In a year when the national holiday commemorating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., comes only two days before the yearly remembrance of the unborn sacrificed on the altar of “choice” it seems fitting to reflect on the connection between our nation’s greatest civil rights leader and the American holocaust.
When Pope Francis came to the United States in 2015 and spoke before a joint audience of both the Senate and House he focused his remarks on four American voices for justice and peace: Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In discussing the importance of Dr. King for today’s world the Holy Father noted King’s theme of the “dream” of what America can be:
“I think of the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his ‘dream’ of full civil and political rights for African Americans. That dream continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams’. Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”
In his closing remarks Pope Francis again points to Dr. King, here in relation to Lincoln, Day, and Merton, when he notes, “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”
If “full rights for all their brothers and sisters,” is a pre-condition for a nation’s claim to greatness then our land has a long way to go. Pope Francis addressed one aspect of this situation last week when he spoke with a representative group of 15 American bishops, including Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Chairman of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) Committee for Pro-Life Activities.
Bishop Naumann and the other ordinaries came away from the meeting with a renewed sense of purpose in their pro-life efforts. According to the archbishop, the Holy Father agreed with the USCCB’s “identifying the protection of the unborn as a preeminent priority,” and he also reported that the pope was “truly kind of stunned” when made aware of the 61 million innocent lives lost to abortion in America since January 22, 1973.
Another in the ad limina delegation, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, reminded his listeners that the papal focus on pro-life efforts is nothing new and should surprise no one who has been listening to Francis during his time as Bishop of Rome: “[The Pope] simply reiterated what he’s already said in many different ways, that, without life, what other rights are there? So, you have to begin with that.”
Bishop McKnight was moved by the context within which the pope placed the question of abortion, saying that Francis “put it in a very beautiful way: Do we always want to simply eliminate those who are inconvenient?”
Dr. King was an inconvenient man, one who – as so many today love to say – told truth to power. He stood up for the oppressed who had dreams of justice and the right to participate fully in American society. Those people who marched with Dr. King in 1965 could never have imagined that in less than a decade the fundamental right to life, without which there are no other rights, would be denied to a whole category of Americans.
Sadly for us, Dr. King is an inconvenience to the powerful no more, and sadder still, his voice was never able to be heard in defense of those 61 million Americans whose only crime was being inconvenient. As Bishop McKnight said, “We are called to be better than that. We as a country are better than that.” Well, at least that’s the dream.