Exactly 15 years ago this fall, America’s bishops issued a pastoral letter called Living the Gospel of Life. Even today, with the passage of time, this remains no ordinary Church text. I believed then, and I believe now, that it’s the best document ever issued by the U.S. bishops on the priorities of Catholic engagement in our nation’s public life. In writing it, the bishops sought to apply Pope John Paul II’s great encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) to the American situation. The heart of their statement, paragraph No. 23, stresses that:
“Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these areas. Catholic public officials are obliged to address each of these issues as they seek to build consistent policies which promote respect for the human person at all stages of life.
“But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. If we understand the human person as the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ — the living house of God — then these latter issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house’s foundation. These directly and immediately violate the human person’s most fundamental right — the right to life. Neglect of these issues is the equivalent of building our house on sand. Such attacks cannot help but lull the social conscience in ways ultimately destructive of other human rights.”
This is why the right to life is not merely one among many urgent issues, but rather the foundational one. It provides the cornerstone for a whole architecture of human dignity. Nothing has changed in recent months or years in Catholic thinking about the sanctity of human life. Nor can it. As America’s bishops have stressed so many times, we have an obligation to work for human dignity at every stage and in every circumstance of human life. Here in Philadelphia, our Catholic social ministries model that dedication to the poor and disadvantaged in an extraordinary way.
But when we revoke legal protection for unborn children – when we accept the intimate violence abortion inflicts both on women and their unborn children; when we license and sacralize abortion as part of what Pope Francis calls a “throw away culture” — we violate the first and most important human right, the right to life itself. And once we do that, and then create a system of alibis to justify it, we begin to put every other human and civil right at risk.
October is national Respect Life Month. It’s a good time to remember the preciousness of all human life, beginning in the womb and continuing through natural death.
There are really two tragedies in every abortion: the killing of an unborn child; and the killing of an opportunity to love. God made us to be better than that.