In yesterday's Gospel at Mass, Our Lord enjoined us to be salt to preserve the earth, and light to attract others. It was an appropriate way to begin my day, as later that morning, I was on my way to Columbus to appear at a committee hearing concerning House Bill 228, which would outlaw all abortions in Ohio.
Representative Tom Brinkman, who introduced the bill, asked me to testify, and of course I was honored to do so. I asked his legislative aide, "how much time?" She said, "we're looking for 3-5 minutes."
What I came up with appears at the end of this post.
Back in my political days, I used to do a lot of media work, and I get up at Mass every Sunday and attempt to preach the Gospel -- and that's all I came to Columbus to do, really: preach the Gospel.
Rep. Brinkman's aide was helpful in advising me I didn't need to be there at the very beginning, as my turn would come about two hours into the hearing. So I arrived around 11:15, to discover the hearing room was packed, with an overflow area downstairs, where the audio was being broadcast. So I sat, waited, and prayed my office. A few minutes later, I heard my name called, and headed upstairs. While waiting, I prayed my rosary; I always offer it for an end to abortion; that had special meaning this day.
Well, finally they had a "changing of the guard" -- a break while the previous witnesses emerged, and the new witnesses came in. I was pleasantly surprised at so many of the legislators being present; I suspected few would be there, as they have other commitments, and this is a bill that clearly the GOP leadership views as radioactive. One thing the GOP loathes is taking a stand on anything controversial; they want to rally their base while not really doing anything. They hate when someone like Rep. Brinkman proposes something like this, clear-cut, 100% sound on policy, asking simply that everyone say where he stands. Oh, the horror!
The pro-aborts were there in force, of course, but also lots of folks who are prolife. Mostly everything was calm and civil, which is a great blessing. One man, passing me in the hall, made a very offensive crack directed at me, as a priest; I said, "God bless you" and moved on. Otherwise, no problems.
As I sat down, a fellow with the Christian Legal Society advised me of something said in prior testimony: a woman who'd had an abortion and regretted it recounted her boyfriend--who was Catholic--claiming the Church wouldn't allow them to get married if she was pregnant. "Please, Father, you need to set the record straight on that," he urged. So, I added a mention of that at the end of my testimony, saying something like, "I wasn't here when the matter came up, but there is some confusion about what the Church teaches about getting married and being pregnant, and if anyone wants to know, please ask." And a legislator did ask the question, and I explained that of course it was nonsense that being pregnant meant someone wouldn't be married in the Church; rather, common sense rules in these situations -- sometimes people are too young, too immature, etc. -- and everyone understands how these things come into play whenever two people are in a situation like that.
The chairman of the committee seemed exasperated at a few points, when other legislators attempted to delve into side issues. A Protestant minister, who appeared with me, is involved with an organization which takes a stance against "excessive taxation," and one legislator asked, "just where did Jesus take a position on that?" The minister was happy to speak to it, but the chairman didn't want to pursue that, or the death penalty, when another legislator complained of "hypocrisy": "where is the outcry against the death penalty?" I was ready to respond, "if you hold a hearing on that, I or another priest will be all too happy to testify against the death penalty." But the chairman's gavel intervened.
After the chairman announced a recess for lunch, they were finished with me, so I was ready to drive back; before I went, a legislator approached me, and another Protestant minister -- who had spoken briefly, but wisely, and didn't seem too concerned about whether he got the mic during the question period -- to ask a question, believe it or not, about Scripture! He said something to the effect of, "wasn't 'Thou shalt not kill' given before King Saul?" I nodded; so what about how God instructed Saul to kill a group of people, and their animals -- and when he failed to do so, God faulted his disobedience. I started to answer the exegetical question, the latter minister responded, more wisely: "why do you ask the question?" And we had a discussion about various things.
One comment, which I anticipated, had to do with "legislating morality." I responded, but every law you enact is grounded in morality--or else it's a power-play." "No," he said. I replied, but they are: every law you enact is in some way about promoting human welfare; even environmental laws are basically about a suitable environment for human beings. I asked if he could cite an example of what he had in mind: a law not grounded in a moral impulse. He cited a law about stop signs; I said, but why have stop signs at all? Isn't it because you don't want people to crash into each other -- i.e., to save human lives? That reflects a moral value! I asked a second time for an example of a non-morality-based law, but he couldn't think of one, and I didn't press him further.
After a few minutes, I excused myself, and headed home.
Here's what I said to the legislators:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the Legislature.
In the book of Exodus, the Lord says, "You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry" (Exodus 22:22).
I speak of fundamental human dignity: the premise of nearly every law you enact.
Who will defend human dignity? On one level, all of us. In a particular way, you. As a priest, I just quoted Scripture. As an American, let me quote other words: "All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain, inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Perhaps we forget how bold a Declaration that was—and still is!
Do you believe it? If so, I ask you, do our laws reflect it?
We forget how fragile this idea of human dignity is—especially at the margins. We all operate on the assumption that the law will protect our basic dignity. But why assume this? What gives us this assurance?
Our Constitution? Most of the world does not have our constitution. But even if they did, recall what Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes said:
You may think that the Constitution is your security—it is nothing but a piece of paper. You may think that the statutes are your security—they are nothing but words in a book. You may think that elaborate mechanism of government is your security—it is nothing at all, unless you have sound and uncorrupted public opinion to give life to your Constitution, to give vitality to your statutes, to make efficient your government machinery.
Bad law corrupts public opinion, and good law helps form sound public opinion. It is not enough to wait for public opinion; it must be aroused.
Our current law on abortion does a very powerful job of shaping our social values about human dignity. Do the word games we play—it’s a baby! No, it’s a "choice"—help or hurt our common commitment to the dignity of every human life?
Roe v. Wade…50 million abortions…euthanasia…and now, we are turning human life into a commodity: "surplus" embryos…what shall we use them for? "Research"—and then, let us clone millions more.
If this is "progress," toward what, may I ask?
You may say, "these are subtle questions, and what you ask is difficult." Of course—but that is the job of a legislator! If "Thou shalt not kill" were so obvious, it would never have been said in the first place! Do you think it was easy to abolish slavery? Even that obvious moral insight—that humans shall not enslave others—is too subtle for some, to this very day.
There are so many fronts, many battles, but one great cause: human dignity. I ask you to enact H.B. 228. Safeguard human dignity. And heed the cry of the poor.