By Francis X Rocca
Forty years of legalised abortion have profoundly demoralised American society, not only weakening respect for human life but undermining marriage, parenthood and individuals’ sense of duty to others, said US Cardinal J Francis Stafford.
The cardinal, a former archbishop of Denver and former head of two Vatican offices, said that the legalisation of abortion was itself a result of flawed ideas about freedom deeply rooted in American history.
Cardinal Stafford, 80, spoke with Catholic News Service shortly before the January 25 March for Life marking the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade, the 1973 US Supreme Court decision that lifted most legal restrictions on abortion.
He said that Roe was one of a series of cultural, social, political and legal upheavals during the 1960s and early 1970s that left him deeply disillusioned with his native land and alienated from a country that he said once offered unparalleled openness to the proclamation of the Gospel.
“I don’t really feel as at home now in the United States as I did prior to the 60s,” he said.
Yet those upheavals, the cardinal said, trace their origins to certain “viruses” present in American political culture from the very beginning of US history, particularly the understanding of liberty enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and implicit in other founding documents.
The 18th century Enlightenment taught that liberty was essentially a matter of “choice between various options … whatever the individual in his or her autonomy makes a decision for,” the cardinal said, drawing a contrast with the traditional Christian teaching that freedom is realised only in pursuit of virtue.
The cardinal suggested that a flawed understanding of liberty helps explain why the US government once denied the freedom and dignity of black people and American Indians, treating them as less than fully human, and now fails to defend the right to life of the unborn.
The legalisation of abortion originally appealed to many as a means of women’s liberation, Cardinal Stafford said.
“There was considerable unrest among women about the fidelity of men in marriage … and also the control of men,” he said. “Women felt the power of men was being used unfairly … in the fact that they were so dependent on them financially, and could not trust them … to give of themselves without a dominating demand, without coercion.”
The cardinal said that decades of abortion and contraception have only encouraged male irresponsibility, with the result that ever fewer American men are willing to give totally of themselves to their wives and children as marriage requires.
Both men and women in the US, he said, increasingly view marriage as a “contractual relationship, almost like it’s an economic relationship that expects a quid pro quo, rather than a relationship that is rooted in a covenant, that is, a total giving of freedom in total trust of the freedom of the other”.
In America’s “consumer-oriented society”, the cardinal said, children have accordingly come to be seen as “commercialised items” who may be artificially conceived to parents’ genetic specifications.
At the same time, he said, a prevalent “technological mindset” that sees others as a means to one’s own pleasure or self-fulfilment increasingly perceives children as “objects of fear because they are preventing us from being what we want to be”.
Such an attitude is an example of “instrumentalisation”, a way of thinking powerfully reinforced by abortion, the cardinal said.
“To perceive a child as an enemy, as a menace, is a fundamental aberration of the human person, for a doctor, for a mother, for a father” and distorts our understanding of those persons’ proper roles, he said.
“I weep for the United States,” Cardinal Stafford said. “I don’t know what to do, because I see (abortion) as so mortally damaging to us as a people and the beauty of what our potential is. So I think we need to mourn and to weep over what has happened and what is happening, as Jesus wept for Jerusalem.”
The cardinal also called for a “profound personal conversion” on the part of those who oppose abortion. “We need to love our brothers and sisters who are co-nationals with us, and we need to understand the meaning of forgiveness within this national context,” he said.
“We need, above all, to pray for them and to pray for ourselves, that we do not become arrogant in our response, because we, too, are sinners.”
Cardinal Stafford concluded on a note of optimism, referring to opinion polls that he said show growing openness to the pro-life cause.
“We have a sufficiently convincing argument that, with time, reasonable men and women will be with us,” he said. “It’s going to take time and lots of changes and lots of tears, but I think it will change.”