Respect Life

Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year. Is 5:1-7; Ps 80:9,12-16,19-20; Phil 4:6-9; Mt 21:33-43

Today is ‘Respect Life Sunday’. Now one might think that we do not need a special Sunday to respect life. After all, doesn't everyone agree that life is a good thing? Of course, the way that the Lord's servants are killed in the parable in today's Gospel suggests that at least some people disrespect life to the point of killing the innocent. But people in civilized countries today tend to agree, on the whole, that disrespect or death are evil things in themselves; we would certainly think so if we were being threatened with disrespect or death. 

But is this true? There used to be a popular expression, ‘the sanctity of life’, a phrase that has almost vanished from public and political discourse. People used to regard human life as sacred, which meant that there were certain things that one would refrain from doing to other persons simply because they were human beings. Indeed, the mere fact of being human, in a Christian society, used to elicit a certain reverence from others. C. S. Lewis wrote that,  “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” [1] This principle, the sanctity of human life, is founded on the words of Christ himself, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:40).

With this background, the fact that the phrase ‘the sanctity of life’ is no longer used is, I think, a warning: perhaps most people have lost the sense that human life is sacred. There is certainly evidence of a hardening of attitudes. I am shocked by the fact that if I ask college age students if it is acceptable to torture prisoners for information, they will usually say  ‘yes’, at least in extreme circumstances such as forcing life-saving information from a terrorist. The problem is that denial of the ‘sanctity of life’ always starts with the extreme cases, like torturing a terrorist. But once the principle of sanctity of life is abrogated, consciences are quickly brutalized. And on no issue have consciences become more brutalized than on the question of abortion.

Starting in the Soviet Union in 1920, the practice of legal abortion gradually spread to many countries in the last century. In most cases, abortion was initially presented to the public and lawmakers as an option of last resort in a few, extreme cases, such as rape or incest. Once available, however, it quickly grew into a vast industry. In the United States alone there have been at least 48.5 million abortions since Roe vs. Wade in 1973 [2]. I say ‘at least’, because there are four other ways in which our society creates and deliberately destroys embryos: first, spare embryos in IVF treatments; second, the so-called ‘morning-after pills’ which act as abortifacients; third, conventional birth control pills, which many physicians now agree sometimes act as abortifacients; fourth, the use of embryos in so-far futile attempts to produce medical treatments by harvesting stem cells. Taken collectively, the total number of human beings created and deliberately killed since 1973 may exceed one fifth of the population of the United States. As if this ‘culture of death’ was not enough, some influential senators want to introduce a bill in the new congress in January called the ‘Freedom of Choice Act’ [3][4]. The Freedom of Choice Act would, if enacted, override any federal, state and local statutes that currently mandate certain limited restrictions on the practice of abortion. Among its many implications, the Freedom of Choice Act would oblige all states to allow late-term abortions, including partial-birth abortions, and would strip parents of their right to be involved in their minor daughter's abortion decision.

Now of course the slogan of the eugenics movement and pro-abortion lobby has often been, “Every child a wanted child.” But I would like to tell you a story showing how an ‘unwanted child’ can be a blessing, and is certainly never a ‘punishment’. In 1452 a young peasant woman named Christina gave birth to an illegitimate child, a child who grew up without even a surname. At the age of fourteen, this child became an apprentice to a famous artist and began to reveal great talent. In his lifetime he conceptualized a helicopter, solar power, a calculator, the double hull of a ship and an early theory of plate tectonics. In some of these ideas he was five centuries ahead of his time. Some of his smaller inventions, such as an automated bobbin winder, entered the world of early manufacturing. As a scientist, he greatly advanced knowledge in anatomy, civil engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics. As an artist, he painted the Mona Lisa, and images of the Annunciation and the Last Supper, some of the greatest works of art in the history of the world. If this universal genius had been conceived in 21st century America he might well have been aborted, perhaps under the Freedom of Choice Act. Fortunately for him and for the whole world, he was conceived in 15th century Catholic Italy. His name, of course, was Leonardo da Vinci.

My dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, unlike Leonardo da Vinci, many of our children today are cast out of the vineyard of this world before they have a chance to be fruitful. How, then, can we recover a ‘culture of life’? First, to those who have had abortions, or the men who have been complicit or responsible, God offers forgiveness and peace, especially through the Sacrament of Confession. God's divine mercy is unlimited to all who are prepared to receive it. Second, all of us should pray and make acts of reparation to restore a ‘culture of life’. Third, we can become a defenders of the right to life. Here a great example of a miracle of grace is Norma McCorvey. As you may know,  Norma McCorvey was ‘Jane Roe’ in the 1973 Roe v. Wade lawsuit.  She never had her abortion. Following an extraordinary conversion to Christianity, she was received into communion with the Catholic Church in 1998. Today she campaigns strongly against legal abortion.

In conclusion, I encourage you to read the insert in today's newsletter, which has much more information that I can give in a brief homily. Slavery came to an end in the West principally because at least a few Christians were prepared to act. Abortion can also be brought to an end in the West, if we as Christians are prepared to act. May God help us to recover true respect for the sanctity of life. 

Father Andrew Pinsent, St Ambrose Church, St Louis, 5th October 2008

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