A woman prays during a life chain in the Diocese of Owensboro in 1996. The sign reads ‘Lord, Forgive Us and Our Nation.’ COURTESY OF ARCHIVES
‘Our last ounce of strength on behalf of life and in defense of life’
The Diocese of Owensboro’s response to Roe vs. Wade
BY EDWARD WILSON, ARCHIVES
The year is 1996. 13,859 postcards depart from the Diocese of Owensboro and make their way to the elected representatives of Kentucky. The message of the postcards is clear: the Catholics of western Kentucky choose life.
On Jan. 22, the Church calls for a day of prayer for the unborn. The day is the anniversary of the passage of Roe vs. Wade, the landmark decision that led to the legalization of abortion throughout the United States. The Church has been actively combatting the social injustice of this decision since its passage in 1973. Our archives reveal that the Diocese of Owensboro has done the very same.
The same year that Roe v. Wade was decided, Right to Life (RTL) gave a program for the Bowling Green chapter of the Knights of Columbus. Following this, correspondence tells us that “frequent Pro-life sermons and bulletin notices” began to flow into the community. Meetings were set at Holy Spirit for both Bowling Green parishes in hopes that new RTL chapters would be formed. Bishop Henry J. Soenneker wasted no time, pledging $5,000 from the Diocese to RTL Kentucky and another $1,000 to The National Committee for a Human Life Amendment. He also pooled resources with the other Kentucky dioceses to secure representation in Frankfort. This resulted in the signing of a bill placing restrictions and regulations on abortions. The bill also obtained protection for individuals and institutions refusing to have any part in the practice. In a 1976 letter to the Breckinridge County RTL, which had formed two years prior with the Meade County RTL, Bishop Soenneker praised them, stating, “We need such an organization in every county.”
In the years following, countless facilities and groups provided compassionate assistance, such as Birthright, Hope Unlimited, Marsha’s Place and the Respect Life Commission. Masses, marches, and prayer breakfasts were offered for the unborn and those suffering the effects of abortion.
The diocese under Bishop John J. McRaith showed no signs of wavering from the commitment to life. Renowned for his belief in social justice, Bishop McRaith refused to succumb to the “great temptation” to make abortion “purely political” and isolate it from the great struggle of the oppressed. In his pastoral letter “Respect and Justice-Rooted in the First Church” Bishop McRaith relays that legalized abortion was alive because “Our society has assumed God-like authority in determining who should live or die.” Abortion was simply the magnum opus and unavoidable result of what he called the “hierarchy of domination.” This hierarchy resulted in all social injustices. United with Bishop McRaith the diocese continued the fight. In his time, the first of many billboards for life were erected and led several to choose motherhood over termination. Thousands of letters defending life also flooded government buildings.
Shortly after his installment, Bishop McRaith made this promise and invited every person in the diocese to join him:
“I pledge that the Catholic Church of Owensboro Diocese will support every person experiencing an unwanted pregnancy—that there is never a need to have an abortion. There are other answers and we will work with anyone to find these. We promise our support for the handicapped, those born with mental and physical problems. We will spend our last dime—and drain our last ounce of strength on behalf of life and in defense of life.”
There is not currently a “Roe vs. Wade Repealed” folder in the archive, not yet.
Edward Wilson is the director of the Diocese of Owensboro’s Archives and the Archives of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. Comments and questions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mass for Life
Join Bishop William F. Medley for the Diocese of Owensboro’s annual Pro-Life Mass at St. Stephen Cathedral on Jan. 22, 2022 at 9 a.m. Watch it livestreamed that day at facebook.com/StStephenCathedral.
Originally printed in the January 2022 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.