As I write this column on the national holiday observing the birthday of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I purposely say “Reverend” Doctor King since so many seem to forget the Christian inspiration of Martin Luther King’s struggle for freedom and justice. His words and his actions had a depth that was rooted in his faith in God. He was always first and foremost a passionate believer in Jesus Christ. It was his Christian vision that made him opt for nonviolence in his efforts for civil rights amidst discrimination and oppression.
Reverend Dr. King’s civil disobedience was motivated by obedience to a higher law, the law of God. In the famous letter from his jail cell in Birmingham where he was imprisoned for participation in a civil rights demonstration, Reverend Dr. King wrote about Christian discipleship. He explained why he could not obey unjust laws. He quoted two Doctors of the Church. “I would agree with Saint Augustine,” he wrote, that an “unjust law is no law at all” and with Saint Thomas Aquinas that “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.” That very same week in April 1963, in his encyclical on peace, Pope John XXIII quoted the same passage from Saint Thomas to make the same point. He wrote: “laws and decrees enacted in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience.”
The words of a Pope from the Vatican and a southern Baptist preacher from his jail cell remind us of important truths this week as we prepare to observe the 38th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision of the Supreme Court. They remind us that permissive abortion laws, like laws which promoted racial segregation, violate the higher law and must be opposed. They remind us of our Christian obligation always to defend the truth about the dignity of the human person. And they remind us that the Church can never remain silent in the face of injustice.
Many hundreds of young people from our diocese will travel to Washington, D.C., this coming weekend to participate in the March for Life on January 24th. I am looking forward to celebrating Mass for all the participants from our diocese on Sunday, January 23rd, at 3:00 p.m. at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. and then marching together the next day. It is edifying that so many young people are firmly dedicated to the cause of life, a sign, I believe, of the good fruits of the new evangelization.
As we prepare for this sad anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I invite all to join in a great prayer for life. The actual date of the infamous Supreme Court decision is January 22nd. The Bishops of the United States have decreed that in all the dioceses of the United States, January 22nd shall be observed as a particular day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life. I invite all to observe this Saturday, January 22nd, as a day of penance by offering prayers and sacrifices for the cause of life. And please remember all who will be traveling to Washington for the March for Life.
In his encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” Pope John Paul II wrote: “It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop. A society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized. Only respect for life can be the foundation and guarantee of the most precious and essential goods of society, such as democracy and peace.”
As I reflect today on the great work of Reverend Dr. King in combating racial injustice and discrimination and on his words from the Birmingham jail, I think also of the great civil rights struggle of our day: the defense of the right to life of the innocent unborn.
You and I were not just an accumulation of biological material when we were in our mothers’ wombs. We were new living human beings. So are all the unborn children in their mothers’ wombs today. Jesus, the Son of God, was once an unborn child in the spotless womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. May she who welcomed the Son of God made man in her maternal womb intercede for our nation, for an end to abortion, and for the protection of every human life!
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