A few weeks ago, I was sitting in Oaks Park after a round of disc golf, which has become a staple of the routine on my day off. It also happened to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day. As I watched the sun begin to set, I began to reflect on how I might have lived if I were alive during the civil rights movement. I certainly hope that I would have stood in solidarity with my African American neighbors in their pursuit of justice. From the vantage point of three generations later, it is easy to see how deplorable racism is. But would I have been able to see so clearly if I had lived during that time?
I would have had to swim against the strong current of society. “Separate but equal” legislation segregated African Americans and relegated them to less than second-class status: it was legal to reject them, and it was the norm. How would I have responded?
To respond as I hope that I would have, not only would I have needed to recognize that something which most people embraced, something that I could have been brought up to believe, was actually evil, I would also have needed to have conviction strong enough to endure personal rejection, persecution, and possibly death itself for standing in solidarity with my African American neighbors.
What would I have done? Thanks be to God – I don’t have to endure that trial! Thanks to the courageous witness of Martin Luther King Jr. and many others, it is now illegal to reject someone on the basis of race. Three generations after the Civil Rights Act of 1968, it was much easier for me than it was for my great grandparents to learn the moral value that all human beings of every race have equal dignity.
That is one purpose of law in general. The law teaches moral values. When we legislate, we teach. This dynamic occurs from the simplest examples of legislation to the most complex. When Mom says, “Share with your brother,” she is legislating. When she puts me in timeout for refusing to share, she is enforcing the law. Her legislation and enforcement teaches me that my brother is an equal that deserves fair treatment.
The same is true for higher levels of government. When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, it legislated against discrimination based on race, provided the means to enforce the law, and in doing so, taught the moral value that all human beings are equal and deserve fair treatment.
That is the water we are swimming in today. While we must acknowledge that there are still forms of racism and other unjust and immoral prejudices in our society, we also have to admit that it is now much easier to treat everyone as fellow human beings of equal dignity, regardless of race, than it was sixty years ago.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of unborn children.
On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court affirmed in Roe vs. Wade the legality of a woman’s right to abortion. In other words, the United States legislated that unborn children can be killed in their mothers’ wombs.
I do not intend to present reasons why abortion is evil (it has been done: religious reasons, non-religious reasons, more non-religious reasons). My point is to continue reflecting on the importance of law as a moral teacher, which I hope will motivate those who recognize the evil of abortion to work to change the law.
Far from the moral value that the Civil Rights Act of 1968 enshrined in law, Roe vs. Wade teaches that all human beings do not have the same dignity. The new abortion laws passed in New York and nearly in Virginia prepare the way for citizens to eliminate the weak, vulnerable, and voiceless when their needs are inconvenient.
That (im)moral value has been enshrined in our nation for a couple of generations. I have never lived in a United States where unborn children were respected as human beings.The law and the (im)moral value that it enshrines has a terrible consequence in our society: it becomes easy to do evil.
The heroic witness of Martin Luther King Jr. and his non-violent resistance to an unjust law made it easier for all Americans to do and be good. We are a better nation because of him and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that he helped to realize. Roe vs. Wade, on the other hand, has made us a worse nation. Roe vs. Wade and the new abortion legislation passed (with celebration!) by Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York has made it easier for Americans to do and be evil.
Bishop Barron reflects on this rapid change that has occurred:
As I watched film of Andrew Cuomo signing this repulsive bill into law, my mind drifted back to 1984 and an auditorium at the University of Notre Dame where Cuomo’s father, Mario—also Governor of New York at the time—delivered a famous address. In his lengthy and intellectually substantive speech, Gov. Cuomo presented himself, convincingly, as a faithful Catholic, thoroughly convinced in conscience that abortion is morally outrageous. But he also made a fateful distinction that has been exploited by liberal Catholic politicians for the past thirty-five years. He explained that though he was personally opposed to abortion, he was not willing to pursue legal action to abolish it or even to limit it, since he was the representative of all the people, and not just of those who shared his Catholic convictions. Now this distinction is an illegitimate one, which is evident the moment we draw an analogy to other public matters of great moral import: “I’m personally opposed to slavery, but I’ll take no action to outlaw it or limit its spread”; “I personally find Jim Crow laws repugnant, but I will pursue no legal strategy to undo them”; etc. But at the very least, Mario Cuomo could declare himself deeply conflicted, anguished, willing to support abortion law only as a regrettable political necessity in a pluralistic democracy. But in a single generation, we have moved from reluctant toleration to unbridled celebration, from struggling Mario to exultant Andrew. (see full article)
Although personally hard for him, previous abortion legislation enshrining the moral value of killing the inconvenient poor made it possible for Mario Cuomo to do evil. But within one generation, the difficulty of doing evil has completely vanished. It is no longer merely possible to do evil with Andrew Cuomo; it is celebrated.
That is the effect of a bad law: it becomes easy to do evil. Without the heroic witness of the many brave souls in the civil rights movement, it is terrifying to imagine how many of us would be enslaved in ignorance and racism. The terror, though, of how many of us are enslaved to ignorance and murder is not imaginary. It is a reality on full, shameless display.
Children who were raised before the civil rights movement were brought up in the values the nation embraced, which included racism, making it easy for them to do evil. Today, children continue to be brought up in the values our nation embraces. Roe vs. Wade and recent abortion legislation have enshrined the value that all men are not created equal, and it teaches our children to eliminate the less valuable ones when their needs are inconvenient. We’ve made it easy for our children to do evil.
Good laws help to make good people. They help us to do and be good! For the sake of our goodness, the goodness of our children, and the goodness of our nation, we need to have the bravery and ingenuity that Martin Luther King Jr. showed in the civil rights movement. We need to enshrine the moral value of the equal dignity of every human life that began our nation:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created [not born!] equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The increasing hostility towards the unborn as shown in the legislation that various states have passed, attempted to pass, and are considering to pass makes our need to respond all the more urgent. Please see the below resources for further reflections and effective ways to uphold the dignity of every human life.
Prayers for life
(This novena has specific dates associated with it, but it can be prayed at any time)
Advocacy for life
Reflections on political involvement and the Catholic faith
Other ways to promote life
Fr. Greg Gerhart is the Associate Pastor at St. Mary’s Catholic Center. Before entering seminary, Fr. Greg graduated from Texas A&M University and worked at The Pines, a Catholic youth camp in East Texas. He studied Moral Theology and Bioethics and is also interested in Liturgy and Social Justice. Fr. Greg enjoys playing sports!