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It was like an explosion in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral last May, when Cardinal John O'Connor's eulogist described his "great legacy" as a "constant reminder that the church must "always be unambiguously pro-life." Spontaneously, 3,500 mourners thundered their approval, culminating in a standing ovation, sweeping from rear to front, where it pulled several pro-choice politicians reluctantly to their feet.

Good drama -- but poor history. O'Connor's steadfast support for the Vietnam War in the late sixties and church history itself suggest that neither the cardinal nor his church have been "always unambiguously pro-life."

But the church is not alone in its inconsistent stand on "pro-life" matters. The phrase is a monumental misnomer in our political vocabulary. Texas Gov. George W. Bush underscored that with his awkward emergence as the "pro-life" presidential candidate while presiding over the nation's busiest death chamber.

In the Catholic church, however, there is evidence of a movement toward a consistent pro-life agenda. Since Vatican II, church leaders have been slowly redefining "pro-life" as a complete "Gospel of Life," based on the notion that every human life from pre-cradle to grave is sacred. That's the church's emerging "pro-life" philosophy.

Pro-life politics, fully embraced, includes exposing and challenging virulent political tendencies on many fronts, everything that degrades or destroys human life -- a task ill-suited to politicians, who, polls in hand, are more prone to conform than confront. It requires alternative voices, religious and secular, driven more by hunger for human rights than the tyranny of voter approval.

With pro-life Republicans squaring off against pro-choice Democrats, the abortion issue is getting ample coverage during Campaign 2000. But many other pro-life issues will simmer beyond the scope of political debate -- like the death penalty, for example, with both parties rushing herd-like to support it.

Pro-life on Death Row

Claiming to be both "pro-life" and "pro-death penalty" is as zany as it sounds. Nothing can justify the killing of a defenseless person when adequate alternatives for punishment and protection are available. American bishops, especially, are accelerating their opposition. But no American symbolizes the cause more than Sister Helen Prejean, her message charged by jarring contact with Death Row inmates and amplified by Hollywood's hit film, "Dead Man Walking."

People are too "disconnected" from the human tragedies unfolding on Death Row, she tells audiences across the nation, while trying to "connect" them psychologically to the grim realities she has seen and felt: men riddled with remorse and fear whom she accompanies to the death chamber so they can glimpse at least one sympathetic face in their death throes; parents spending their final grief-stricken moments with a son who is about to die; the troubled guard waiting to march a man to his doom, blurting out: "You know what, Sister? We gotta abolish this thing, 'cause look, it's always only poor people coming here."

Sister Prejean's compassion turns to anger when politicians promise death penalty laws to cut the murder rate -- when 38 death penalty states, on average, have double the murder rates of non-death penalty states; when they talk execution only for the "most cold-blooded crimes," amid towering evidence that poverty, race, location and inept public defenders weigh most heavily in deciding who goes to the gallows; when she sees America's accelerating executions against a global trend against them as relics of a barbaric past.

Death for hire

What Sister Prejean is to capital punishment, Father Roy Bourgeois is to the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., often dubbed the "School of Assassins," because many of its American-trained alumni have been involved in Latin American death squads.

For years, Bourgeois, a Maryknoll missionary, has lectured, demonstrated, suffered imprisonment and rallied thousands to the cause of closing the SOA -- a priestly vocation ignited by the violence inflicted on thousands of religious workers in their struggle against poverty and dictatorship.

The assassination of El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero, especially, spurred Bourgeois' crusade against American militarism.

Romero himself was cozy with Salvadoran elites until the murderous onslaught against his priests turned his pulpit into an arsenal of resistance against government violence. In March 1980, he was gunned down at the altar by a death squad organized by SOA alumnus, Col. Roberto D'Aubuisson, one month after urging President Jimmy Carter to stop arming the Salvadoran military.

But the slaughter continued and so did the flow of U.S. military aid, greased by President Ronald Reagan's anti-Communist rhetoric, until a fragile peace settled over much of the continent in the 1990s.

But familiar elements still simmer today, far removed from public discussion: the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, two days after releasing his report detailing decades of atrocities by American-supported Guatemalan forces; continuing atrocities committed by SOA graduates; Bourgeois' continuing campaign against the SOA, recently renamed Defense Institute for Hemispheric Security Cooperation.

Tragedy in Iraq

Today, no area qualifies more as a real pro-life issue -- or is so far removed from pro-life debates -- than Iraq. A decade of American bombing and the most severe embargo in modern history have leveled the economy, eroding food, medical and pure water supplies, wiping out an estimated 1 million people -- including 500,000 children under 5, dying at the rate of 4,000 a month, according to a 1999 U.N. report.

Jesuit priest John Dear calls it "the greatest moral and spiritual disaster of our time" -- a tale of unrelenting horror and frustrating efforts to prick a numbed American conscience.

"Go to Iraq," Dear told Cardinal O'Connor, hoping that the most powerful voice in American Catholicism would "speak to the whole country" upon return and "save the children of Iraq." O'Connor's terminal cancer cut short his plans to do so.

Detroit Bishop Thomas Gumbleton takes medicine there on every trip, defying U.S. embargo laws, hoping that a court trial against a Catholic bishop for relieving America's victims might stir public consciousness.

After filming a documentary following an American bombing attack, French priest Jean-Marie Benjamin was shocked by the sanitized report on American television. There was no "trace of what we had filmed -- people burned and dying in the middle of the road . . . people being operated on in corridors with a pair of tweezers left in a jar of dirty water . . ., children being operated on without anesthesia . . ."

"The price is worth it" to keep Saddam Hussein in his "strategic box," intoned Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when asked whether America's policy was worth the lives of a half million children -- a chilling abstraction that rankles even hard-boiled analysts.

American aggression toward Iraq, Cuba and several other countries is backfiring, many claim, enhancing the power and prestige of the Castros and Saddams, increasing anti-Americanism abroad, even inciting terrorism against U.S. embassies and citizens.

"On issue after issue," writes Harvard's international relations scholar, Samuel P. Huntington, America is increasingly viewed even by allies as the "rogue" superpower, squeezing certain countries "because they refuse to kowtow to American wishes."

"One reads about the world's desire for American leadership only in the United States," observed a British ambassador. "Everywhere else, one reads about American arrogance and unilateralism."

Courting the Catholic vote

In Campaign 2000, the GOP is hoping to win the Catholic vote, touting its record as most compatible with pro-life teaching. If you focus on the abortion issue, Republican claims are solid. Broaden the focus to the entire pro-life package and the Democrats win handily, according to a detailed analysis by sociologists William V. D'Antonio and Jacqueline Scherer.

On congressional bills dealing with issues like gun control, cutting nuclear missile funds, the Cuban embargo, Medicare, the minimum wage and gay employment rights, Democrats beat Republicans by huge margins on the pro-life scale.

Distancing the church from both parties, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, insists that people must measure every party "by how its agenda touches human life and dignity."

Ultimately, the question is not how well politicians reflect the Catholic agenda, but how much politicians, Catholicism and other groups in the pro-life business truly promote human life and dignity. In its rigid opposition to birth control, for example, the church falls short of the mark, many critics claim, exhibiting a cavalier indifference toward women's health.

But inconsistency, apparent or real, should not obscure the basic challenge. Conscience is a fragile force in the world of politics, often trumped by economic interests, popular prejudices and cultural egotism that exaggerates the nation's virtues and the enemy's vices.

Every nation needs the voice of conscience -- a coalition of groups, clashing at certain friction points but energized by a common moral purpose in favor of human dignity and life everywhere.

EDWARD CUDDY is chairman of the History and Government Department at Daemen College.

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