Father Joseph Johnson, ChM, provides us with some insights on “Respect Life” Month.
October is designated as “Respect Life” month each year by the U.S. Catholic bishops. It is a good time for an examination of conscience to see how we measure up in respecting the sanctity and dignity of human life. Thursday, October 22nd was the feast day of Pope St. John Paul II. He gave us powerful teachings on human life which can assist us to determine if we are making progress towards creating a “culture of life” or are continuing our society’s slide towards the “culture of death” about which he so often warned us.
We gratefully recall Pope St. John Paul II’s heroic witness to the sanctity and dignity of human life as a young man facing Nazis occupation, as a priest and bishop under communist oppression, and in his teachings as our universal shepherd. He knew firsthand what the “culture of death” looked like and he warned us of its continuing growth despite the demise of the 20th century’s totalitarian regimes. I have included excerpts from “The Gospel of Life” in which he also speaks of democracy and the danger of moral relativism within it. In the 25th anniversary of this encyclical’s publication, his words are sadly more compelling today than ever.
From Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical “The Gospel of Life” (#28):
This situation, with its lights and shadows, ought to make us all fully aware that we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the “culture of death” and the “culture of life”. We find ourselves not only “faced with” but necessarily “in the midst of” this conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life.
For us too Moses’ invitation rings out loud and clear: “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. … I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (Dt 30:15, 19). This invitation is very appropriate for us who are called day by day to the duty of choosing between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death”.
Civic Principles and Responsibilities
Many people have asked me to comment on the upcoming election. I don’t intend to wade into politics. However, I do want to make sure that you are shaping your consciences in conformity with discipleship of Jesus Christ. It is my duty as a pastor to teach how to apply the Gospel to practical situations. So, I will try to outline some of the principles and responsibilities to keep in mind.
Personalities vs. Platforms
How do we evaluate our political choices? The character of our leaders matters. Part of their character is demonstrated in their personal actions, but a larger part is manifested in the platform that they propose as their vision for governing. Though they are called to be saints like every child of God, we are not voting to canonize them but to advance their political agenda.
Leaders are always imperfect since they are human. Even the great leaders during World War II such as Churchill and FDR had many less than admirable personal qualities. Their unwavering commitment to fight the Nazis “culture of death” is what ultimately made them worthy of support.
We should look carefully at the values enshrined in the platform of each candidate in order to determine the moral suitability of giving our support. Do those values reflect the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Be on guard that your loyalty to a political party is not greater than to the Gospel.
Christians have a duty to be good citizens. In a democratic society, this means that Christians should participate in elections. In choosing how to vote, a Christian should remember that this constitutes an exercise in discipleship. Called to be “the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth,” Christians should always seek to advance Gospel values in our society. The fundamental dignity and sanctity of human life undergirds all other discussions regarding the common good.
Responsibility for your neighbor
The Gospel reminds us that the commandment to love our neighbor is joined to the commandment to love God. Do not think that you can neglect the welfare of your neighbor and be pleasing to God.
Saint John also reminds us not to delude ourselves: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 Jn. 4:20-21)
Responsibility for government
In a democracy, leaders gain power only through the support of their citizens. The way you vote gives consent to and actually empowers a candidate to forward a vision for society. If that agenda includes and advertises things that are intrinsically evil, then you necessarily assume a share of the moral responsibility for these evils.
After the Bible, the first place to look how to form your conscience is the teaching of Holy Mother Church. Be sure to read below the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II.
Excerpts from “The Gospel of Life” By Pope St. John Paul II
#1 The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message. Lovingly received day after day by the Church, it is to be preached with dauntless fidelity as “good news” to the people of every age and culture.
#4 At the same time a new cultural climate is developing and taking hold, which gives crimes against life a new and–if possible–even more sinister character, giving rise to further grave concern: broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom, and on this basis they claim not only exemption from punishment but even authorization by the State, so that these things can be done with total freedom and indeed with the free assistance of health-care systems.
All this is causing a profound change in the way in which life and relationships between people are considered. The fact that legislation in many countries, perhaps even departing from basic principles of their Constitutions, has determined not to punish these practices against life, and even to make them altogether legal, is both a disturbing symptom and a significant cause of grave moral decline. Choices once unanimously considered criminal and rejected by the common moral sense are gradually becoming socially acceptable. Even certain sectors of the medical profession, which by its calling is directed to the defence and care of human life, are increasingly willing to carry out these acts against the person. In this way the very nature of the medical profession is distorted and contradicted, and the dignity of those who practise it is degraded. In such a cultural and legislative situation, the serious demographic, social and family problems which weigh upon many of the world’s peoples and which require responsible and effective attention from national and international bodies, are left open to false and deceptive solutions, opposed to the truth and the good of persons and nations.
The end result of this is tragic: not only is the fact of the destruction of so many human lives still to be born or in their final stage extremely grave and disturbing, but no less grave and disturbing is the fact that conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life.
#8 At the root of every act of violence against one’s neighbor there is a concession to the “thinking” of the evil one, the one who “was a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44). As the Apostle John reminds us: “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, and not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother” (1 Jn 3:11-12). Cain’s killing of his brother at the very dawn of history is thus a sad witness of how evil spreads with amazing speed: man’s revolt against God in the earthly paradise is followed by the deadly combat of man against man….
Cain tries to cover up his crime with a lie. This was and still is the case, when all kinds of ideologies try to justify and disguise the most atrocious crimes against human beings. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”: Cain does not wish to think about his brother and refuses to accept the responsibility which every person has towards others. We cannot but think of today’s tendency for people to refuse to accept responsibility for their brothers and sisters.
#12 In fact, while the climate of widespread moral uncertainty can in some way be explained by the multiplicity and gravity of today’s social problems, and these can sometimes mitigate the subjective responsibility of individuals, it is no less true that we are confronted by an even larger reality, which can be described as a veritable structure of sin. This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable “culture of death”.
#17 Aside from intentions, which can be varied and perhaps can seem convincing at times, especially if presented in the name of solidarity, we are in fact faced by an objective “conspiracy against life”, involving even international Institutions, engaged in encouraging and carrying out actual campaigns to make contraception, sterilization and abortion widely available. Nor can it be denied that the mass media are often implicated in this conspiracy, by lending credit to that culture which presents recourse to contraception, sterilization, abortion and even euthanasia as a mark of progress and a victory of freedom, while depicting as enemies of freedom and progress those positions which are unreservedly pro-life.
#40 The sacredness of life gives rise to its inviolability, written from the beginning in man’s heart, in his conscience. The question: “What have you done?” (Gen 4:10), which God addresses to Cain after he has killed his brother Abel, interprets the experience of every person: in the depths of his conscience, man is always reminded of the inviolability of life–his own life and that of others–as something which does not belong to him, because it is the property and gift of God the Creator and Father.
#52 The Gospel of life is both a great gift of God and an exacting task for humanity. It gives rise to amazement and gratitude in the person graced with freedom, and it asks to be welcomed, preserved and esteemed, with a deep sense of responsibility. In giving life to man, God demands that he love, respect and promote life. The gift thus becomes a commandment, and the commandment is itself a gift.
#58 Among all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable. The Second Vatican Council defines abortion, together with infanticide, as an “unspeakable crime”.
But today, in many people’s consciences, the perception of its gravity has become progressively obscured. The acceptance of abortion in the popular mind, in behaviour and even in law itself, is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake. Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception. In this regard the reproach of the Prophet is extremely straightforward: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Is 5:20)….
The moral gravity of procured abortion is apparent in all its truth if we recognize that we are dealing with murder and, in particular, when we consider the specific elements involved. The one eliminated is a human being at the very beginning of life. No one more absolutely innocent could be imagined. In no way could this human being ever be considered an aggressor, much less an unjust aggressor! He or she is weak, defenceless, even to the point of lacking that minimal form of defence consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby’s cries and tears.
#70 Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality. Fundamentally, democracy is a “system” and as such is a means and not an end. Its “moral” value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral law to which it, like every other form of human behaviour, must be subject: in other words, its morality depends on the morality of the ends which it pursues and of the means which it employs. If today we see an almost universal consensus with regard to the value of democracy, this is to be considered a positive “sign of the times”, as the Church’s Magisterium has frequently noted. But the value of democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes. Of course, values such as the dignity of every human person, respect for inviolable and inalienable human rights, and the adoption of the “common good” as the end and criterion regulating political life are certainly fundamental and not to be ignored.
#72 Laws which authorize and promote abortion and euthanasia are therefore radically opposed not only to the good of the individual but also to the common good; as such they are completely lacking in authentic juridical validity. Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good. Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law.
#77 It is therefore a service of love which we are all committed to ensure to our neighbour, that his or her life may be always defended and promoted, especially when it is weak or threatened. It is not only a personal but a social concern which we must all foster: a concern to make unconditional respect for human life the foundation of a renewed society.
We are asked to love and honour the life of every man and woman and to work with perseverance and courage so that our time, marked by all too many signs of death, may at last witness the establishment of a new culture of life, the fruit of the culture of truth and of love.
#90 If charity is to be realistic and effective, it demands that the Gospel of life be implemented also by means of certain forms of social activity and commitment in the political field, as a way of defending and promoting the value of life in our ever more complex and pluralistic societies. Individuals, families, groups and associations, albeit for different reasons and in different ways, all have a responsibility for shaping society and developing cultural, economic, political and legislative projects which, with respect for all and in keeping with democratic principles, will contribute to the building of a society in which the dignity of each person is recognized and protected and the lives of all are defended and enhanced.
#95 We need to begin with the renewal of a culture of life within Christian communities themselves. Too often it happens that believers, even those who take an active part in the life of the Church, end up by separating their Christian faith from its ethical requirements concerning life, and thus fall into moral subjectivism and certain objectionable ways of acting. With great openness and courage, we need to question how widespread is the culture of life today among individual Christians, families, groups and communities in our Dioceses. With equal clarity and determination we must identify the steps we are called to take in order to serve life in all its truth.
#101 The Gospel of life is for the whole of human society. 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. 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. Only respect for life can be the foundation and guarantee of the most precious and essential goods of society, such as democracy and peace.
Let us continue to pray for a swift end to the spread of the coronavirus, healing of those infected, the protection of our medical personnel and first responders, support for those suffering from the social and economic consequences of this crisis, the repose of the souls of those who have died, and good health for everyone!
During this “Respect Life” month, let us pray for an end to abortion, euthanasia, and all attacks on the sanctity of human life! Let us also pray for an end to racism, all forms of discrimination, and everything that undermines the dignity of the human person!
Pray for our nation as we prepare for the November election!