As tens of thousands of people – many of them young men and women – descend upon Washington this week for the annual “March for Life,” it is good for us to stop and reflect upon what we do as individuals and as a community to stand up for life. This week in the American capital, and later this year in May in Ottawa, masses will be celebrated, stirring talks will be given before Government buildings, marches will take place on major boulevards and thoroughfares in the capital cities of two great nations. For the Americans, the gathering marks the 41st anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision on January 22, 1973, which legalized abortion nationwide. Since the decision was handed down, over 55 million abortions have been legally performed in the United States.
In Washington, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, OFM Cap., Archbishop of Boston and chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, will be the principal celebrant and homilist at the Opening Mass, concelebrated by fellow cardinals and hundreds of bishops and priests.
A consistent ethic of life
The Roman Catholic Church holds a consistent ethic of life. The Church offers a teaching on the inviolability, the sacredness and dignity of the human person. However, opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the dignity of the human person such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself, whatever insults human dignity such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, disgraceful working conditions where people are treated as instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons – all of these things and more poison human society.
Human life and human dignity encounter many obstacles in the world today, especially in North America. When life is not respected, should we be surprised that other rights will sooner or later be threatened? If we look carefully at the great dramas of the last century, we see that as free markets toppled Communism, exaggerated consumerism and materialism infiltrated our societies and cultures. Aging populations, especially in the west, and resulting smaller workforces are now creating a market push towards euthanasia. As Blessed John Paul II wrote: “a right to die will inevitably give way to the duty to die.”
Today we are living in the midst of a culture that denies solidarity and takes the form of a veritable “culture of death”. This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents that encourage an idea of society exclusively concerned with efficiency. It is a war of the powerful against the weak. There is no room in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure or anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them and can only communicate through the silent language of profound sharing of affection. Human life has a sacred and religious value, but in no way is that value a concern only of believers.
Abortion is the most serious wound inflicted not only on individuals and their families who should provide the sanctuary for life, but inflicted as well on society and its culture, by the very people who ought to be society’s promoters and defenders.
Pope Benedict XVI on openness to life
In Pope Benedict XVI’s landmark encyclical, Caritas in Veritate
, (Charity in Truth), the Holy Father addressed clearly the dignity and respect for human life “which cannot in any way be detached from questions concerning the development of peoples.” Benedict wrote, “In economically developed countries, legislation contrary to life is very widespread, and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti-birth mentality; frequent attempts are made to export this mentality to other states as if it were a form of cultural progress.” “Openness to life is at the centre of true development,” writes the Pope. “When a society moves toward the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity toward the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.”
Pope Benedict summed up the current global economic crisis in a remarkable way with these words: “Human costs always include economic costs, and economic dysfunctions always involve human costs.” The Roman Catholic Church offers a teaching on the inviolability, the sacredness and the dignity of the human person: a 20/20 vision for which we must strive each day if we claim to be “pro-life.” We must strive to see the whole picture, not with tunnel vision.
Pope Francis’ opposition to abortion
In a brilliant address to the Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus in San Antonio, Texas, last August 6, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, OFM Cap. spoke these words:
“Some people think that the Holy Father should talk more about abortion. I think he speaks of love and mercy to give people the context for the Church’s teaching on abortion. We oppose abortion, not because we are mean or old fashioned, but because we love people. And that is what we must show the world. …We must be better people; we must love all people, even those who advocate abortion. It is only if we love them that we will be able to help them discover the sacredness of the life of an unborn child. Only love and mercy will open hearts that have been hardened by the individualism of our age.”
Under the watchful gaze of Christ
In his address to the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations last September 20, Pope Francis categorically condemned abortion and euthanasia. But his speech did not emphasize the customary philosophical, scientific and legal arguments. Rather, his critique appealed directly to the face of Christ. “Each one of us is invited to recognize in the fragile human being the face of the Lord, who, in his human flesh, experienced the indifference and loneliness to which we often condemn the poorest.”
The condemnation of abortion drew a parallel to the infant Jesus marked for destruction by Herod even before his birth. “Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world.” Similarly, the condemnation of euthanasia pointed to the face of Christ present in the elderly targeted for elimination. “Each old person, even if infirm or at the end of his or her days, bears the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded.”
Being pro-life is one of the deepest expressions of our baptism: we stand up as sons and daughters of the light, clothed in humility and charity, filled with conviction, speaking the truth with firmness, conviction and determination, and never losing joy and hope. Being pro-life is not an activity for a political party or a particular side of the spectrum. It is an obligation for everyone: left, right and centre! If we are pro-life, we must engage the culture around us, and not curse it. We must see others as Jesus does, and we must love them to life, even those who are opposed to us.
The litmus test for being pro-life is not only attending rallies or marches during the year in major cities of the world. The real test is what we do for life the remaining 364 days of the year, and what efforts, great and small, do we embrace to consistently and systematically oppose any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, violations of human dignity, and coercions of the will. How do we advocate for those who endure subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, human trafficking and disgraceful working conditions? All of these things and more poison human society. Let us pray that we may have a strong, consistent ethic for life.
In the words of Pope Francis: “Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world.” Again: “Each old person, even if infirm or at the end of his or her days, bears the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded.”
Let us stand up for life, and see in the face of the weakest and most vulnerable people in society, the face of Christ.