Bishops—The First Ones Called to Preach the Gospel of Life

A pro-life leader in the UK calls on bishops worldwide to throw their support behind efforts to strengthen a Culture of Life.

Editor’s Note: The following was delivered as an address to the Catholic leadership organization Legatus at its annual summit in Orlando on February 8.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have worked in the pro-life movement for 40 years, for 39 years at the national level in the United Kingdom for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), the first pro-life group to be established anywhere in the world, and the largest pro-life group in Europe. For 36 of those 39 years I have worked for the pro-life movement on a full-time basis, from 1978 as SPUC’s general secretary, and from 1996 till now as the Society’s chief executive. SPUC was formed in 1966, six years before Roe v. Wade, and one before 1967, when abortion was legalized in Britain.  At the ripe old age of 16, I studied, briefly, for the priesthood in Ireland, in the Salesian novitiate of County Meath, but decided that my calling lay elsewhere. Sixteen years later, in London, I met Josephine Clarke, who, with most of her 14 brothers and sisters, grew up in County Meath, to which we returned for our honeymoon in 1984. We have four children and five grandchildren, we live in north London, and I am overjoyed and so grateful to Legatus that Josephine could be with me for this great convention.

Today, I wish to offer a perspective on the current world situation on abortion and the role of Catholic Church officials through experiences from our side of the “pond,” including our experience in Ireland, which you may wish to compare and contrast with the situation in your own bailiwick.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) was formed in 1966 to campaign against the legalization of abortion by statute in Britain.  Over the decades, we have also mounted major campaigns against abortion in Ireland and in the European institutions, the European Union and the Council of Europe.  Like you in the US, we have achieved some extraordinary successes, and saved many lives; and we have also experienced terrible setbacks involving deeply disturbing advances in the culture of death. These campaigns have opened our eyes to other related evils and injustices, such as euthanasia, assisted suicide, corrupting sex education in schools, and, recently, same-sex marriage.

In certain quarters, I know that associating the issue of same-sex marriage with abortion is frowned upon.  Pro-lifers, some argue, should focus on life issues and let others tackle the issue of same-sex marriage.  Well, as a pro-life organization, SPUC fights against same-sex marriage legislation for two reasons. First, statistical evidence on abortion shows that marriage as an institution protects children, both born and unborn. Secondly, same-sex marriage undermines true marriage and, as such, lessens the protection for unborn children.  Then, again, as we all know, in both my country and yours, the homosexual-rights agenda targets both our children and our grandchildren in their school years.  In Britain, homosexual militants give talks even in Catholic schools, sometimes with the blessing of the local bishop, in order to train teachers how to educate little boys as young as four years old that they might grow up to marry a man, or little girls on how that they might grow up to marry a woman.  So there is a need for pro-lifers to be aware of how the homosexual agenda impacts not only families but unborn children. 

Two introductory points, ladies and gentlemen. I want to say something about the geopolitical significance of Britain and of Britain’s foreign policy in relation to the laws which my country passes on abortion and related evils; secondly, and in connection with Britain’s foreign policy, I want to say something about the geopolitical significance of the role played by the Catholic bishops’ conference of England and Wales concerning abortion and related evils.

One third of the world’s population (approximately 2.3 billion people) live in common law jurisdictions or in systems mixed with civil law. In particular, common law originated in England in the early Middle Ages and remains the basis of the legal system in England and in those countries which trace their legal heritage to England, such as former colonies of the British Empire.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth website states: “Fifty-three countries are members of The Commonwealth. Our countries span Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe, and the Pacific and are diverse—they are amongst the world’s largest, smallest, richest and poorest countries.… Leaders of member countries shape Commonwealth policies and priorities.”

For decades, Britain and its foreign office have successfully exported so-called “abortion law reform” through common law jurisdiction and British Commonwealth countries from Australia to South Africa and elsewhere. The British government is now committed to promoting worldwide homosexual law reform and same-sex marriage legislation throughout the Commonwealth, the European Union, and other international bodies. Currently, the website of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual toolkit to promote these legal changes world-wide. British Prime Minister David Cameron has threatened to withhold UK aid from poor countries that do not conform, saying in connection with the homosexual rights agenda, and I quote: “British aid should have more strings attached.”

Furthermore, the British government and the European Union have enacted a body of law on the equal employment rights of male and female homosexuals, and bisexuals and transsexuals, which is to be enforced with the threat of severe legal sanctions. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has produced Diversity and Equality Guidelines, a policy statement which (whilst it includes elements of Catholic doctrine) welcomes, seeks to implement, and states that it will monitor this government policy within the Church, including in Catholic schools.

A pro-abortion document, The Right to Conscientious Objection and the Conclusion by EU Member States of Concordats with the Holy See (2005), prepared at the request of the EU commission on the right to conscientious objection, links rights relating to sexual orientation to other supposed rights, including the “right” to abortion and the “right” to euthanasia and assisted suicide. The EU commission document quotes, in part, the Diversity and Equality Guidelines of the Catholic bishops of England and Wales in a generally approving way. Thus the policy of the Catholic bishops’ conference of England and Wales in its Diversity and Equality Guidelines is helping the British government to promote the homosexual-rights agenda throughout Europe via a document from the European Commission which, in its turn, links homosexual rights to abortion rights.

Rest assured, my friends, that SPUC is leaving no stone unturned in raising these matters in Rome, not only because of the implications for our children and grandchildren in Britain, but also because what the government gets away with in British schools, including in Catholic schools, they are committed to promoting in other countries throughout the world.  If we do not preserve the institution of marriage, we will not be able to begin to protect unborn children. True marriage exists prior to the state, and, therefore, parents—the primary educators—and the family are vital to protecting the right to life of the unborn.

And in this context I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks as a parent to the Catholic bishops of Nigeria: last week, the Catholic bishops of Nigeria publicly thanked Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s president, for signing into law the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill, which prohibits same-sex marriages, civil partnerships, and the promotion of homosexuality. The media statement from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria describes the new law as “a right step in the right direction for the protection of the dignity of the human person.”

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, president of the Bishops’ Conference, commended President Jonathan for his “decision…not to bow to international pressure in the promotion of unethical and immoral practices of same-sex union and other related vices” and spoke of “the conspiracy of the developed world to make our country and continent the dumping ground for the promotion of all immoral practices that have continued to debase the purpose of God for man in the area of creation and morality in their own countries.” 

As a pro-life leader, as a parent and as a Catholic, I am very grateful to the Nigerian Catholic bishops’ defense of families. Standing up against the worldwide homosexual agenda is crucial for the protection of children.  Bishops around the world should follow the Nigerian bishops’ lead and speak out for strong policies against the subversion of the truth and dignity of human sexuality.

Dear members of Legatus, when our Catholic bishops show courage in defending our families, not least in the face of the new homosexual rights agenda tyranny, we must not be slow in thanking them, defending them and working with them to remain strong in our children’s defense.

But neither must we be slow in insisting that bishops be appointed who will uphold the teaching of the Church, who will oppose the wholesale killing of children in the womb, who will defend and assist parents in protecting the innocence of their born children.

Here is a good point to bring up the heartbreaking situation in Ireland, with which I know many in America are deeply concerned. 

In July of last year, the Irish government introduced catastrophic abortion legislation into that country, a country which, with strong support from SPUC over the decades, has staunchly and bravely resisted such anti-life laws whilst all around it other countries—in particular my own—caved into the abortionists. 

In 2011, 84 percent of the population in Ireland identified themselves as Catholic. How in Ireland, in Catholic Ireland, has legislation been passed which is amongst the most extreme in the world? 

The Irish government’s abortion legislation, which was passed last July by the Irish parliament by 127 votes to 31, strips the right to life from children before, and even during, birth in a broad range of circumstances. Threats to the life of the mother need not be inevitable or immediate. It compels medical personnel to participate in abortion in some ways, while offering no protection to other professionals who may be involved in the abortion process. It compels maternity hospitals, including Catholic hospitals, to provide abortions.

There is nothing in this legislation, including the suicide provision [section 9], that would rule out the aborting of the unborn from implantation to birth; there is nothing in it to rule out even partial birth abortion. Ireland’s abortion legislation is entitled Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013.

With my tongue only partly in my cheek, I respectfully suggest that Legatus consider giving the Irish government at your next convention a George Orwell Award for their utter hypocrisy!

Before proceeding, I wish to pay tribute to the faithful remnant in Ireland, to those working in the pro-life movement, and to those praying their Rosary, and praying before the Blessed Sacrament. They have been, and they continue to be, an example and inspiration throughout the world. I believe that although they are a minority, they are, relative to the overall population of Ireland, as big a minority of dedicated Catholics as can be found anywhere in the world—and I salute them. What has happened in Ireland in recent months is not their fault.  Nor is it unique. Every country in the world is now confronted with the same dehumanizing forces.  The culture of death now extends throughout the world—and any analysis of what has happened in Ireland, and indeed what’s happening in Britain and here in the US, which does not take on board that great geopolitical fact is dangerous wishful thinking.

First, there is an unequivocal determination on the part of the world’s most powerful politicians and UN officials to promote access to abortion on demand in every country of the world. Let me begin with President Obama. In a speech on October 12, 2009, Wellington Webb, appointed by Barack Obama as special adviser to the US mission to the United Nations, confirmed that the Obama administration would be promoting legalized abortion throughout the world, targeting adolescents in a worldwide abortion drive. Your former Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, confirmed during congressional hearings in answer to a question from Congressman Chris Smith that abortion on demand worldwide was indeed the policy of the Obama administration. It’s also the policy of the British administration and of the European Union.  I recall the prophetic words of Cardinal James Francis Stafford, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary of the Holy See, in his lecture to the Catholic University of America in November 2008, in which he said that on the presidential election day, “America suffered a cultural earthquake.” The cardinal argued that the then President-elect Obama had campaigned on an “extremist anti-life platform” and predicted that the near future would be a time of trial. “For the next few years, Gethsemane will not be marginal. We will know that garden,” Cardinal Stafford told his audience. That earthquake, that Garden of Gethsemane, is now being experienced in Ireland in accordance with Barack Obama’s clearly expressed plans and in accordance with the foreign policy of the British government. Neo-colonialism is not dead on the part of the US and British governments—[they are] pushing for abortion, a crime against humanity and the greatest possible crime against children, throughout the world.

Secondly, there is an unequivocal determination on the part of the world’s most powerful politicians and UN officials to destroy conscientious objection to abortion and to other right-to-life issues. President Obama’s and the British government’s pro-abortion allies at the United Nations have been in top gear in recent years. In September 2010 at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Peter Smith and Pat Buckley, SPUC’s UN lobbyists, reported to me that Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, and Navanethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, had launched a report “on discrimination against women, in law and practice, and how the issue is addressed throughout the United Nations human rights system.” In their report they called for the policing of nations worldwide to “address the refusal of physicians to perform legal abortions.” This is the international context in which Ireland’s abortion legislation has been drafted and a clear indication of how other countries which dare to refuse to legislate for abortion will be dealt with and bullied by the international community. It’s also the international context of course in which the Obamacare legislation has been drafted…. The words of His Grace Archbishop Chaput of February 2012 are ringing in my ears: “The Health and Human Services’ mandate, including its latest variant, is belligerent, unnecessary, and deeply offensive to the content of Catholic belief. … The HHS mandate needs to be rescinded…. The onus is entirely on the White House, which also has the power to remove the issue from public conflict. Catholics should not be misled into accepting feeble compromises on issues of principle.”

Thirdly, there is an unequivocal determination on the part of the world’s most powerful politicians and UN officials to destroy parental rights over their children’s education and formation. On Monday this week I was in New York visiting SPUC’s experienced team of lobbyists at the UN. During my visit, I met Archbishop Chullikatt, the papal nuncio to the United Nations, and he was clearly worried about the growing number of pro-abortion and homosexual rights groups who are “flooding” the UN, as the archbishop put it. He urgently wants more pro-life groups to join SPUC’s lobbyists at the UN.

I pay tribute here to Archbishop Chullikatt, and his fantastic team, who really do stand up for the unborn and for parents, the primary educators, in their mission at the United Nations. Just two days after our meeting, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published a report which attacked the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality, under the guise of a critique of the Church’s handling of child sex abuse cases. The report recommends that the Catholic Church:

  • identify “circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted” (section 55)
  • “overcome all the barriers and taboos surrounding adolescent sexuality that hinder their access to sexual and reproductive information, including on family planning and contraceptives” (section 57a); and
  • “ensure that sexual and reproductive health education and prevention of HIV/AIDS is part of the mandatory curriculum of Catholic schools” (section 57c)

Now there is nothing in the Convention on the Rights of the Child that can reasonably be construed as approving, still less requiring, abortion or access to abortion for children on the part of nation states or the Catholic Church. However, this does not stop the UN’s compliance committee for the Convention on the Rights of the Child from putting huge pressure on the Church, to which all too many Church officials in Britain and Europe bow, and putting huge pressure on countries like Ireland, and on developing nations throughout the world, to make abortion accessible to women throughout their reproductive years.

The title of my talk this evening is “Bishops are the first ones called to be untiring preachers of the Gospel of life,” words culled from Blessed John Paul II’s great encyclical Evangelium Vitae. I did not choose my title carelessly; it is the fruit of my four decades of work at the national and international level in the pro-life movement.

Now, over that time, throughout the world, the pro-life movement has had its achievements: it has saved many lives and protected the welfare of countless mothers and countless fathers. It has changed minds and hearts. It continues to be an indispensable witness to a tremendous world-wide evil. But let’s not kid ourselves: the pro-life movement, however persevering, however well-informed, however blessed and strong we may be in our initiatives, cannot defeat the culture of death on its own.  If we were to put all of our membership lists and all of our finances together, we would still be infinitesimally tiny in comparison with the power, treasure, and reach of the culture of death.

When we’re working at our best, pro-life organizations often punch way above our weight in terms of the human resources available to us. But we cannot defeat the culture of death on our own. Pro-life organizations and the wider community must be fortified by unequivocal, unyielding voices of Catholic Church officials and bishops throughout the world.

That these vital voices are not always forthcoming is a continual disappointment.  But what is worse is that authorities within the Catholic Church can sometimes aid and abet legalized abortion.  Let me give you an example. 

A key figure in the Republic of Ireland is Father Patrick Hannon, Emeritus Professor of Moral Theology in St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth.  He wrote an article which was published in time for the passage of the Irish abortion law in the July/August 2013 edition of The Furrow, “a monthly journal for the contemporary [Catholic] Church…[which]…enjoys an international reputation as a courageous and impartial forum for discussing the challenges facing the Church today and of the resources available to meet them.” On its website, The Furrow tells us it “was founded in 1950 at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co. Kildare by the late J.G. McGarry, a Professor in the College, and it continues as a vibrant voice for renewal of the Church across the world.”

Now, the July/August 2013 edition of The Furrow would have been read widely by priests and bishops in Ireland in the days and weeks prior to the passage of Ireland’s pro-abortion legislation. This is worth noting because in referring to the legislation, Father Hannon’s article concluded: “A legislator who is a Catholic, and who wishes to honor the legacy of Catholic tradition in these grave matters, is both obliged and free to examine each side of the argument and come to his or her own conclusions about what human rights and the common good require at this time.”  Here is a green light for a Catholic politician to vote in favor of legalized abortion.

Father Hannon’s position is contrary to Catholic teaching and to the sources he cites to support his position.  The Reverend Father Dr. John Fleming, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, remarks upon three particularly disturbing lapses in Father Hannon’s article: Hannon confuses the moral opinions of some, such as the proportionalist Father McCormick, with official Church teaching.  He distorts the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas by selective quotations. He ignores the stated position of the Magisterium on the duties of a Catholic politician.

In fine, Father Hannon sets up the teaching of the Catholic Church against secular authorities that disagree with Church teaching and then concludes that the Catholic politician is free to make up his or her own mind.  Moreover, he suggests, without argumentation, that a Catholic politician is honoring “the legacy of Catholic tradition in these grave matters” by making up his or her own mind on the abortion issue.  It is contrary to reason to claim that one is honoring the legacy of Catholic tradition by repudiating the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium, by deferring to other opinions that violate the right to life of unborn children.

If Father Hannon’s unfortunate statements helped pave the way for the recent pro-abortion legislation in Ireland, silence has also played a part.  And silence includes equivocal or half-hearted words, in the face of the daily slaughter, the maiming of mothers’ and fathers’ lives: the silence and equivocation that we have seen for the most part on the part of the Irish bishops over the past 40 years as Irish mothers have travelled to Britain for abortion.  Now, in the spirit of friendly dialogue, I implore all Catholic bishops throughout the world to speak out clearly and categorically that politicians who vote for and publicly support abortion legislation such as that which has just been passed by the Irish Parliament publicly retract and refute the position they have adopted before receiving the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Holy Communion, in whose image every unborn child assailed by the abortion legislation is made. 

Here I should like to applaud the strength and witness of Cardinal Raymond Burke, honored by Legatus in 2012 with the Cardinal John J. O’Connor Award, who has spoken out consistently in defense of the Holy Eucharist—and not without huge cost to himself; and many other bishops in the US who have done the same, as well as a small handful of courageous Catholic bishops in Britain.

Keeping the good example of Cardinal Burke in mind, it is high time for all responsible Catholics to urge Church officials at the highest level to appoint bishops who will carry out the duty spelled out for them in Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae:

Faced with so many opposing points of view, and a widespread rejection of sound doctrine concerning human life, we can feel that Paul’s entreaty to Timothy is also addressed to us: “Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching” (2 Tim 4:2). This exhortation should resound with special force in the hearts of those members of the Church who directly share, in different ways, in her mission as “teacher” of the truth. May it resound above all for us who are Bishops: we are the first ones called to be untiring preachers of the Gospel of life.

In calling on our bishops to witness to the inviolability of life, we are not only doing what is necessary to overturn pro-abortion legislation in Ireland and in other parts of the world, we are also coming to the support of the parents in our midst who must act as the primary educators of our children.  Remember what Pope Benedict said on January 1, 2012: “Parents must be always free to transmit to their children, responsibly and without constraints, their heritage of faith, values, and culture.”  Unfortunately, Pope Benedict’s strong statement is not universally supported by Church officials—and the weakness of Church officials in many parts of the world is completely disastrous for unborn children, for parents, and for their families.  Tragically, in Britain, induced abortion and birth control drugs and devices are provided to children at school, including at Catholic schools, under the age of 16. This is happening, I might add, with the express cooperation of Catholic authorities. 

In my own country, and throughout the world, we are witnessing the fulfilment of the prophetic message of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s historic encyclical which celebrated its 40th anniversary six years ago. Speaking about the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative aspects of sexual intercourse he wrote:

Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.

When Pope Paul VI wrote those words, he was referring to governments imposing birth control practices on whole societies. His words apply, tragically, with terrifying consequences for our families, to the Catholic bishops’ conference of England and Wales, who co-operate with government policy of imposing birth control practices on families like mine.

Throughout Britain, Ireland and Europe, the failure of Catholic bishops to teach their flocks on matters relating to the fundamental right to life is directly responsible for great confusion and, consequently, for the failure of the overwhelming majority of Catholics, both clerical and lay, to provide truly effective resistance to the greatest legalized slaughter of human beings in the history of the world. Countless millions of unborn children are killed each year, and it is not too much to say that the connivance of Catholic bishops in Europe facilitates this egregious slaughter. Parents therefore have an urgent, absolute right to categorical teaching on the truths expressed in Humanae Vitae in these areas, in particular on the inseparability of the unitive and procreative aspects of sexual intercourse.

During the last few months alone I have had meetings with the heads of three major dicasteries at the Vatican about what’s happening in England and Wales with the authority of Catholic officials. I appeal to the influential members of Legatus to be aware of the problems we face in Britain and in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe in the positions adopted by many of our Catholic bishops. Remember the geopolitical significance and influence of Britain, which reaches out to possibly a third of the world’s population. I appeal to you to use your influence at the highest levels of the Church to beg the Pope to appoint bishops who will uphold the unambiguous teaching of the Church in our countries on life issues. We must work more closely together. Catholics in Britain, and in Ireland, and throughout Europe, where there are very similar problems, urgently need the support of our American Catholic brethren, not least the influential members of Legatus, to take up our cause. Britain and Europe needed America to come to our aid in the Second World War. You came to our aid. You laid down your lives and you saved the world for freedom and we loved America for what you did. We still love America.  But now we find ourselves embroiled in another, a war on unborn children, a war on parents as the primary educators, a war on the innocence of our born children, and we desperately need the help of America to help us win it. 

Hiems transit.  When I was in Ireland last year, I saw those words carved into the wall outside St. Kieran’s College in Kilkenny. Hiems transit. The motto of the college is Hiems transit (“Winter has passed”) and it’s taken from the Song of Songs (2:11) in the Old Testament, and it refers to the “winter” of the Penal Laws era. Hiems transit—“Winter has passed.”  This should be the motto of pro-life Catholics around the world today.

Faithful Catholics throughout the world must call on their bishops, openly and respectfully, to preach the Gospel of Life, to protect the Holy Eucharist from those who seek to destroy the body of Christ in the bodies of unborn children, to protect and assist parents in seeking to educate and to protect their children from politicians who seek to destroy unborn children. Winter is over. Hiems transit.  Catholic bishops in America, in Great Britain, in Rome, in Ireland, and throughout the world, must now lead the world back to Christ and back to unequivocal respect for every single human life made in the image of God and destined for eternal happiness with Him.

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About John Smeaton 0 Articles
John Smeaton is executive director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children in the United Kingdom.