Civil Rights and Human Life

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Compared to the busyness and excitement of December, January is a rather quiet month. The holidays are behind us and we’ve settled in to survive the onslaught of winter, whether it turns out to be a lion or a lamb.

But there are two observances in January that demand our special attention – the celebration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the annual observance of the infamous Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade. And while the two events are distinct, they do have something in common.

January 15 marks the birthday of Martin Luther King, Baptist minister and great civil rights leader. Each year at this time there’s a variety of worship services, community programs and educational initiatives aimed at remembering the man and promoting his message. The holiday has special meaning for the African-American community but the virtues we lift up that day should have significance for us all – virtues such as human dignity, equal opportunity and basic civil rights.

Without a doubt the most famous event of Dr. King’s life was the August 28, 1963 March on Washington and his “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech has a privileged place in American history but more importantly lives on as a challenge for our own day.

In part Dr. King said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

And again, “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

And again, “Let freedom ring . . . When we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics – will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

The civil rights movement in our country has made significant progress since Dr. King’s rousing call to action, but we know there is still much more to do. The dream is alive, but not yet fulfilled.

The other event we observe (though surely not celebrate) in January is the dastardly Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, that effectively removed every legal protection from human beings prior to birth. Its tragic legacy is death and sorrow.

The American Bishops have pointed out the devastating consequences of Roe v.Wade: the death of million of babies whose lives were destroyed before birth and even during the very process of being born; countless women traumatized by the violence of abortion; men who grieve because they had no “choice” about the survival of their children; and a society marred by a pervasive lack of respect for human life in all of its manifestations. (USCCB, Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities)

Several years after Roe v. Wade Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, witnessing from afar the moral decline of America, wrote to the Supreme Court: “America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate of human relationships.”

Thirty-five years after the Supreme Court decision the attack on human life is as relentless and insidious as ever, assuming new tactics, it seems, all the time. The battle for human life continues to be the great struggle of our time, the singular moral question on which future generations will judge our own. Every Catholic worthy of the name, indeed every person concerned about the moral law and the common good, must be committed to the protection and defense of human life, beginning with (though not ending at) the protection of innocent, unborn children.

Civil rights and human life. While they are distinct causes, they share something very important: They both presume the dignity of the human person. As the Bishops of the United States have explained: “Every human person is created in the image and likeness of God . . . Calls to advance human rights are illusions if the right to life itself is subject to attack.” (Faithful Citizenship, 1999)

It follows then, that if you’re committed to the civil rights movement you should also be passionate about protecting the life of unborn children. And likewise, if you’re dedicated to the pro-life movement, you have a concomitant obligation to promote civil rights for all of God’s children.

Civil rights and human life are the twin virtues, the building blocks on which a decent America must be built. January – with the birthday of Martin Luther King and the observance of Roe v. Wade – is a perfect time to rediscover that link and recommit ourselves to the cause.