October highlights dignity of lifeBy: Bishop Edward M. Rice
The common home of all men and women must continue to rise on the foundations of a right understanding of universal fraternity and respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic. This common home of all men and women must also be built on the understanding of a certain sacredness of created nature. —Pope Francis, 9/25/15, United Nations
What does ‘respect life’ mean?
The first Sunday of each October launches the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) annual education and advocacy effort to “promote respect for all human life from conception to natural death, and organize for its protection.” Before mentioning the theme and topics of this year’s program, it may benefit us to reflect on the meaning of the phrase “respect life.”
We encounter these two simple words, “respect” and “life,” regularly in news reports and in the media. Readers of a certain age will recall Aretha Franklin’s song, “Respect,” which became something of an anthem for the Civil Rights movement in the 1970s, with its notable line: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Merriam-Webster defines the verb “respect,” as: “to feel admiration for;” “to regard as being worthy of admiration because of good qualities;” “to act in a way which shows that you are aware of someone’s rights, wishes;” and “to treat or deal with (something that is good or valuable) in a proper way.” The same source defines “life” as, “the ability to grow, change” and that which “separates plants and animals from things like water or rocks.”
These secular definitions are but a shadow of the depth and meaning the Church intends in using these words, as comparing them with the relevant sections (2258 through 2330) of the Catechism of the Catholic Church shows. The entire discussion takes place in the context of the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill,” and Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (5:21-22) .
The Catechism explains what life is, and why it must be respected:
Human life is sacred because from its beginning, it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can, under any circumstance, claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.
So, far from being a merely biological reality, human life is a divine gift—a unique form of relationship with our Creator—and points to our personal vocation and ultimate end in-and-with God. Life is sacred, not based on our emotions or its utility, convenience, or inconvenience, but because it comes from God who is the source of all that is good and holy.
To respect human life is to respect God in his creative act and gift. To disrespect human life, in the ultimate sense of killing in violation of the Fifth Commandment, is to disrespect God and commit a sacrilege. God is the sole end of the gift of life and to take the life of an innocent person is to steal what God has given another. In doing so, a murderer acts not in the image of God, but that of the Devil, “who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14).
Jesus, confronting those who were trying to kill him, said:
You belong to your father, the devil, and you willingly carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies (Jn 8:44).
That the devil is both a murderer and a liar is not a coincidence as his lies are often in the service of murder. The lie that killing the innocent is the solution to an inconvenient pregnancy is an ancient one. And the first person recorded in the Scriptures to fall for it, to do this “great evil in the sight of the Lord,” was not a woman but a man, King David. He arranged for the killing of the honorable husband of Bathsheba in order to cover up David’s adultery with her and her subsequent pregnancy. But far from being a solution, he loses everything as a result (2 Sam 12).
It is foolish to think that taking vengeance upon the guilty will bring peace and justice, and we know that capital punishment gives neither peace nor justice. On this same issue, is the idea that some persons are unworthy of an opportunity for repentance, conversion, and reform. Pope St. John Paul II taught otherwise. In a 1999 homily in our own state of Missouri, John Paul II said:
“A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”
For reflection, I offer a few quotes of Pope Francis:
• “In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” (Pope Francis, 9/24/15, US Congress).
• The Church’s Social Doctrine, with its integral vision of man as a personal and social being, is your “compass.” There you will find an especially significant fruit of the long journey of the People of God in modern and contemporary history: the defense of religious liberty, of life at every stage, of the right to work and to decent work, of family, of education … (12/7/13).
• How important it is that the voice of every member of society be heard, and that a spirit of open communication, dialogue, and cooperation be fostered. It is likewise important that special concern be shown for the poor, the vulnerable, and those who have no voice, not only by meeting their immediate needs, but also by assisting them in their human and cultural advancement (8/14/14).
• Globalization, as Benedict XVI pointed out, makes us neighbors, but does not make us brothers.1 The many situations of inequality, poverty, and injustice, are signs not only of a profound lack of fraternity, but also of the absence of a culture of solidarity. New ideologies, characterized by rampant individualism, egocentrism, and materialistic consumerism, weaken social bonds, fueling that “throw away” mentality which leads to contempt for, and the abandonment of, the weakest and those considered “useless” (12/8/13).
• In God’s family, where all are sons and daughters of the same Father, and, because they are grafted to Christ, sons and daughters in the Son, there are no “disposable lives.” All men and women enjoy an equal and inviolable dignity. All are loved by God. All have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, who died on the Cross and rose for all. This is the reason why no one can remain indifferent before the lot of our brothers and sisters (12/8/13).
In my next column, I will continue cataloging the contemporary issues that challenge us to reject lies and embrace respect and protection for all human life.
1 “Cartias in Veritate” (June 29, 2009)