27th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2011: “Respect Life Sunday”
October 2, 2011
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort, Springfield, Va.
The first Sunday of October, has, for years,
been designated by the Catholic Bishops in America
as “Respect Life Sunday.”
So, as I have for the last 16 years,
today I will preach on the topic of respecting life:
specifically on the evil of abortion.
But I gotta tell you, part of me wonders: Why? What good does it do?
After all these years of 1000’s of priests, bishops and Popes,
proclaiming the Gospel of Life
so many Catholics still don’t understand
that abortion is destroying not only
the lives of millions of unborn babies, and their mothers,
but also mankind’s fundamental respect for all aspects human life.
Sometimes I feel a bit like those servants we read about in today’s Gospel:
“he sent his servants to the tenants ….
But … one they beat,
another they killed,
and a third they stoned.
Again he sent other servants….but they treated them in the same way.”
Now, it’s true, no one has stoned or killed me
or any other priest I know for preaching pro-life.
True: but they’ve done worse:
they continue to either support or to vote for those who support
the killing of the most innocent human beings in abortion.
Why don’t Catholics get it?
The last few years one particular reason seems to stand out.
It seems that sometimes we allow the term “pro-life” or “respect-life”
to have a mixed or ambiguous meaning
that winds up confusing Catholics
regarding the fundamental issues and priorities involved.
So let’s clarify something: what does it mean to “respect life”?
Now, as Christians, we are called to respect the life of all human beings
because each is created in the image of God,
and shares a unique dignity and life given by God himself.
But it doesn’t take a Christian or even a religious person to see this:
every rational human being should understand
that the life of every human being demands respect.
But how far do the demands of respect go?
Does respect for human life demand that if someone attacks me,
I can’t defend myself,
even if they’re trying to kill me?
What about if they’re trying to kill my children?
Does it mean countries can’t go to war for a grave reason,
even if their attacked or fight to liberate the oppressed?
Does it mean that we can never punish a criminal,
or deny immigration to an alien?
Going even further, does it mean you can’t provide for yourself or your family
before you provide for a stranger?
“Respect” is a big word, and respect for human life is very demanding.
But there are limitations.
Common sense, and the Church, teach us that there is
a certain hierarchy and order in human life, and so in the ways of respect.
we place duty to family ahead of duty to strangers,
we respect individual responsibility and free will,
and we recognize that some human choices don’t deserve respect
because they are contrary to human dignity.
Now, it can be very confusing to figure out all the various duties and demands
of respecting human life.
But to begin to do this we need to keep in mind the fundamentals
—the most basic and important principles
set the priority and order of everything that follows.
So what is the most fundamental demand of respecting human life?
It’s not to hard to figure out on our own, but again God helps us by commanding:
“thou shall not kill.”
If we look carefully at Scripture
we discover that this has pretty basic common sense meaning:
one can never ever intentionally and directly
kill an innocent human being.
This is the most fundamental principle of respecting human life.
And so it is absolute and without exception.
And as we sort of move away from situations
where this fundamental principle directly applies
we see that all the other demands of respect for life
come from it and relate back to it,
even as they become more subtle,
allowing for different non-absolute responses.
So, for example, the first step away might be the case of self-defense.
If someone is trying to kill you he is not innocent,
so the principle in it’s most absolute form does not apply.
You still have to respect the person’s non-innocent life,
but not at the cost of your own innocent life:
you can fight back, even taking his life to save yours.
Or take another step.
You’re driving at a normal speed
and suddenly someone rushes into the road and you hit him.
Respect for life requires you to try not to hit him
—but if it’s unavoidable,
if you unintentionally hit him, you have not failed to respect his life.
Walk way down that road now.
Say a man comes to you demanding money for food.
You know he’s healthy and employable, but he’s lazy and chosen not to work.
If you refuse his request for help do you fail to respect life?
He was not innocent, and you did not intend for him to starve.
So respect for his life did not require that you help him.
In fact, you could reasonably argue that respect required you to scold him,
to have more respect for himself: “go get a job.”
As St. Paul says elsewhere: “If any one will not work, let him not eat.”
The point is: we begin with the fundamental rule and that orders all the rest.
And the flipside of this is equally important:
if we don’t observe the fundamental rule,
none of the rest have any order or make any sense.
Elsewhere in Scripture Jesus talks about:
“a foolish man who built his house upon the sand;
the rain fell, and the floods came, and …that house, …fell.”
And in today’s Gospel Jesus reminds us:
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
The cornerstone of respecting human life
is the absolute right to life of innocent human beings.
Pull that cornerstone out, and like a house built on sand in a flood,
the whole house will fall.
If we don’t understand that duty to protect innocent human life,
what would make us think we’re required us to feed the hungry,
even when they truly cannot help themselves?
How do we know that one nation may not attack another without a just cause?
All of our high-minded ideals of justice and duty and respect
are nonsense, if not grounded in the most simple, basic and fundamental
principle of respect for innocent life.
And so we come to abortion, which is unarguably the killing of
the most innocent and defenseless of human beings.
And talk about abortion obviously has public and even political ramifications,
especially just one month before state elections,
and we get deeper into next year’s national elections.
Some people argue that there are more important issues at stake than abortion.
But what can be more important than the systematic promotion
of the abuse of most fundamental moral principle,
attacking the most fundamentally innocent?
1.4 million abortions a year, more than 50 million in 38 years,
and millions more to come?
Or they say that even if abortion is the most important single issue,
lots of other smaller issues combine to outweigh it.
Some people say they show their respect for life by working for
the end of the death penalty,
health care for the uninsured,
prosperity for the poor and middle classes,
and for the rights of immigrants.
Let’s set aside the fact that good people—even Good Catholics—
can disagree about each of these issues and others like them;
for example, the Church teaches that sometimes
the death penalty is allowed and even necessary.
But what sense do these lesser issues make
and how can we understand the right way to approach them,
if our understanding of them is not founded upon the issue:
absolute respect for the right to life of innocent human beings?
And how can we trust someone to promote and value these subsidiary issues,
when he rejects the cornerstone issue ?
It’s like putting up the windows or the doors of a house
before you lay the foundation
—they’ll either blow away in the wind
or some dishonest person will come and walk off with them.
For example, how can we trust a politician
with making the right decision about health care rights
—a decision that embodies a true respect for life—
when the politician can’t understand that a baby’s right to health care
exists only when it has life,
that health without life is literally meaningless.
Some argue that we need to fix our immigration policy:
some say we need to crack down and seal the borders,
others say we need to open the borders and end alleged discrimination.
Good Catholics can disagree with on this issue,
and question each other’s judgments,
but why would we think politicians
who enthusiastically embrace unquestionably unjust attacks
on the most defenseless and innocent members
of our own society—the unborn—
would avoid unjustly harming immigrants in the future?
It’s like voting for a member of the Klan
because he claims to support minority voting rights.
Some even argue that the current economic crisis requires us
to ignore abortion in order to fix our fiscal house
–and I agree that our fiscal problems are hugely important.
But how do you begin to count the cost of millions of aborted innocents?
How do you weigh on a scale
10’s of millions of babies against trillions of dollars of debt?
Would you take a trillion dollars to kill your neighbor’s child?
Sounds a bit like Judas accepting 30 pieces of silver
For betraying the perfectly innocent one.
“What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
And in a certain sense, it doesn’t matter if it’s 1.4 million babies or only 1 baby:
anyone who’s moral system,
whose sense of respecting human life,
promotes and defends the death of even one innocent human life
in order to achieve some perceived good of many others
is a fool and a reprobate.
This logic is nothing new:
Caiaphas, the high priest who condemned Jesus to death, once said:
“it is better that one man should die for the people,
than the whole nation perish.”
One wonders if Caiaphas was in the group of “chief priests”
that Jesus was talking to in today’s Gospel.
Speaking of priests,
some of you may be tired of priests preaching about abortion.
Friends, frankly, I agree with you.
But remember how Jesus chastised the Jewish priests for their failures:
for rejecting the prophets—and him!
So as long as human life is so fundamentally disrespected by so many Catholics
that they fail to rise up with all other like-minded pro-life Americans,
and crush the plague of abortion in this country,
God himself will continue to send his servants, his priests,
and they must do their best to try to collect what is due Him:
respect for the truth, and respect for human life.
But priests are not the only servants he sends.
Each of you is also his servant.
So act like it, and go out into the world you live in
and proclaim the Gospel of Life.
Demand, with charity and clarity,
that human life be respected, especially in the most fundamental way:
respect for the life of the innocent and defenseless unborn.
And make that demand known wherever God sends you
—at home, at work, at school, at play,
and in the voting booth.
Friends, Christ is the cornerstone of our faith and of our life itself.
And he has taught us to recognize that common sense dictates
we must respect every human being
as having a unique dignity and life given by God himself.
And he has taught us that the cornerstone of that respect for life
is respect for the right to life of the most innocent and defenseless among us.
If we would not reject Christ the cornerstone,
let us not reject this cornerstone of respect for human life.