Friday, January 18, 2019 - Updated: 2:41 pm
This month of January, in the very middle of this month of January, I am traveling with thousands and thousands of southwestern Pennsylvanians and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across our country to Washington, D.C.
The purpose of the pilgrimage? In support of the absolute God-given right to human life from the first moment of conception to the moment of natural death. The high points of this sacred journey are the Vigil Mass and the Vigil for Prayer at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. There, pilgrims — many of them young people — pray all through the night to the next day for the protection of unborn children and all weak and vulnerable people. Then we move on to the March for Life to inform the executive, legislative and judicial branches of our government, and all women and men who learn of our message, of our pledge to support life on ALL levels.
If there was a true starting point in our contemporary reawakening in defense of the sacredness of human life in America, it came with the decision of the Supreme Court on Jan. 22, 1973, mandating the legalization of abortion nationwide. This shocking decision invigorated a passionate defense of life that comes down to us and through us today.
But the church’s commitment to human life and dignity began millennia earlier. Let me share with you two stories that illustrate the sacredness of life in other contexts.
The implicit — even explicit — condemnation of slavery goes back as far as the time of St. Paul in the first century, but was not always well-defined or enforced, even within the church itself. Father Bartolome de las Casas was a 16th-century Spanish priest who began to change that. As chaplain to the Spanish conquerors in Cuba, he was a firsthand witness to the horror of exploited and enslaved native populations.
He took his stand. He built on a Catholic understanding of the dignity of the individual human soul. He vociferously and passionately documented and decried the horror of slavery.
Pope Paul III was paying attention to him, and in 1537 published “Sublimis Deus,” which prohibited the enslavement of the native peoples of America. The Holy Father declared that the native peoples were human beings with eternal souls, and that their slavery was inspired by Satan.
Father Bartolome died in 1566 with slavery condemned but ongoing. Over the course of the next four centuries, the church spoke out against slavery. Ultimately, in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the universal condemnation of slavery was formally defined as a moral imperative, rooted in the sacredness of human life.
We remain — and will always remain — dedicated to the consistent ethic of life. The church has always and everywhere seen that its beliefs — its teachings — point toward the sacredness of human life. That is why the church assists vulnerable people in all circumstances — from women with crisis pregnancies, to families struggling with low-wage jobs, to victims of trafficking, to those caught in addiction and so many others. The church has also been drawn to a strengthening, never a weakening, of this inherent defense of the sacredness of human life. Our church continues to advance and improve on the commitment to the consistent ethic of life.
My second story is about a moral debate from our own day: capital punishment.
The text of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church arrived on the desk of Pope John Paul II in 1992. At that time, the church accepted the practice of capital punishment. It was believed that the state — the community — had a right to protect itself from crime through the execution of convicted, violent criminals, which was often seen as the only available alternative. The new catechism, though moderate in its language, reflected that traditional position.
Years earlier, however, St. Joseph Sister Helen Prejean was introduced to Pat Sonnier, a 34-year-old death-row inmate, with whom she was asked to correspond. Sister Helen knew he was sentenced to die for a crime he had committed. But she came to firmly believe that everyone has a right to life, even if they have committed a terrible crime.
She came to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola to be with Patrick and walked with him to the electric chair. He was executed at 12:15 a.m. April 5, 1984.
Sister Helen explained that after Sonnier was executed, she “left the death chamber … knowing God was telling her to be a witness to the secret ritual of legal execution and to share her experience with the world.” Her 1994 New York Times bestselling memoir, “Dead Man Walking,” on her experience with capital punishment, was made into an award-winning movie.
More importantly, she had contacted Pope John Paul II on the draft of the catechism and argued forcefully for a revision — a rewriting — of the church’s position on the death penalty.
In studying the catechism, Pope John Paul II moved away from the traditional understanding of capital punishment. How could we preach in defense of life but be silent in the face of state-sponsored executions? He began a new development of the church’s position on the death penalty. He would reflect that position in his encyclical letter, “Evangelium Vitae,” in 1995.
Pope John Paul II taught that it is virtually impossible in modern society to justify state-sanctioned killing for capital crimes as a “protection” of society. He argued that there were other means than state-sanctioned killing. Pope Francis has further strengthened that view. We have moved to a deeper Catholic understanding that now rejects capital punishment in any circumstance.
All this happened in a very short number of years.
We are seeing the church refine its stance on a number of issues. I think we can agree that the just-war theory has undergone considerable revision, developing more and more into a position that narrows greatly the state’s right to wage war. The church has refused to be compromised in its position against assisted suicide despite political — and financial — pressure. The church continues to hold true as a voice for life in the face of societal pressure to endorse both active and passive euthanasia.
Let me repeat. The church has always pointed toward the sacredness of every human life. The church was always drawn to defending life. And the church has always been drawn toward strengthening, never weakening, this inherent defense of the sacredness of human life.
It is argued, not without exaggeration, that all the life issues we face today — from so-called death with dignity, to embryonic stem-cell research, to the euthanizing of the mentally ill — all are just a few degrees of separation from legalized abortion. All of which points to our great need to apply our Respect Life initiatives on multiple fronts. The challenges we face today from secular society demand nothing less.
To defend the right to life is the foundational principle of our consistent ethic of life. We cannot and will not compromise on abortion. We cannot and will not dilute the many other issues that beg for our life-giving response.
All praise and honor to God, who is the Author of Life and the Giver of Love.