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Shortly before his death in 1963 Pope John XXIII issued an encyclical with a novel distribution.

Originally, encyclicals were circular letters sent to all

bishops. In modern times the addressees came to

include priests and “all the faithful.” But John sent

Pacem in Terris much further. He proclaimed peace

on earth as far as the angels had sung their carol: “to

all people of good will.”

Paul VI continued this heading on his own great

encyclicals, hoping that the cogency of the faith

could speak to non-Catholics and non-Christians.

And those letters did begin to gain more attention

from that broader, ecumenical, and secular audience.

The American bishops did likewise, and with this

larger audience in mind they began to address more

“public policy” issues. As they did, their mode of

approach naturally adapted itself to their more

diverse audience: no longer the American Catholics,

but the American people . . . and the United States

government. More came of this than was intended.

For a public that now shared few of their convictions,

the bishops were constrained to argue from a thinner

philosophical and political gospel. Some thought

they were more competent and more responsible to

expound the gospel.

Last September the American bishops issued a

document that returns to the pastoral tradition of

expounding the faith to those who should be able to

make sense of it. Faithful for Life: A Moral Reflection

is addressed to the Catholic flock to whom the bishops are primarily responsible. It is their most cogent

pro-life statement thus far. It is believer-friendly, yet it

stings. The reason it may gain a wider hearing is that

the bishops bottom their argument, not on civic or

sociopolitical grounds, but on trademark Catholic


The leading issue is fidelity. Abortion and euthanasia are two instances of ultimate infidelity, whereby

the most helpless members of families become disposable at will if they are felt to be too burdensome. Abortion and euthanasia, the bishops observe, are

both secondary infections of the same infidelity

whereby spouses so commonly walk away from one

another that the American public can hardly even

imagine what it might mean to bind oneself to another, for better or for worse, until death. It is as impossible a notion today as it was when Jesus first said and showed it. The bishops are pleading that by God’s

grace we can”we must”live lives that are obligated

by other persons and their needs. They say we can

manage to do what Jesus did: be faithful to others

whether or not they are faithful to us.

Faithful for Life begins with the story of the Good

Samaritan, an unwelcome foreigner traveling at his

own risk in Judea, who was the only journeyman

ready to rescue a mugging victim from the ditch.

Two locals, bound not to “stand by idly when your

neighbor’s life is at stake” (Leviticus 19:16), had

looked and hurried the other way. Jesus’ praise for

this alien, the bishops note, is not for doing a favor,

because for him it was a duty too: “The victim didn’t

need to be kin or countryman of someone to whom

the rescuer had made a commitment. Anyone lying

helpless in that ditch was neighbor.” “We are all journeying down the road from

Jerusalem to Jericho,” the bishops say, and this parable haunts us because it scorns the dogma of our day:

“that our loyalties and our obligations are owed only

to those of our choice. On the contrary, we owe fidelity to those we choose and, beyond them, to others we

do not choose. It is we who have been chosen to go

out of our way for them.”

So the bishops come out as “anti-choice.” If fidelity

is to be Christian it is owed not only to those to whom

we pledge it but to those whose needs place an equal

claim upon our consciences. The pursuit of one’s

own “interests,” satisfaction, freedom, and preferences”all summed up in “choice””is the watchword

of our culture, and the bishops are explaining how

our culture can become deadly.

American society upholds the doctrine that human

beings find their ultimate sense and fulfillment

in individual freedom. To survive other people’s

competing endeavors”so this belief runs”we must

assert our own solitary “best interests.” Spouses must

enjoy uninhibited freedom, but respect it in their

partners (who are, however, revocable at will). Children (also revocable at will) must be the creatures of

explicit parental choice, and once accepted they must

be helped quickly into the full possession of their

own right to choose (and to fend) for themselves.

Grandparents (revocable also) must retain their vigor

and their distance so as to enjoy their freedom to

choose (but not to impinge too heavily on their children’s choices), up to the timely end of their lives.

Any decline from autonomy to dependence is felt as

an indignity. The desirable outcome of family life,

according to this belief, is a pack of freewheeling

individualists who enjoy unimpeded liberty to do

what they choose, limited minimally by their agreement not to impede one another’s liberty. This exaltation of individual free choice has, naturally, put

fidelity owed to others into full eclipse.

Predictably, a “plague effect” has been visited on

children by their parents’ failures to form or maintain commitments to each other. Studies indicate

that the children of severed partnerships are in a

great many ways at a disadvantage by comparison

with those whose parents remain together. They are

more impoverished and more likely to subside into

welfare, to perform poorly in their studies and to

drop out of school, to become involved in Juvenile

crime and its legal penalties, to require treatment for

physical illnesses and emotional disturbances, and to

be at risk for sexual abuse. Even more dismaying,

perhaps, are indications that this pathology intensifies as it is passed on. These same children are also

more likely to drift into adolescent sex, pregnancy,

and cohabitation, and thereby the increased likelihood that their own marriages will disintegrate.

The increasing acceptance of disposable relationships and the exaltation of divorce are but single

episodes in a long subversion of fidelity that has

changed the nature of the familial undertaking at its

root. It is not happenstance that the country which

offers the least legal protection in the developed

world for the unborn is the same country that offers

the least legal protection for the victims of divorce.

Abortion and euthanasia, the bishops argue, bring

home to us in a newly violent way how drastic is our

disbelief in fidelity. For it has become obvious to any

Catholic willing to see it that what was once constituted as a commitment has shriveled to a wish. “The

home becomes the place where, when you knock,

they no longer have to let you in.”

The Catholic Church has historically argued that

free and deliberate choice is indeed an essential element in any Christian marital bond. But there is a

companion teaching. We can and do incur other

bonds without choosing them, as when we are begotten by parents and when we are gifted with children.

“We are bound to our children, not because we chose

them, but because we were given them: simply

because they are our children, our very near neighbors.”

Even the marital bond transcends choice, for one

has committed oneself not only to the spouse one

married, but to that spouse with all of his or her

eventual developments of character and circumstance. We cannot discharge ourselves of our spouses

or our kinfolk or our neighbors in their authentic

needs without damaging our own capacity to love.

And once we have accepted this fidelity as an inmost

need in our lives, who knows in advance how many

times we will have to turn aside from our journeys

along that road from Jerusalem to Jericho?

It is clear that the bishops are expressing an unusually sharp critique of the national culture. It is a

prophetic moment for them.

“Abortion, and now euthanasia, have become

socially accepted acts because many have been persuaded that people unfairly lose their freedom when

others make claims on them that pose burdens and

obligations. In the course of a very few years many

people have come to think of an unplanned baby as

an unwanted baby, and of an undesired baby as an

undesirable one. The prescribed social remedy has

been to put an end to the baby’s life before fie or she

can make a claim on ),ours.” Such violations of

human life and human dignity are now “expounded

upon in classrooms, prescribed by physicians, condoned by public figures, protected by courts, subsidized by legislatures, and even advertised in the Yellow Pages. How has it come to pass that the

elimination of one’s child or one’s parent, acts of desperation wrought in every age, are now described as

sensible and even attractive alternatives?”

Infidelity, once naturalized, easily resorts to violence. Witness the, homicides committed by parents

upon their children, children upon their parents,

spouses upon one another. In this environment the bishops will not gain an

easy hearing for their message that life is a mixture of

both choice and acceptance. This nation’s adults are

hardly capable of convincing their children that life’s

moral imperatives are not a la carte.

The bishops do not mention evils more monstrous

than abortion and euthanasia, nor do they claim that

these two are so pernicious that they must preempt

all other moral concerns: genocide, enslavement,

environmental devastation, or nuclear destruction.

What the bishops do say is that abortion and euthanasia are dreadful outbreaks of the infidelity that darkens our earth with both furtive and flaunted violence.

Our nation has a persistent way of not wanting to

peer honestly into that darkness. Consider how prone

we are to evade social remedies that carry a personal

cost. We are a people scourged with drug seduction

and addiction; so we have locked away more of our

population than any people in the world. Our all affluence has afflicted our country with overweight; so we

look for the perfect crash diet, patch, or pill. AIDS

sweeps the land like Bubonic Plague, and we want

only a pharmaceutical to cure it. Prisons, diets, and

drugs are not wrong, but they only trick the edge of

these persistent problems.

From their pastoral ministry the bishops know

story upon story of valiant people coping with family

responsibility in the face of frustration. Yet what has

become the “American Way” of family life invites us

into shortcuts and sidesteps that can deprive us of the

close community we all truly seek. A young couple

by cohabiting make marital fracture and eventual

divorce more predictable. Our society and often our

Church look the other way, put them through a marriage preparation routine, celebrate their wedding,

and “hope for the best.”

Some parents who work full-time do so not from

family need but to avoid tedious days with children. They buy dawn-to-dark day care for their parenting,

delivered pizza for their meals, and television for

their amusement”where children are presented

with a hundred thousand sexual situations and two

hundred thousand acts of violence before coming of

age. Schoolwork slides down the national learning

curve, as teachers plead for more parental collaboration, and parents put hope in a cram course for the

college entrance exams. The grandparents retire and

move toward the sunniest retirement community,

where no children are allowed. The teenagers start

binge drinking and the neighborhood parents take

their turns leaving town for a weekend so that the

children can all drink indoors, regularly and “safely.”

The kids are having sex too, and school clinics and

condoms are going to make it “safe,” though not safe.

They don’t use the condoms, the girls get pregnant,

and a “safe” abortion is offered as the remedy for that,

though for nothing else. The parents eventually get

more time together but find they don’t like one another much any more, so they go for counseling; and at

the third session the therapist proposes divorce as the

obvious remedy. The grandfather dies, and when the

grandmother declines into depression she is put in a

nursing home with other depressed and abandoned

people. One of the divorcees drifts into a later-in-life

cohabitation, with the assurance of a compassionate

annulment to make it right.

The bishops’ response is radical. “To live in fidelity we have to rearrange our lives, yield control, and

forfeit some choices. To evade the full burden of

putting ourselves at the disposal of those to whom we

belong, to allot them only the slack in our own agendas and not what they require, is to practice desertion

by other means.” A life without loving fidelity is

eventually lethal. From beginning to end, Faithful for Life makes

points intelligible only to those who understand

the gospel. The victim of unfaithful violence who

suffers the most is not the one killed, but the one who

kills. When Jesus says that anyone who lives by the

sword will die by the sword, he is warning his disciples that the handle can be more deadly than the

blade. The reason we need to protect our helpless

neighbor is that the neighbor is “the Lord, who

comes in the guise of a stranger. At such times he

comes as if his very life depends on our welcome; but

it is our lives, not his, that most depend upon it.”

It is a tough message. That is because the gospel is

tough. But the bishops are not just harsh. At the end

of their pastoral reflection they turn to another story

from Scripture: the narrative of Cain and Abel with

its lesson that violations of fidelity have a perversity

and a severity all their own. The Lord told Cain:

“Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the

ground.” Early Christian writers took that as their

cue to list the sins that “call to heaven for vengeance”:

killing a kinsman, exploiting foreigners, mistreating orphans and widows, and cheating workers of their

wages. “What gave each of these sins voice before

God was not only the exploitation of the vulnerable

by the powerful, but the misuse of the helpless by

those who should have been their protectors.” But

then the bishops go on to show how far forward the

gospel has carried the Covenant. “Crimes that cry to

heaven for vengeance” read differently when the

Father in that heaven is a wrathless one whose only

“vengeance” is to love and not to hate, to transform

but not to punish”a Father who retaliates by drawing the heart of the sinner all the more relentlessly to

become faithful. That, of course, goes well beyond

what any civil society might understand.

Yet this pastoral meditation, by drawing the

gospel beyond what the Constitution could yield,

may yet win for the bishops a breakthrough of understanding from both Catholics and other Americans.

To be heard peaceably, the bishops will require people of good will. But their prophetic reflection may

elicit enough good will to be heard.

The peace they are writing about surpasseth

understanding, but beguileth it as well.

Ishmael Law writes on issues of moral theology, especially those dealing with the fostering of life.