Catholic Teachings - O'Brien: Silence: The Sin of Omission

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The Roe v. Wade decision of January 22, 1973, left nearly all Americans in shock. "In the United States we don't kill babies" was my reaction. When the horrible truth sank in, I resolved to do what I could to prevent that horror from spreading to the tierra guadalupana where I was working. Eventually, thanks to Maryknoll's commitment to pro-life, I found myself attending special courses and assisting and speaking at a good number of conferences in different parts of the world, mostly in the United States.

Every place I visited in the "old country," I heard the same lament: apathy is one problem, to the extent that Catholic teenagers accept the right of "others" to demand abortions. The other problem has been the failure to see that the root of the evil is contraception and sterilization: if you can say no to the possible conception of a child, you wet your powder.

We know that voluntary abortion goes against God's law. Humanae Vitae states explicitly (11, 12) that leaving the door open for the transmission of life is doctrine often brought to our attention by the Magisterium of the Church, and states in number 14 that making the conjugal act sterile voluntarily is intrinsically evil. Perhaps God did send the person who would have found the cure for cancer. Maybe an oral contraceptive destroyed that person at some eight days of life (one British company even advertises that its pill does not impede ovulation).

In the spirit of trying to be one small part of the solution instead of being a part of the problem, I offer the following reflection, hoping that it will encourage readers to help others to be as courageous as John the Baptist.

Philip Howard tried to ignore a problem. He had been in the audience that listened avidly to Edmund Campion debate points of doctrine with Anglican scholars. Philip had been born a Catholic, but after his mother died, he was reared a Protestant. He thought he was immune to the "old" religion (without bothering to ponder that old and former are not necessarily the same). But he was a public figure, with great responsibilities, and he certainly did not want to sacrifice his baronial way of living. Still, he could not rest.

Campion had sold him on the fact that he, Philip Howard, had sold out God. The rack had added two inches to Campion's height, yet his mien at the debate convinced Howard that Gregory Martin, a Catholic who had tutored him in his university days, had the truth of it. Howard did not surrender immediately. Campion was martyred in 1581; Philip was not reconciled until 1584.

In 1585, he was captured while trying to leave England in self-imposed exile, in order to avoid trouble for his family. He was imprisoned until he died, October 15, 1595. He could have said good-bye to his wife and son-on the condition that he renounce his faith. He chose to drink the dregs of suffering for the Lord who had been so patient with him. St. Philip Howard came back because his tutor had spoken up and because St. Edmund Campion had spoken up. And Campion spoke up due to the example he had received from the Irish (for whom shutting up is almost an occasion of sin). He was so impressed with their fidelity at a time when the head of a priest brought the same reward as the head of a wolf, that he took the name Patrick and put himself under that saint's protection as he stole away to the continent.

Titus Brandsma, a quiet, witty Carmelite mystic, rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Nijmegen, flatly told the Nazi invaders of Holland that "the Church, in carrying out her mission, makes no distinction between sex, race or people." His courage brought him eventually to Dachau. He had been arrested because of his protest against the Nazi brutalities to the Jews, his revulsion against the super-race philosophy and he had "disseminated his prejudices as widely as possible."

Father Titus knew all along what awaited him. On July 25, 1942, he was given a lethal injection. John Paul II named him a martyr in 1984. His life on earth ended the same way as did that of St. Maximilian Kolbe, O.F.M. (Auschwitz, August 14, 1941) and for the same reason-refusing to keep silent in the presence of moral error and a dogged determination to state the doctrine of Christ as legitimately interpreted by his Church, and let the chips fall where they must.

Titus Brandsma came finally to Dachau because he found that he had to,make a choice. For him it was clearly impossible to be a Nazi and a Christian at the same time. Almost prophetically, he had said: "He who wants to win the world for Christ must have the courage to come in conflict with it." When this fragile Carmelite priest was called on to face up to the challenge of his own words, he let everyone know where he stood: "My friends, we must give way no further; there are limits and we have reached them." So Titus came to Dachau.

The Church teaches as doctrine that couples may not decide arbitrarily how they will transmit life, that couples must, in every expression of marital love, leave the door open to the transmission of life, and that sterilization, the use of abortifacients (albeit advertised as contraceptives) such as the IUD, and the practice of any form of contraception are intrinsically evil.

We call the Church our Mother, yet we certainly show our love for her in strange ways. She understands perfectly Paine's allusion to summer soldiers and sunshine patriots. Dissidents used to have enough decency to leave. Today, it would seem that they are living high on our cowardly silence.