A Pastoral Letter Worth Reading

At least once a year, most religious groups feel the need to issue a lengthy document about this or that social issue.

These texts emerge after private debates in which committees write, rewrite and edit each line. Early drafts often surface in the media, before the word-crunching continues in public meetings. The results usually resemble government legislation or sausage. Rare is the person who yearns to inspect the contents.

This is ironic, since most of these statements are supposed to be practical, "pastoral" letters from leaders to the faithful.

This week, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops released "Faithful For Life: A Moral Reflection," a pastoral statement that attempts to break the mold. First, it was created amid little fanfare or controversy. Second, the 25-page booklet is candid, concise and smoothly written.

Clearly, the writers hope that real people may actually read and understand it.

"This is about abortion and euthanasia, but there's more to it than that," said Helen Alvare, of the NCCB's Office for Pro-Life Activities. "This puts these issues in a new context -- the crisis in the American family. ... Everything is woven together. It's more like a meditation."

Nevertheless, this document does address controversial social issues linked both to sex and government policies, and was released only days before a papal visit to the United States. It also closely follows an encyclical, "Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life)," in which Pope John Paul II condemned abortion, euthanasia and a growing "culture of death" in language that verged on a declaration of infallibility.

All of which makes the tone of "Faithful For Life" -- less political and, at times, almost poetic -- even more unusual.

The bishops stress that it is at life's beginning and end that people are most vulnerable and dependent on family members and neighbors. Consider these sobering words: "Many are welcomed by these to whose care they have been entrusted. Others are not so welcomed."

The result is a cultural nightmare -- from lurid TV talk shows to death-metal music, from slasher movies about abandoned kids to bookstores full of books on loneliness. Many shattered families are failing to care for their own.

"When a family lives in fidelity it is a place of refuge and dignity," write the bishops. "If it becomes each one only for himself or herself, then instead of being the source, school and standard for fidelity ... the family can become the scene of its harshest violations. The home becomes the place where, when you knock, they no longer have to let you in."

Part of the problem is that most of today's loudest voices in brawls about "family values" keep stressing individual rights and responsibilities and the power of self-determination and unlimited freedom. It is in this context that the bishops must make a case for a different message: families are not built on freedom of choice, but on ties that bind.

"Faithful For Life" notes: "Many of the critical moments in our lives require that we rise to meet responsibilities given to us, not chosen by us. ... We are bound to our children, not because we chose them, but because we were given them: simply because they are our children, our very near neighbors."

In the end, parents and children must be able to trust each other. This is built on trust between husbands and wives. At some point men and women must believe that fidelity is more important than freedom, or all is lost.

The bishops insist that when "a people lose confidence in fidelity between husbands and wives, it is an easy leap to imagine that other fidelities ... no longer need to be permanent, for-better-or-for-worse obligations. ... Youngsters who learn that their parents destroyed or were ready to destroy a child for one reason or another -- wrong gender, wrong father, wrong time, wrong health, wrong economy -- can and do fear that their own claim on their parents' love and care might go terminally wrong."