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Opinion: Changing hearts and minds more difficult than changing abortion laws

The U.S. bishops need an updated Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities that gives urgent attention to the difficult challenge of shifting the culture in a broadly, inclusively prolife direction.

March for Life participants and counter-protesters hold signs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, in 2018. (CNS photo/Peter Lockley)

In a long, somewhat rambling piece about the bishops and abortion appearing in the September Commonweal, Peter Steinfels makes a crucial point. It’s been made before by others, but it bears repeating at this moment when the Supreme Court, in the term beginning October 4, is widely expected to reverse or significantly modify Roe v. Wade, its 1973 decision legalizing abortion, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 decision reaffirming Roe.

Even if the court does that, writes Steinfels, former editor of Commonweal and former New York Times religion writer, it will leave a host of issues requiring “a shift in the culture” in a prolife direction for their final resolution. And that, one might add, will make persuading the Supreme Court to reverse Roe and Casey look like child’s play by comparison. The court has scheduled Dobbs v. Women’s Health Organization—the big abortion case everyone is watching—for oral argument December 1.

As someone who devoutly hopes the Supreme Court does indeed overturn those noxious decisions casting the mantle of law—and the Constitution, no less—over abortion, I say amen to that. But suppose Roe and Casey are overturned: what then?

In the short term, several things will happen. There will be fresh demands for court packing—increasing the size of the Supreme Court by as many pro-choice justices as needed to overcome the five- or six-member majority that voted prolife. President Biden has voiced reservations about this step, but our pro-choice Catholic president has been malleable on abortion before and might be malleable again. It could be a nasty fight.

The short term also will bring moves in state legislatures to enact laws tightening up on abortion to the extent newly possible in light of the Supreme Court’s action. Since the ruling will have come in a case involving a Mississippi law barring most abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy, other states may take the same route. The Texas ‘heartbeat’ law barring abortion after six weeks is another possibility. It will depend largely on what the Supreme Court has said.

This first phase will continue far into the future as the legislative battles proceed. Meanwhile a second phase will also have begun—a long-range struggle to change minds and hearts and bring about that across-the-board “shift in the culture” in a prolife direction of which Steinfels and others speak.

Both sides in the abortion wars like to cite polls showing that the weight of public opinion favors them, and both are well aware that the results of polls depend largely on how the questions are worded. Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle no doubt got it right when she wrote recently that “outside of the activist base,” most people’s views on abortion tend to be “a context-dependent and contradictory muddle.”

Considering that the major media, Hollywood, and one of our two major political parties have been in the pro-abortion movement’s back pocket for the last several decades, that speaks well for the basic decency of all those muddled Americans.

Half a century ago the U.S. bishops’ conference adopted a Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities that provided dioceses with a practical program of steps to take in fighting the abortion war in its public policy dimension. Without backing off from policy advocacy—it’s still very much needed, after all—mightn’t this be the time for the bishops also to put in place an updated Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities that gives equal, urgent attention to the difficult challenge of shifting the culture in a broadly, inclusively prolife direction? The answer to that should be obvious.

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About Russell Shaw 275 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. Shaw speaks of political turbulence over abortion politics in the short term.
    He does not mention the possibility of this turbulence and other rogue agendas submitting “resolutions” into the USCCB component of the short-term (2021-2023) Synod on Synodality, and, therefore, into the “endless journey” of synodality…

    But, with such a risk, is synodality actually looking forward—wisely!—a full century, hoping for the damage-control of at least planting seeds of openness and even faith, hither and thither? Which, in time, might then “work from within” (Pope St. John XXIII), decades and decades hence?

    Perhaps an astute long-term strategy, given the somber demographic forecasts for the Church in our non-Christian and largely post-Christian world. Something like persecuted Japanese Catholics persevering for two centuries without priests? Something like sociologist Max Weber, who remarked of the coming 20th century bureaucracies: “Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness ”?

    But, part of “listening together” to the Spirit is to first recall what has already been heard—-as from the definitive Word made flesh, and as in the aggiornamento (steadfast “todaying,” not flaccid “updating”) already supplied, however imperfectly, in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

    Attention first to essentials, today: the sacramental life, the family, and morality. Yes?

    But, where minimal Eucharistic coherence is proposed today, Sacrosanctum Concilium is headed for extermination. Instead of Familiaris Consortio, Amoris Laetitia inserts the ambiguous Chapter 8 and wedge-footnote 351 regarding “irregular” marriage situations. Instead of Verititas Splendor which reaffirms and clarifies moral absolutes, silence regarding the dubia. Instead of the universal Church, the graffiti and effrontery of Germania’s stencil “synodal way”…

    All of this, from the front office the sound of an uncertain trumpet! The “continental” Synod on Synodality is at risk, today, of giving an entirely new meaning to Continental Drift.

  2. Change the hearts and minds – change the culture. Good idea. Where might we start? How about within our Church. This might be more difficult than one might think. We might start with the bishops, a large percentage of whom belong to the party that officially is in favor of killing the unborn anytime, any place, for any reason, paid for by the government. Three fourths of. my state’s bishops belong to the party of death – democrat. I mention “democrat” because the author failed to mention which party favors abortion (just as many bishops’ statements fail to do).
    Also, somewhere around 50% of catholic voters voted for the very pro-abortion candidate for president. And, do not think those are the non practicing catholics. I can say from personal experience that many Sunday Mass goers seem to give a higher priority to their democrat party registration than to their faith.
    To solve a problem, you need to correctly identify the problem. We have an internal problem in the Church regarding abortion. We need to tackle that before addressing the wider world.

    • “… because the author failed to mention which party favors abortion…”

      If it’s not obvious to people, we have even deeper problems than changing minds.

  3. The presence of a beating heart means one UNDENIABLE thing – that there is a living human being inside the woman. The pro-death crowd knows that and that is why they are so desperate to stop the Texas law by any and all means necessary. If it’s growing it’s alive, and if there is a heart beating, that person is ALIVE, and what is the word used to describe the stopping of a beating heart in instances like this?


  4. Regarding Mr. Olson’s comment about it being obvious which party is in favor of abortion. Yes, it is obvious. But is there a reason why bishops, in particular, do not mention it? Don’t want to anger those in government who funnel millions of dollars to the bishops? When the House votes tomorrow on the abortion bill, let us see the wording of the bishops in response.
    Then again, maybe not obvious. I read the other day a survey that said 50% of catholics didn’t know who Cardinal McCarrick was. There are a large number of catholics who do not keep up with what is going on.

  5. “Both sides in the abortion wars like to cite polls showing that the weight of public opinion favors them.” The salient point on this is Cardinal Ratzinger’s, “Truth is not determined by a majority vote.” Let’s pray that SCOTUS seeks truth rather than a majority opinion from the electorate.

  6. I agree with Crusader that some things are not as obvious as we might think they are. I don’t doubt that many Catholics haven’t the foggiest notion of who McCarrick is. When Nancy Pelosi says that God gave us free will, I think many, if not most, Catholics are nodding their heads, without the “yes but . . ” that needs to follow that bit of catechesis.

  7. Just as a follow up to yesterday’s comments: I just watched the end of the House vote on the extreme abortion bill. Pelosi, with a huge smile, just announced the bills approval – 218 Democrat votes in favor vs 210 Republican votes opposed.


    I don’t know if the link above will appear here as an image or a link. If it appears as a link please click on it. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words.

    It is an April 1965 LIFE magazine cover with a photograph of an absolutely beautiful, living unborn child at 18 weeks after conception.

    Jesus once looked like that. Such children are the least of Christ’s brethren, the strangers the world refuses to make welcome. “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me …” (Mt 25:43)

    Please note that Christ described the last judgement (see Mt 25:31-46) in terms of eternal reward or punishment, not for what we did, but for what we failed to do. Those to whom he says “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for … I was a stranger and you did not welcome me …” are damned for sins of omission.

    Christ died for you two-thousand years before you arrived in this world in your mother’s womb. He didn’t stop loving you for nine months and then resume loving you after you were born.

    Every abortion kills a child precious to God, one for whom He has already suffered an agonizing and humiliating death. The murder of each of those children matters to God. Those murders should matter to God’s people, too.

    Why? Again “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” Do we love God or not? Christ couldn’t have made it more clear: What we fail to do for the least of His brethren we fail to do for Him.

    The complacency of God’s people is the reason this holocaust continues. If we don’t use the political freedom we still possess to end it, that freedom will be taken away from us.

  9. That we, as a “civilized” society are even having this discussion is deeply disturbing. Killing our own children. God will not deal well with us.

  10. A further update – Just read the USCCB pro life committee chairman’s reaction to the terrible vote on the House abortion bill. No mention that it was 218 democrats in favor and 210 republicans opposed. From the bishop’s statement one could easily come away thinking it was a bipartisan vote.

  11. There are people who should be allowed to publish and those who shouldn’t. I see no reason why any person who vigorously maintains that 2+2=5 should be allowed to publish a treatise on mathematics.

    In a similar manner, there are those who seem to believe that the Supreme Court is an infallible prophetic body that has a direct connection to God. If the Supreme Court said that the sky was green, then these people would nod their heads in agreement.

    The Supreme Court has no enforcement authority and is – like all human institutions – fallible. I am not aware of this kind of fact being obvious at any point in history after President Andrew Jackson’s famous “rebellion” against a just decision.

    What should be happening is that prosecutors should be ignoring what any legislators and courts say, and prosecuting abortionists who commit abortion for murder. Police, of course, are obliged to investigate crimes.

  12. One Democrat voted against the bill, Henry Cuellar (think I have that name right). May his tribe increase. I think it may have been Charles Camosy who said the pro-life cause needs Democrats to come on board.

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  1. Opinion: Changing hearts and minds more difficult than changing abortion laws – Catholic World Report – The Old Roman
  2. Changing hearts is more difficult than changing abortion laws - California Catholic Daily

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