. The culture of death is relentless but not unstoppable. The sign of its being arrested, if not defeated, will be the reversal or judicial shelving of Roe v. Wade .