What does it mean to be pro-life? It seems to me that it means letting the Author of Life set our agenda. It means being careful of political, ideological agendas of the left and of the right that offset the balance that we find in generations of biblical concerns and teachings regarding the sanctity of life.
The acid test of the integrity of the Christian pro-life movement in this generation will be whether we have the courage to let the Author of Life, rather than competing, often mean-spirited, secular ideologies, shape our agenda.
Pope Francis recently said that, “Human life must be protected at all its stages, but especially when it’s most fragile.” To be fragile means to not be strong or sturdy, to be delicate and vulnerable. Where do we see fragility in our world today? Who are the delicate and the vulnerable among us?
It’s easy to say that everyone supports life. But on observation and study, some funny inconsistencies pop up on the way to its practical protection. Whether consciously or subconsciously, it seems to me that everyone’s definition of what it means to be “pro-life” emerges from his or her deepest beliefs.
The best place for us to find the clear teaching of the Church on human life today is in the 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church and the 1995 encyclical by our late Holy Father, Saint Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical letter, The Gospel of Life. John Paul II began his encyclical with these words:
The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message…to be preached with dauntless fidelity to the people of every age and culture (EV 1).
He calls every Catholic to be faithful to the message of Jesus Christ on human life. Furthermore, he notes that we live in times in which there is a great cultural war between a culture of death and a culture of life. As Catholics we must have the courage to proclaim the culture of life for the common good of society. This is a duty and responsibility of every Catholic.
But this culture of life is not new in our Judao-Christian tradition. The opening chapters of Genesis sketch a glorious picture of the fullness of life intended for humanity by the Creator. A harmony of right relationships prevails everywhere—with God, with one another, and with the earth.
Although it is not used here, the Hebrew word shalom is perhaps the best word to signify this fullness of life enjoyed as Adam and Eve walked in obedient relationship with God and in responsible stewardship over God’s garden. Sin, however, shattered this shalom and disrupted relationships with God, neighbor, and earth. But God refused to abandon us. Beginning with Abraham, God called out a special people to be his instruments of revelation and salvation for all. Through Moses and the prophets, the judges and the writers of wisdom, God patiently showed this chosen people how to live the abundant life.
As in the garden, God said that shalom starts with a right relationship with God. But it also includes right relationships with the neighbor: economic justice, respect for all persons including a special concern for the poor and weak, the fragile and the vulnerable, faithful family life, fair courts, and, of course, an end to war.
Moses clarified the options at the end of Deuteronomy. Life in every sense would follow if Israel obeyed God’s commands, death and evil if they disobeyed.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life And death… Choose life so that you and your descendants may live (Deut. 30:19).
God’s prophets looked ahead to a time when the Messiah would come to restore life and shalom. And in Christ, we have received abundant life.
The Catechism teaches:
Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.
This is the common thread which runs through all of the life issues. The right to life is the essential right for every other human right. Pope Benedict XVI, in 2007, reminded the authorities and members of the diplomatic corps that “the fundamental human right, the presupposition of every other human right, is the right to life itself. This is true of life from the moment of conception to its natural end …”
Increasingly since the Enlightenment, secular thinkers have promoted purely human paths to wholeness of life. If only we will offer quality education to all; if only we will modify our social environment; if only we will change the economic system; if only we will undertake this or that bit of human engineering, secular thinkers promise a new person and a new social order freed from the stupidity and selfishness of the past. Christians know this is dangerous nonsense.
Certainly we can and should affect significant changes by improving social structures. But no amount of social engineering will create unselfish persons. Tragically, the human problem lies far deeper than mere, even very unjust, social systems. It lies in the proud, rebellious, self-centered heart of every person. A transforming relationship with the living God is the only way to heal the brokenness at the core of our being.
To be pro-life does not mean that physical human life is the highest value. There are many things worth dying for. Because Christians know that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, Christians will and have sacrificed their own physical lives for freedom, justice, peace, and evangelism.
Until Christ’s return, all attempts to realize that fullness of life in American society, and all other societies, will have dreadfully imperfect results. But history demonstrates that it is possible to combat racism, end slavery, and foster democracy. We could end the formidable evil of abortion. We can erect signs of that coming kingdom both in church and in the larger society.
To be consistently pro-life is to allow our thoughts and actions to be shaped by the full biblical picture of life-abundant, the wholeness God established at creation and will finally restore at the Second Coming. And that means that biblical norms rather than secular ideologies must set our agenda. We are cautioned to have no commitment to ideologies of left or right. We are challenged to have only one commitment—to Jesus Christ and God’s revealed Word.
Our reflection forces us to ponder the question: “What does the Creator of Life care about?” We find the answers in reading, studying and praying with God’s word wherein the Bible demonstrates what issues are important to the Author of Life. And we do so with fully formed consciences that discern the signs of the times – and we must be inclusive.
- Aborting millions of unborn children each year is wrong, then walking down a path that increases the likelihood of the ultimate abortion—where a nuclear exchange obliterates hundreds of millions of people—is also wrong.
- If human life is precious, then it is a terrible sin to stand idly by in suffocating affluence when we could prevent the death by malnutrition and starvation of 12 million children each year.
- Three hundred fifty thousand persons in the United States alone die prematurely each year because of smoking. The global death toll from cigarettes already runs in the tens of millions, and some of those cigarettes come from here. How do we speak to this?
- Alcoholism enslaves 10 million Americans. Their personal tragedies entangle another 30 million family members, close friends, and coworkers in a hell of crippling car accidents, fires, lost productivity, and damaged health, with an economic cost to the nation of $120 billion annually. And this?
- Racism in countries abroad and cities nearby maims and kills. So does the rape of our environment and our children. Where are our voices here?
- Every day, erosion and construction remove enough productive land to feed 260,000 people for a year. In a world of hunger and starvation, this is a pro-life issue.
In short, if biblical norms set our agenda, and we focus on all that is a concern to the Author of Life, then we will all have enough to do for ten generations.