Once again this year our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, issued on Jan. 1 his “Message for the World Day of Peace.” In that statement, the Pope said, “The path to the attainment of the common good and to peace is above all that of respect for human life in all its many aspects, beginning with its conception, through its development and up to its natural end. True peacemakers are those who love, defend and promote human life in all its dimensions, personal, communitarian and transcendent. Life in this fullness is the height of peace. Anyone who loves peace cannot tolerate attacks and crimes against life.” The Pope went on to state, “Those who insufficiently value human life and, in consequence, support among other things the liberalization of abortion, perhaps do not realize that in this rate they are proposing the pursuit of a false peace. The flight from responsibility, which degrades human persons, and even more so the killing of a defenseless and innocent being, will never be able to produce happiness or peace.”

There are people everywhere who speak with great concern about the lack of peace among the nations of the world and even among our own communities and families. Their problem is the double standard by which they attempt to live. The Pope’s message may not be welcomed by many but it will undoubtedly trouble them if they ponder those challenging words, “Anyone who loves peace cannot tolerate attacks and crimes against life.”

This coming Jan. 22 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion on demand in all the states of this great nation. Since then almost 55 million children lost their lives before they had the chance to be born into the world. More than one million children per year is an unimaginable loss. Too many of us have acquiesced to societal pressure promoting this whole matter as one of personal choice. Tragically such a choice denies the very integrity and even existence of the personhood of these unborn children.

Today’s secular culture of moral relativism has so successfully undermined the conscience formation even of many Catholics that they see no problem with the involvement of Catholic institutions in the promotion and execution of abortions. There are those who suggest that I should just leave this issue alone. As a celibate male bishop, I am supposedly treading upon women’s turf. In fact, the recent HHS mandate caused many in the media to question the Church’s opposition to such a mandate. “Why would a Catholic woman stick with a Church that is so out of sync with the times?” The pundits claim that “98 percent” of Catholic women disagreed with Church teaching on birth control and undoubtedly a large number of them felt that a decision about abortion should be a matter of a women’s choice. The New York Times asked Catholics, “Will it be reproductive freedom or back to the Dark Ages? Do you choose women and their rights or bishops and their wrongs?”

Recently I read a book that encouraged me to address this matter once again. Helen M. Alvare, a distinguished Catholic attorney who writes and speaks often about life issues, recently edited a book entitled Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves.  In her book Professor Alvare and eight other Catholic women address some important contemporary issues, including “reproductive rights,” from a woman’s perspective. Interestingly, their perspective did not differ much from that of bishops and other church teachers. They make it clear that many women do stand with our Church’s demand for religious freedom and in opposition to the “contraception mandate.” Dr. Alvare and a fellow author wrote a letter, largely ignored by the media, signed by more than 30,000 women who opposed the mandate.

In looking back over the past 40 years, many good and some not-so-good matters grew up together under the banner of “woman’s equality,” including education, abortion, marital rape, access to credit and employment. Back in the early ‘70s when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of abortion- at-will, the sexual revolution was in full swing.  Sex was no longer to be regarded as something unique to marriage. The new norm would be non-marital sex with no commitment, no shame, and certainly no babies. The disconnect between marriage and children has had a tragic effect, one that, seemingly now, only with the help of God, can be overcome.

As we ponder the serious consequences of legality gone awry, we humbly acknowledge that a change of hearts and minds for the protection of human life will require divine intervention. This is the Year of Faith. We have a marvelous opportunity now to pray together with great trust in God’s grace and loving providence. In an earlier column I encouraged your response to the USCCB Call to Prayer in the face of the challenges that now confront us about life, marriage and religious liberty. The National Pro-Life Office is encouraging participation in a nine-day period of prayer, penance and pilgrimage, from January 19-27, for the overturn of Roe v. Wade and a return to sanity about matters pertaining to human life.

In these nine days, how shall we pray? First and foremost we pray for the healing and conversion of our own nation, for elected officials who support abortion and for all those people whose lives have forever been changed by an abortion. This includes, of course, the children whose lives were ended, their parents, their grandparents and siblings and the spouses of those who have been involved in an abortion in the past. This will be a wonderful time for parishes to hold the first monthly holy hour suggested during this Year of Faith.  
Certainly respect for unborn children as a matter of consequence faces a very challenging political climate. It is not a time for the Catholic Church to back down from its grave moral concerns about the protection of human life. Our government, following the media, the entertainment world and the academy, is in the business these days of promoting abortion. The work before us in not simply a matter of changing laws. It is the work of evangelizing the culture of a nation, one that tends to deal with some of its more serious concerns with no reference to God, morality or ethical behavior. This is a time when Catholics should indeed discuss these matters with others in an open, positive and cheerful manner.  

Our pro-life activities focus on the sacredness of the person and the dignity of each individual, both the mother and her unborn child. Giving witness to pro-life values is a very important part of sharing our faith these days. This will give great hope to those who might otherwise feel dismissed, disregarded or unloved. Together we pray that the Year of Faith will indeed awaken in the hearts of all people a renewed sense of awe and gratitude for the gift of human life and a renewed determination to protect all lives from conception to natural death.