Today is the forty-first anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which effectively legalized abortion on demand. It’s a time to look back and look ahead. The abortion struggle of the past four decades teaches a very useful lesson. Evil talks a lot about “tolerance” when it’s weak. When evil is strong, real tolerance gets pushed out the door. And the reason is simple. Evil cannot bear the counter-witness of truth. It will not coexist peacefully with goodness, because evil insists on being seen as right, and worshiped as being right. Therefore, the good must be made to seem hateful and wrong.
The very existence of people who refuse to accept evil and who seek to act virtuously burns the conscience of those who don’t. And so, quite logically, people who march and lobby and speak out to defend the unborn child will beand arereviled by leaders and media and abortion activists that turn the right to kill an unborn child into a shrine to personal choice.
Seventy years ago, abortion was a crime against humanity. Four decades ago, abortion supporters talked about the “tragedy” of abortion and the need to make it safe and rare. Not anymore. Now abortion is not just a right, but a right that claims positive dignity, the license to demonize its opponents and the precedence to interfere with constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech, assembly, and religion. We no longer tolerate abortion. We venerate it as a totem.
People sometimes ask me if we can be optimistic, as believers, about the future of our country. My answer is always the same. Optimism and pessimism are equally dangerous for Christians because both God and the devil are full of surprises. But the virtue of hope is another matter. The Church tells us we must live in hope, and hope is a very different creature from optimism. The great French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos defined hope as “despair overcome.” Hope is the conviction that the sovereignty, the beauty, and the glory of God remain despite all of our weaknesses and all of our failures. Hope is the grace to trust that God is who he claims to be, and that in serving him, we do something fertile and precious for the renewal of the world.
Our lives matter to the degree that we give them away to serve God and to help other people. Our lives matter not because of who we are. They matter because of who God is. His mercy, his justice, his lovethese are the things that move the galaxies and reach into the womb to touch the unborn child with the grandeur of being human. And we become more human ourselves by seeing the humanity in the poor, the weak, and the unborn child and then fighting for it.
Over the past forty-one years, the prolife movement has been written off as dying too many times to count. Yet here we are, again and again, disappointing our critics and refusing to die. And why is that? It’s because the Word of God and the works of God do not pass away. No court decision, no law, and no political lobby can ever change the truth about when human life begins and the sanctity that God attaches to each and every human life.
The truth about the dignity of the human person is burned into our hearts by the fire of God’s love. And we can only deal with the heat of that love in two ways. We can turn our hearts to stone. Or we can make our hearts and our witness a source of light for the world. Those of you here today have already made your choice. It’s a wonderful irony that despite the cold and snow of January, there’s no such thing as winter in this great church. This is God’s house. In this place, there’s only the warmth of God’s presence and God’s people. In this place, there’s no room for fear or confusion or despair, because God never abandons his people, and God’s love always wins.
We are each of us created and chosen by God for a purpose, just as David was chosen; which is why the words of the Psalmist speak to every one of us here today:
Oh God, I will sing a new song to you;
With a ten-stringed lyre I will chant your praise,
You who give victory to kings,
And deliver David, your servant from the sword.
The Psalmist wrote those words not in some magic time of peace and bliss, but in the midst of the Jewish people’s struggle to survive and stay faithful to God’s covenant surrounded by enemies and divided internally among themselves. That’s the kind of moment we find ourselves in today. All of us are here because we love our country and want it to embody in law and in practice the highest ideals of its founding. But nations are born and thrive, and then decline and die. And so will ours. Even a good Caesar is still only Caesar. Only Jesus Christ is Lord, and only God endures. Our job is to work as hard as we can, as joyfully as we can, for as long as we can to encourage a reverence for human life in our country and to protect the sanctity of the human person, beginning with the unborn child.
We also have one other duty: to live in hope; to trust that God sees the weakness of the vain and powerful, and the strength of the pure and weak. The reading from Samuel today reminds us that David cut down the warrior Goliath with a sling and a smooth, simple stone from the wadi. And what I see here before me today are not “five smooth stones from the wadi” but hundreds and hundreds of them. Our job is to slay the sin of abortion and to win back the women and men who are captive to the culture of violence it creates. In the long run, right makes might, not the other way around. In the long run, life is stronger than death, and your courage, your endurance, your compassion even for those who revile you, serves the God of life.
The Gospel today tells us that Jesus has power over illness and deformity. But even more radically, it reminds us that Jesus is the Lord of the sabbath itselfthe one day set aside every week to honor the Author of all creation. The sabbath is for man, as Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospel, not man for the sabbath. In like manner, the state and its courts and its laws were made for man, not man for the state. The human person is the subject of life and the subject of history; immortal and infinitely precious in the eyes of God; not an accident of chemistry, not a bit player, and not a soulless object to be affirmed or disposed of at the whim of the powerful or selfish.
If Jesus is the lord of the sabbath, he is also the lord of history. And sooner or later, despite the weaknesses of his friends and the strengths of his enemies, his will will be donewhether the Pharisees and Herodians of our day approve of it or not.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is archbishop of Philadelphia.
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