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Bishops Must Shoulder Their Responsibility in the Pro-Life Struggle

By Phil Lawler

Cardinal Sean O’Malley is certainly right to call for fasting and prayer . . . as we [recently observed] the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The abortion issue—the ongoing slaughter of countless millions of innocent children—is not just another ordinary political question like the “fiscal cliff” debate. This is not merely a political contest, but a spiritual battle.

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12)

Pro-lifers have been fighting the political battle against abortion for 40 years, and still the bloodshed continues. Perhaps it is time to recognize that the culture of death is one of those evils that “cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

Yes, certainly we should fast and pray. It’s appropriate to use spiritual weapons in spiritual combat. For that matter, in a struggle of this importance we should use every means at our disposal, every tool in our drawers. All the different forms of pro-life work—the lobbying and educational campaigns, the pregnancy-help centers, the fundraising, the speeches and demonstrations—have their place in a coordinated strategy. We should all be doing everything in our power, in the natural order as well as the supernatural, to end the abomination of legal abortion on demand.

But there is one powerful tool that has not yet been put to use in the pro-life struggle, and one group of people who have not yet done what they can do for the cause. I refer to the American Catholic bishops, and the use of ecclesiastical discipline.

Forty years after Roe there remain dozens of prominent politicians who identify themselves as Catholics, but actively promote the culture of death. These “pro-choice Catholics” are a source of confusion to the public and scandal to the Church.

The U.S. Catholic bishops have issued many fine statements on the evils of abortion and the dignity of human life. But statements are one thing, actions another; and when one’s actions do not match one’s public pronouncements, those statements lose value. The bishops have warned that Catholic politicians who promote abortion are separating themselves from the communion of the Church. But they have not followed up, as necessary, by taking disciplinary action against those politicians who have not heeded their warning.

If a Catholic in his diocese is promoting abortion, a Catholic bishop has a solemn obligation to take three steps:

First, admonition. The bishop should call the erring politician to a private meeting, rebuke him, and warn him that he is putting his soul in jeopardy.

Second, denunciation. If the politician remains obstinate, the bishop should make his rebuke public, letting the world know that the Church views the politician’s actions as gravely wrong. A specific public statement, naming names, is necessary to address a public scandal, and to counteract the widespread impression that abortion is only one of many issues in which the Church takes an interest.

Third, exclusion from Communion. The code of canon law (#915) instructs clerics to protect the Eucharist from scandal, by refusing to administer the sacrament to those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.” The enforcement of Canon 915 is not optional; it is a moral obligation. Yet the American bishops have chosen to ignore that obligation.

As long as our bishops are not doing all that they can do (and only they can do), the American pro-life movement is not doing its utmost to fight for an end to abortion. Yes, we should fast and pray. Yes, we should engage in practical pro-life activism. But we should also beg our bishops to shoulder their own responsibility in this battle. Prayer and fasting can work wonders. However, as we pray, we must also do whatever we can, on the natural order.

Imagine that your doctor tells you that you must lose weight quickly or your life will be in danger. You pray that you will meet your weight-loss goals, and ask your friends to join with you in those prayers. Good. But if you continue routinely to tuck into second helpings of dessert, can you really expect those prayers to be answered?

Philip F. Lawler is the editor and founder of Catholic World News, the first English-language Catholic news service operating on the Internet. Mr. Lawler has served as director of studies for the Heritage Foundation—a conservative think tank based in Washington. He was founder and president of a national organization of Catholic laity, and was editor of Crisis magazine. In 1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper. Mr. Lawler is the author of six books on political and religious topics. The most recent is The Faithful Departed, a book about the decline of Catholic influence in Boston. His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers around the United States and abroad.

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