27th Sunday 2015 – Respect Life
Today, the first Sunday in October, is traditionally the Catholic Church’s Respect Life Sunday in our country. In Catholic teaching on the human person, we see the strongest connection between our obligation to defend and promote the value of human life and the way we esteem the dignity of each and every human person. Pope Benedict XVI summarized this connection in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, (n. 15), citing Pope John Paul II:
- The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that “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.” ( from Evangelium Vitae n. 101)
The dignity of the human person is of surpassing value for Christians, and it should be such a surpassing value for all mankind. John Paul II made this point in his great encyclical The Gospel of Life: He said
- The Gospel of life is not for believers alone: it is for everyone …Although faith provides special light and strength, this question arises in every human conscience which seeks the truth and which cares about the future of humanity. Life certainly has a sacred and religious value, but in no way is that value a concern only of believers. The value at stake is one which every human being can grasp by the light of reason; thus it necessarily concerns everyone.
What is at stake here, then, in our defense of human life is the very future of humanity and the value of each and every person’s life. Thus, while faith strengthens our understanding of the value of life and the truth about man’s great dignity, the fundamental truth of this value and man’s dignity can also be grasped by the light of reason when a person’s conscience seeks the truth and cares deeply about mankind’s future.
Now we also know that respect for life is a far reaching concept which embraces all the social and political issues that impact the dignity of all human persons, either denigrating or enhancing a society’s standing as human and humane. True respect for life defends all who are weak or defenseless, the young and the old, the handicapped, the poverty stricken, the sick, the victims of violence, etc. Thus, respect for life should move us to remedy whatever in our society denies the value of every human life and undercuts the dignity of every human person.
All that is true, but likewise true is the fact that the most basic value and right that undergirds all the rest of our human rights is the right to life itself. Again John Paul II summarizes this hierarchy of value and human rights most clearly:
- When the Church declares that unconditional respect for the right to life of every innocent person-from conception to natural death-is one of the pillars on which every civil society stands, she “wants simply to promote a human State, a state which recognizes the defense of the fundamental rights of the human person, especially of the weakest, as its primary duty.”
Thus, when that primacy of the right to life itself is even obscured or overshadowed in some way, all the other human rights are also severely undermined in our society. This has happened in recent times by the assertion of what Cardinal Muller, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, has called a false and intellectually dishonest version of what is sometimes called the seamless garment notion of moral teaching wedded to political action.
Cardinal Muller explains the correct notion of “seamless garment” as a concept simply “used to illustrate how Catholic moral teaching is a consistent whole – uniting ethical, religious, and political threads in a unified moral vision.” However, this concept is abused, he says, when it is employed “to allow or at least to justify turning a blind eye to instances of abortion, contraception, or public funding for embryonic stem cell research, as long as these were simultaneously accompanied by opposition to the death penalty or promotion of economic development for the poor – issues which are also part of the fabric of Catholic moral teaching.”
Both Pope John Paul II tries to correct such an abuse of Catholic moral teaching and social action, not only because it undermines a correct hierarchy of moral values, but also because it distorts the duties of Catholics to apply that correct hierarchy of values in their effort to build a true civilization of love based upon the moral foundation of the right to life as the first and most important of all natural and human rights, that is, what Saint John Paul II referred to above as the unconditional respect for the right to life of every innocent person-from conception to natural death
Indeed Saint John Paul II, during his first visit to this country, proclaimed that the ultimate measure of the greatness of a country is the way it treats the most defenseless of its citizens. Mother Teresa often said the same thing, only she would say we are poor or rich in accord with the way treat the weakest brothers and sisters. What these two holy leaders were telling us was that the future of our society, the future of our world ultimately depends on the respect for life itself.
Now Cardinal Muller in a brilliant speech to the Pontifical Academy of Life in 2013 expanded on the teaching of the recent popes on the defense of human life. He spoke about this seamless garment notion in connection with all the life issues today connected with bio ethics. He came to this startling insight, connecting his argument with the teaching of Humanae Vitae:
- “… the separation of the sexual act from its proper context is at the very core of many of the bioethical problems which confront us today. The prophetic teaching of Humanae vitae both on human dignity and on the intrinsic meaning of the sexual act is so important that without it we cannot engage our faithful—to say nothing of the larger society—in a coherent discussion of the problems and moral evil presented by techniques of artificial fertilization, preimplantation diagnosis, cryogenic freezing of embryos and “embryo reduction”, human cloning and the therapeutic use of stem cells. …
- In marriage, sex is an expression of love with a particular and intrinsic meaning. Once the sexual act is removed from this defining context – the “seamless garment” begins to unravel.”
Cardinal Muller concludes by stating that Catholics need to be taught this unique and comprehensive vision of the Church, for he insists, “The truth is that many have never heard the fullness of the Church’s teaching, the profound ‘yes’ to the sanctity of sexual love lived-out in marriage and the family.” And finally he boldly adds this challenge:
- “the only response of the Church to modernity has to be one which is completely faithful to the teaching of the Magisterium, above all on matters of sexual morality because this is precisely where doctrine touches life. … Yes, we fight for peace and justice in the world, and at the same time we need to set forth persuasively the Church’s vision of life, love and sexuality, including the intrinsic immorality of abortion and contraception.”
This marvelous reaffirmation and development of the teaching of Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI is timely indeed. Recently the head of a large archdiocese stated that certainly we Catholics should be appalled by the actions of Planned Parenthood marketing baby parts culled from its abortion industry, but then he said that we should be equally appalled by people suffering from social evils like unemployment or racism, or hunger. He has also spoken of a new “seamless solidarity” that may well be his remake of the kind of seamless garment theory that would justify the kind of moral equivalency involved in his “appalling” statement above.
At any rate, there is little question that there are Catholics today, clergy and laity, who want to return to the kind of seamless garment theory that Cardinal Muller qualifies as intellectually dishonest, a kind of intellectual cover for supposedly reengaging with the current secular society on matters on which we Catholics might agree with them. This would, however, involve a toning down of the teaching of the Church on issues of life and bio ethics and focusing on other social issues where we might reach agreements. But again, Cardinal Muller anticipates this mistaken approach to engagement:
- The experience of the Church in this same period demonstrates that where the Church has tried to accommodate her teaching to this secular understanding by deemphasizing the specific witness of her moral teaching, this has lead neither to a greater societal acceptance of the Church nor to a renewal in her own life. Rather where the teaching of Humanae vitae has been down-played, or worse still ignored, we have witnessed a collapse of family life, an increase in extra-marital infidelity and a diminishment of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life.
There is indeed a seamless garment in all this; the truth is a seamless garment; the unity of the Church is a seamless garment; and the connection between the hierarchy of moral values and social action is a seamless garment. If you try to engage a secular society by ignoring this hierarchy of values and try to accommodate the Church’s teaching to engage in a dialogue with the secular order, both society and the Church will suffer. Overcoming social evils depends upon establishing the right to life as the pillar or foundation for all the other social goods and human rights. On this truth we cannot, must not bend. Otherwise we really have nothing contribute to our society as Catholics. Respecting life begins and ends with respect for moral truth and the true hierarchy of moral values.