In Oregon, challenges to the dignity of life started soon for the new archbishop.
Just months before Archbishop John Vlazny’s 1998 installation, Oregonians affirmed their choice to make physician-assisted suicide legal. The practice was unthinkable in the Catholic culture of the Midwest, where he’d spent most of his life.
And things had turned ugly in the campaign, with anti-Catholic rhetoric abounding from the “Don’t Let Them Shove Their Religion Down Your Throats Committee.”
Sometimes, the weapons were heftier than words: Not long before he arrived, vandals threw a chunk of concrete through a church office window in Corvallis; others defaced signs that called for repeal of assisted suicide.
“Are we so obsessed with personal autonomy and control that we may very well plummet into depths we cannot even imagine?” the new archbishop wrote soon after he arrived. “Many have expressed a dread about what will happen when the power over life and death may be put into the hands of a society that is driven by economics, expedience and efficiency, a society that flees from suffering, weakness or limitations of any kind.”
The archbishop established ember days, days of mourning and fasting, for what he called the sin of assisted suicide.
“Refuse to be intimidated by the clever and callous marketing of ‘choice’ in today’s culture of death,” he warned Catholics in 1998.
He also called on the church to redouble its care for the sick and dying. Every lethal prescription, he said, confronts us with a failure to offer compassionate care. The deaths, he admitted, filled him with sadness and shame.
Soon, the archbishop shared a stage with retired Sen. Mark Hatfield at the opening of an assisted-care facility, one of three to start during those years. The new projects constituted this local church’s answer to assisted suicide.
One of Archbishop Vlazny’s first acts outside a church venue was attending a right to life rally at the Oregon Capitol. He would go annually and saw the event move to the very heart of Portland — Pioneer Courthouse Square.
During election years, he let pro-choice Catholic officials and candidates know they held untenable positions. “Catholic politicians can’t have it both ways,” he wrote in 2002. “Actions always speak louder than words.”
The 2004 presidential election approached, and one of the candidates, Sen. John Kerry, was a Catholic who backed abortion rights. Archbishop Vlazny put the responsibility back on the shoulders of the dissenting public figures, saying they themselves should refrain from Communion.
Aware that he had a wider audience than Catholics, and that Catholics back up doctrine with reason, he often bolstered his points with logic and common sense.
“Oregon law requires parents to accept responsibility for their child’s well-being when it comes to tattoos, field trips, or even taking an aspirin at school,” he said, arguing for a parental notification law for abortions on minors. “An abortion is obviously a much more serious matter.”
In 2008, he devoted a Catholic Sentinel column to shedding light on Planned Parenthood, which was building a clinic in Portland’s African-American neighborhood.
“The so-called ‘health and education services’ to be provided in that facility would only destroy more human lives and promote promiscuous behavior on the part of young people,” he wrote.
That fall, he’d had enough of church teaching being flaunted. He invited Catholics to attend Mass at St. Mary Cathedral as a spiritual answer to an abortion rights political benefit dinner being hosted that evening by Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Catholic.
When embryonic stem cells were at the center of bioethics debates, he reminded society that good ends don’t justify evil means.
“Proponents of killing innocent human life talk about freedom in terms of what is subjectively known, individually lived and indifferent to God,” he wrote in 2005, getting at the theological crux of the pro-life position. “The church, on the other hand, teaches that freedom must be based on objective truth, lived in solidarity with others and always in need of God.”
The archbishop’s advocacy for the dignity of life continued throughout his years as spiritual leader.
“More than one million children lost per year is an unimaginable loss,” he said at a downtown Portland rally in January. The archbishops told the crowd that society has surrendered to pressure, with many now considering the killing of unborn children a choice.
Seeing the young people in the square, he recognized “a movement in society in favor of the beauty of life.”
While praying for an end to abortion, he told the crowd that the movement is practical and seeks incremental changes. He urged pro-lifers always to provide generous options for women frightened by unplanned and surprise pregnancy.