Communications Department

The Many Pro-Life Contributions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Jan 15, 2013 | 01-Winter 2013 NRL News

NRLNewsLogoweb NRL News | Page 26
Winter 2013
Volume 40 | Issue 1


The Many Pro-Life Contributions of the
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

By Susan E. Wills, J.D., LLM

When hundreds of thousands of pro-lifers arrive in Washington, D.C., this coming January to mark the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, a few things will be obvious. The pro-life movement is young, energetic, savvy, and deeply committed to ending abortion.

In today’s wired world, being young has distinct advantages. It has one drawback, however: limited knowledge of the contributions of those who came before them and how this movement came to be.

For the sake of those who joined the pro-life movement while already in progress, here are some highlights of the many contributions of Catholic bishops towards ending the abortion license and ushering in a culture in which every human life is valued and protected from conception onward.

Advocates of population control and eugenics began coordinated efforts to repeal or reform state laws banning abortion in the 1950s and 1960s. Bishops responded to developments in their states, speaking out and organizing local opposition, often working with clergy of other faiths.

As some early feminists began to clamor for repeal, the pro-abortion movement scored a few victories. By 1967, the bishops concluded that their National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), the predecessor of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), needed to address these developments in a concerted way. To do so, they established the Family Life Bureau in 1967, appointing Msgr. James McHugh its director.

Msgr. McHugh, later Bishop of Camden, New Jersey, and of Rockville Centre, New York, astutely and quickly assessed the imminent threats to individual lives and to society. He developed and implemented pragmatic, wide-ranging programs to combat pro-abortion efforts at the grassroots level.

It was clear that the growth of this effort depended on educating Catholics and the general public about what is at stake in abortion. So in 1972, the NCCB inaugurated the annual Respect Life Program. To this day, over 90% of U.S. dioceses distribute the program’s educational, programmatic, and prayer resources to all parishes and often to other diocesan institutions.

The bishops’ efforts only intensified in the wake of Roe v. Wade. Strongly worded statements issued in 1973, by the NCCB and its committees, exposed the Supreme Court’s grave errors from the standpoint of science, morality, policy, and law. The bishops pledged decisive action in multiple areas: to work to reverse the Court’s decision; to urge states to protect the lives of unborn children to the fullest extent permissible; to produce and distribute educational resources; to urge Catholic hospitals and providers to stand firm in asserting their rights of conscience; and to encourage and support centers offering “positive alternatives to abortion for distressed pregnant women.”

In 1974, four eminent American cardinals testified before Congress concerning the need for a Human Life Amendment. And since then, the Cardinal-Chair of the Pro-Life Committee regularly sends letters and statements to Congress and presents testimony at congressional hearings. Also in 1974, the bishops formed the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment (NCHLA) to coordinate grassroots mobilization within the Catholic community on public policies related to abortion and other pro-life issues.

In 1975, the bishops issued the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, a comprehensive framework for how the Church will strive at every level (in parishes, dioceses, state conferences, and through the NCCB/USCCB) to reverse laws permitting abortion, to help enact laws protecting unborn lives, to educate Catholics and the general public on the life issues, to provide positive alternatives and support for pregnant women, and, prophetically, to offer pastoral care to women and men who’ve been involved in an abortion. This last mandate has been fulfilled, since 1984, through the Church’s Project Rachel Ministry. The Pastoral Plan was revised and updated in 1985 and 2001.

In the 1970s, a small number of Catholics came together to pray throughout the night before the March for Life, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. In 1979, the bishops’ pro-life staff began publicizing the all-night prayer vigil at the shrine. It grew exponentially. For the past 25 years or more the vigil has drawn pro-life pilgrims from across the country in standing room only numbers (over 12,000) to the Opening Mass, concelebrated by dozens of cardinals and bishops and about 500 priests.

Between 1990 and 1992, NCHLA and the bishops’ Pro-Life Secretariat organized three Project Life postcard campaigns to Congress. Subsequent postcard campaigns supported a federal ban on partial-birth abortion and expressed opposition to the proposed “Freedom of Choice Act.” Over 127 million postcards have flooded Congress in these and two smaller campaigns—shutting down the congressional post-office on several occasions. Each time, legislators got the message!

The Catholic bishops have many exciting plans afoot for 2013. “9 Days of Prayer, Penance, and Pilgrimage” will run through the weekends before and after the Roe anniversary. Resources include a short novena, Blessings of Pro-Life Pilgrims, the new “Mass for Giving Thanks to God for the Gift of Human Life,” a Holy Hour for Reparation and Healing on January 27, and a video contest for high school-age pro-life pilgrims. Some 50,000 finger rosaries stamped with the words “PRAY FOR LIFE” will be distributed to Catholic youth at the shrine Mass and various pre-March rally locations.

A postcard campaign to Congress, beginning in February 2013, will ask members to support life, marriage, and religious liberty. Lenten homilies and bulletin inserts will focus on God’s desire to forgive all our sins, including involvement in abortion.

On the last Sunday of each month, dioceses will offer Holy Hours for the intentions of life, marriage, or religious liberty and Catholics will be urged to fast and abstain from meat on Fridays during this Year of Faith.

Between the Feast of the Annunciation, observed this year on April 9, and August 5, The Gospel of Life will be sent free to subscribers—in small daily chunks with very brief commentary and questions for reflection.

Susan E. Wills is assistant director for education & outreach, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.