In Miguel de Cervantes’ masterpiece, “Don Quixote,” the title character famously attacks some windmills, which he mistakes for “ferocious giants”: “Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, ‘Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.’
‘What giants?’ asked Sancho Panza. ‘Those you see over there,’ replied his master, ‘with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length.’ ‘Take care, sir,’ cried Sancho. ‘Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.’”
From this episode comes the catchphrase “tilting at windmills.” It is all too easy for us, like Don Quixote, to mistake windmills for giants and to ready our lances to joust with them. That’s why we sometimes need someone to take the role of Sancho Panza and bring us back to reality. This necessary task is sometimes a thankless one.
Four years ago, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah had to play Sancho Panza with regard to Georgia House Resolution 536, which would have proposed to the people the following amendment to the state constitution: “The rights of every person shall be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life. The right to life is the paramount and most fundamental right of a person. With respect to the fundamental and inalienable rights of all persons guaranteed in this Constitution, the word ‘person’ applies to all human beings, irrespective of age, race, sex, health, function, or condition of dependency, including unborn children at every state of their biological development, including fertilization.”
As the Catholic bishops of Georgia, Archbishop Gregory and Bishop Boland agreed “with the objective of HR 536 to defend human life at all stages and share(d) the conviction that human life begins at the moment of conception.” Nevertheless, they concluded “that the approach taken by HR 536 to amend the state constitution does not provide a realistic opportunity for ending or reducing abortion in Georgia.”
They came to this conclusion because the amendment in question, like others being proposed in other states, is designed to change the Constitution of the State of Georgia, while U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the Constitution of the United States contains the right to abortion. While the bishops have opposed the Court’s decision since it was promulgated in 1973, that decision stands. As Archbishop Gregory and Bishop Boland pointed out in 2008, “since the federal constitution always ‘trumps’ a state constitution, this effort, while well-intentioned, can have no legal effect. We have, and will continue to support, efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution” to protect the right to life of all whose lives have in fact begun.
In other words, devoting the time and energy needed to amend the Georgia Constitution when that amendment would be inoperative from the moment of its adoption, unless and until the Supreme Court reversed itself on Roe v. Wade or the Federal Constitution were amended to overturn that decision, seemed to our bishops to be fruitless, a tilting at windmills.
Georgia Right to Life and others are still soliciting support for a “Personhood” or “Life” Amendment. They have approached Catholic parishes to garner support for Ballot Question No. 5 which will be proposed to voters in the Georgia Republican Primary on July 31. It reads: “Should the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to provide that the paramount right to life is vested in each innocent human being from his or her earliest biological beginning without regard to age, race, sex, health, function, or condition of dependency?”
While the bishops have expressed their “admiration and respect for those who have crafted this legislation,” the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Savannah are not engaged in supporting the passage of this ballot question, not because of its aim, which is laudable, but simply because it will do nothing to curb abortions in Georgia and, moreover, may prove a distracting windmill in Atlanta, just when our attention needs to be focused on the “ferocious giants” in Washington.
Father Douglas K. Clark, STL, is the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Port Wentworth, Georgia.