Today, the First Sunday in October, is the Catholic Church’s Respect Life Sunday in our Country. In Catholic teaching, there is the strongest connection between our obligation to defend and promote the value of human life and the way we esteem the dignity of each and every human person. Pope Benedict XVI summarized this connection in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, (n. 15), citing Pope John Paul II: The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that “a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized.” ( from Evangelium Vitae n. 101)
The dignity of the human person is a capital value for Christians and it should be a capital value for all mankind. John Paul II made this point in his great encyclical The Gospel of Life: He said, “The Gospel of life is not for believers alone: it is for everyone …Although faith provides special light and strength, this question arises in every human conscience which seeks the truth and which cares about the future of humanity. Life certainly has a sacred and religious value, but in no way is that value a concern only of believers. The value at stake is one which every human being can grasp by the light of reason; thus it necessarily concerns everyone.”
What is at stake, then, in defending human life is the future of humanity, the value of each and every person’s life, and while faith strengthens our understanding of the value of life, the truth about man’s great dignity, nonetheless, the fact of this value can be grasped by the light of reason when anyone’s conscience seeks the truth and cares about mankind’s future.
We know that respect for life is a far reaching respect and embraces all the social and political issues that touch the value of human life, either denigrating or enhancing a society’s valuing of human life and dignity. Respect for life defends the young and the old who are weak or defenseless, the handicapped, the poverty stricken, the sick, the victims of violence, etc. Respect for Life tries to remedy whatever denies the value of human life and undercuts the dignity of the human person. All that is true, but the most basic value of all that undergirds all the rest of our rights is the right to life itself. Again John Paul II summarizes this hierarchy of value and human rights most clearly: “When the Church declares that unconditional respect for the right to life of every innocent person-from conception to natural death-is one of the pillars on which every civil society stands, she ‘wants simply to promote a human State, a state which recognizes the defense of the fundamental rights of the human person, especially of the weakest, as its primary duty.'”
Many Catholics today will accept the position that respect for life has to be far reaching and not simply refer to the right to life of the unborn, and that is true, as the Pope affirms. But too many Catholics do not go far enough and recognize the truth that is enunciated here, that what underlies all the other rights that dignify the human person is the “unconditional respect for the right to life of every innocent person-from conception to natural death.” This unconditional right is one of the pillars which supports every civilized society. The truly human state is one that upholds the fundamental rights of the human person, above all the weakest members, and does so by enshrining the right to life as unconditional and the foundation of the other human rights.
One of the side effects of the long struggle the Church is engaged in by defending the right to life is the greater understanding she is promoting when it comes to the true dignity of the person, the incomparable value of every human life and the meaning of a truly human society and state. This same Pope once said, during a visit to this country, that the ultimate measure of the greatness of a country is the way it treats the most defenseless of its citizens. Mother Teresa often said the same thing, only she would say we are poor or rich in accord with the way treat the weakest brothers and sisters. What these two holy ones were telling us was that the future of our society, the future of our world ultimately depends on the respect for life itself.
Until they spoke, I did not understand a childhood experience of mine and what it was meant to teach me by God. I had a young cousin who was born with a terrible cancer that eventually left him both deaf and blind, but he was a very special and loving child for his loving parents. For me it was scary that a child could have this deadly disease and its terrible consequences. But his parents asked me to take Eddy for a ride and bicycle built for two, and again I was fearful – could he hang on, would I mess up and hurt him, would he even be able to enjoy it being blind and deaf? As we road and I got some confidence, I picked up speed and Eddy let out howls of joy at the wind and movement of the bike. And I began to understand his parents love.
He was a child of God, and truly an innocent due to his terrible handicaps which at the same time preserved his innocence, and he was able to enjoy that ride better than me. His parents were good Catholics and they saw him as a special gift because he was truly a loving child, much more than me, because he was not soiled by the normal self-centeredness that grows from sin even in childhood. He died when he was 13 and his parents were heart-broken just like all parents who lose a child. He was a child of God, with all the dignity of a child of God and more, because he was so innocent in life.
This is what the Church is trying to teach the world about man, that every person has such value because every person is made in the image and likeness of God, even the most severely handicapped. We see the outer man with all his wounds, but God sees the inner soul, and in this case, a soul that was beautiful since Baptism. The world is like that bicycle built for two, but it’s a bicycle built for billions, and those who can peddle need to defend those who can’t, those who can steer need to do so for those who can’t. That’s how we become, as Mother Teresa was so fond of saying, something beautiful for God, and that’s how we make a more human society.
I leave you with this wonderful insight of Pope John Paul at the end of The Gospel of Life:
To be actively pro-life is to contribute to the renewal of society through the promotion of the common good. It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop.
To be actively pro-life is to help renew society, to promote a more human society, to build a civilization of love where all are welcome at the table of life. You can be actively pro-life in many ways; you can start by voting for any party’s candidates who affirm an unconditional right to life of the innocent; by financially supporting the intermediary institutions that support life like Tepeyac Family Center here in Fairfax which gives medical support to women who want to bring their child to birth but lack the financial resources to get proper care; and above all by praying daily for the conversion of this country and its leaders, so we can renew our society by purifying the soul of America so tarnished by the moral blights of abortion and euthanasia. That’s true patriotism and will do more to save this country than anything else.
God Bless you.