October 18th, 2011 by Most Rev. John Vlazny [Former Bishop of Winona]
Back when Pope John Paul II wrote his masterful encyclical entitled The Gospel of Life, he called for “a general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to create a great campaign in support of life.” Here in the United States such a campaign takes such place every year during October when Catholics in the USA observe Respect Life Month. Our message this year is a simple one: life matters. Yes, every human life really and truly matters.
The theme for 2011 Respect Life Program is taken from the words of Jesus in Chapter 10 of St. John’s gospel, “I came so that all might have life and have it to the full.” Who doesn’t want to have life to the full? We all do. But today’s culture, which exalts the freedom and glamour of the rich and famous, deludes too many people about the nature of a “full life.” Again and again we learn about so many “beautiful” people whose private lives are exceedingly unhappy. We think they have it all and really and truly they have little or nothing.
The self-destructive pursuit of the good life leads far too many of us to turn our backs on an ill-timed baby or a neglected aging relative in a nursing home who longs for a visit. We Christians know that we were created to love and to be loved. Earthly things can never satisfy us fully. When Jesus walked this earth he showed us the true meaning of love by his words and actions. When we truly love God and others, then our deepest needs are fulfilled and we do have life “to the full.”
The greater the sacrifices made out of love, the greater will be our joy and peace. But the notion of sacrifice is taboo to far too many people nowadays. Yes, many will agree that my life matters, but the life of another who might inconvenience or sidetrack me in pursuit of the so-called good life is something that tends to be eliminated or ignored. That is why it is so important for us to open eyes, minds and hearts to the truth of the gospel of life.
As Catholics we see no distinction between defending human life and promoting the dignity of the human person. In his most recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict asserts that “the church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that a society lacks 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 when it is weak or marginalized.” Human life is a gift from God, sacred from conception to natural death. The right to life is the first and most fundamental principle of human rights. This is why Catholics across the globe work actively to promote greater respect for human life together with greater commitment to justice and peace.
This year’s Respect Life Program focuses on some of the major attacks on human life and dignity. First and foremost we again bemoan the loss of so many innocent children because of abortion. Mothers are also harmed physically and emotionally, as well as fathers, families and society. The opposition of the Catholic Church to abortion is based on the fundamental dignity and equal value of every single human life. Opposition to abortion is the only moral choice, even for non-believers.
A more neuralgic issue is the death penalty. Back in 1995 Blessed John Paul II stated that “the nature and extent of punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of exterminating the offender except in cases of absolute necessity; in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system such cases are very rare if not practically non-existent.” Elimination of the death penalty is a goal of our Respect Life Program. It is the way of Christian mercy and reconciliation, a challenge to all of us who call ourselves Christian.
This year’s Respect Life Program also calls our attention to embryo research. There are many who support the protection of vulnerable adults and children, even animals, but they have a moral blind spot with respect to research involving human embryos. They totally disregard the fact that embryos are human beings. Human life begins with the fusion of a sperm cell and an egg. They are not simply biological material. Their use for purposes of research is absolutely immoral. Research on adult stem cells, however, is permitted since they cannot develop into mature human beings. There may very well be a sincere concern to develop new therapies and cures for diseases through such experimentation. But the end never justifies the means.
In the final months and days of a human life, life still matters. The way in which we deal with persons who are in the last stages of life speaks loudly about the kind of society we have become. Bringing death about directly goes against the fifth commandment, “You shall not kill.” On the other hand, caring for a dying person is both humane and Christian. The ethical issue is whether a dying person is killed or allowed to die. Those seeking to respect human dignity at the end of life will find true companions in the hospice movement, not the euthanasia movement. Whereas it may be possible to withhold extraordinary or expensive medical procedures in the view of a patient’s impending death, it is never allowed to “help” a person die. Ordinary care of any dying person should never be discontinued. Improvements in palliative care have been significant in recent years. The use of medications that are painkillers, not people killers, is consistent with the ethic of life that, until recent times, had been the hallmark of our human family.
On October 1st, at the Rosary Bowl in Keizer, we prayed the rosary for the success of our efforts to teach and live the gospel of life. We regret that too many of our neighbors sometimes look upon the lives of the unborn and the frail elderly as inconveniences and obstacles to their pursuit of the good life. We have waged a battle with these folks over the years with argumentative words. We need to keep speaking the truth. But this month I invite you, as I invited the people at the Rosary Bowl, to fall on your knees with your beads in your hands and to ask God to change hearts and minds so that more and more of God’s children will have life and have it to the full.