SANCTITY OF HUMAN LIFE SUNDAY
Each year we are given two specific opportunities as priests to speak to pro-life issues: the first Sunday in October, and the Sunday in close proximity to the day, January 22, 1973, when the then Supreme Court handed down the decisions of Roe v. Wade, and Doe v. Bolton, decisions which effectively made abortion on demand legal in this great country of ours. Instead of standing by the most fundamental principle of our Constitution, the primary right to life, the highest court in the land sided with well funded lobbyists and legislators who sadly convinced so many that life in the womb was not really life at all, and it could be attacked during any stage of development. Blessedly, there are numerous Catholics who are willing to stand up and be counted as against abortion on demand, but let me be clear, that alone does not make a person pro-life in the Church’s eyes. The mantle of pro-life is truly meant for those who oppose all assaults on life, from its beginning until its natural end. Being pro-life is not as easy as some would like to make it.
In the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 13, 2021, Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on death row, was executed by lethal injection. There is no debate about how heinous her crime was – strangling a pregnant woman and cutting out the baby (called a “fetus” in most news accounts, so devalued has human life become) from her womb. The woman bled to death, but authorities were able to save the baby. Appeals for clemency were denied by the Supreme Court, the same Supreme Court that recently upheld a law banning the wide availability of abortifacients. This does not earn the Supreme Court the “pro-life” mantle, for all but the Court were in agreement that Lisa Montgomery had “brain damage and severe mental illness that was exacerbated by the lifetime of sexual torture she suffered at the hands of her “caretakers.” While she was granted a stay of execution, the Supreme Court, and pleas to President of the United States, refused to uphold the stay. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution “prohibits the execution of people (like Lisa Montgomery) who, due to their severe mental illness or brain damage, do not understand the basis for their executions.” There are two more executions scheduled for Thursday and Friday (January 14 &15), if the victims “have recovered fully enough from COVID-19” (?).
Most of us are of an age that we have been able to witness the development of attempts as a “seamless garment” approach to pro-life issues. What was once thought necessary and widespread (the death penalty), is now seen as not only unnecessary (since it has little to no effect on deterring violent crimes), but more, importantly, out of step with a genuine pro-life approach to all life. Here, as elsewhere, the economics of housing a criminal for a life time is often cited as a need for executions (although with the appeals, it costs more to execute a prisoner than to house them for life), but if we believe all life to be sacred, do we have the right in most ordinary circumstances to take the life of another human being, no matter how heinous their crime might be?
Lisa Montgomery’s chances for repentance in this life are over; her chances of living a productive life, even behind bars, are over; her chances of coming to understand the true error of her ways, are over; and her chances of having her mental illness treated in a positive way, are over. For those who are inclined to support the death penalty, you are out-of-step with the Catholic Church, who works now to have it abolished worldwide. Those who support the death penalty should pause before they attempt to put on that mantle of pro-life, a mantle which is meant to cover all issues relating to the fundamental dignity of the human person.
But the death penalty is only one of many elements, like abortion, which are meant to be considered before donning the mantle of pro-life, and the most recent unfortunate attack on the U.S. Capitol provides us with several other examples of what else is contrary to being genuinely pro-life. Truth matters, and when you do not tell the truth the circumstances that follow can oftentimes be disastrous. The events of Wednesday, January 6, when a group of supporters of our outgoing president stormed the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol, resulting in the deaths of six people. It was an example of what happens when truth does not matter. Those who refused to tell the truth about the 2020 elections are culpable in the loss of life on Wednesday, and also culpable, as some have said, are “some Catholics who have remained silent, or worse, cheered it along, including some bishops (some participating in ‘Stop the Steal’ rallies), priests, a few sisters, right-wing Catholic media and too many people in the pro-life movement” (NCR, 1/7/21). Truth matters.
In the medical world truth matters, and when people are being lied to on a regular basis, the outrageous spread of a disease already responsible for taking hundreds of thousands of lives is the result of spreading false information – its a “hoax,” “masks not needed,” the economy is more important than people’s lives. Genuine pro-life Catholics do not look the other way when racism, antisemitism, injustice, and xenophobia are being touted as the solution to what ails America. Catholics were challenged recently when they were reminded in the Catholic journal La Croix International that “half of all Catholics who voted in November’s election voted for [the incumbent President], even after four years of blatant lies, hypocrisy, racism, nepotism, corruption, narcissism, bullying, boorishness, sexual abuse, defiance of the law, divisiveness, pettiness, general incompetence, and childish petulance.” If the events of Wednesday were bothersome to anyone, then they need to honestly have a “come to Jesus moment,” for it is clear that those events were about as far away from the gospel message of Jesus as they could get, regardless of what some evangelicals might suggest.
The pandemic, which continues to rage, largely due to an atrocious roll-out of the vaccine, has pro-life lessons to teach us, as sad as the past year has been for many. It surely has taught us the value of human life, all life, even lives that are riddled with sickness and super annuated. The numbers of those that have died from COVID-19 are staggering, even if they are off by some relatively small number, and they have affected disproportionately the elderly in nursing homes, and the people of color who often hold jobs that they cannot possibly do remotely. We have come to a special appreciation for all those lives.
My neighbor, whose mother had an extreme case of Alzheimers contracted COVID-19, and was removed from her familiar surroundings to a special place where she could get the care she needed. The unfamiliar surroundings caused confusion, and she refused to eat, eventually dying from COVID-19. As difficult as her struggles were, her loss was truly mourned, and those who might wish to debate the numbers of deaths had no effect on that.
In addition, that same neighbor, during his mother’s illness, had his brother, who lived in a group home for special-needs young people, contract COVID. After being isolated from others, he too lost his battle with the very real disease several days after his mother’s death.
The pandemic has given great voice to end of life issues, what we refer to as ‘euthanasia,’ and declares that someone’s worth cannot be measured by their productivity, as some would like us to believe. Indeed, as calls for euthanasia continue to spread from abroad to individual states, we are reminded that every life is of value, and no one has the right to prematurely end that life, as difficult as some diseases may make the final days of a person’s life.
Finally, in my opinion that the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement that spread from this country to countries all over the world, helped to highlight the value to human life. While condemning any and all violence that only sometimes afflicted the more numerous peaceful protests, it is clear that the needless murder of George Floyd, and so many other people of color, have given us a chance to glimpse the systemic racism which afflicts our country. White Supremacists, Boogaloo, and Proud Boys are only the tip of an iceberg that runs deep, and the flaunting of a Confederate Flag in the Capitol takeover is a sign of just how deep it runs. Racism is an evil, and it has no place in our country if it truly stands behind the most fundamental constitutional principle of every person’s right to life. George Floyd, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many others, point to the ultimate and unassailable value of human life, and the killing of unarmed individuals, even those who might have police records, only highlights a country’s disregard for human life. Even though their lives were taken by legitimate law authorities (not Arbery), a greater respect for human life would have prevented their parents, relatives and friends from having to mourn their loss.
It has been suggested, that without a president in office who will appoint conservative judges the pro-life movement is greatly harmed, if not shattered. I do not believe that is true. Indeed, I believe that it is up to us, and it has always been up to us, to model pro-life behavior and to change the hearts and minds of those who favor, promote, seek or perform abortions. As I have tried to point out, however, being pro-life is not just being opposed to abortion on demand, and all of us need to use the tools that are available to us to persuade those in Congress to move father away from the Democratic Platform which includes every woman’s right to an abortion. If we desire to put on a pro-life mantle, we need to be worried about all things affecting life – capital punishment, immigration, welfare, racism, euthanasia. We need to confront the gross inequities in our economic system, and where we as individuals fail we need to have the courage and the humility to admit we were wrong and confront the error of our ways.
As challenging as these times are there are signs of hope that our country is poised to move closer to a genuine appreciation of life, all life. In the 2020 election cycle, 18 new pro-life women were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, bringing the total to 29 women who have declared themselves pro-life. Out of these 18 women, 10 have flipped seats thats were formerly held by representatives favoring abortion on demand. Let us never despair that genuine strides can be made to bring our country back to a country that defends life, at all of its stages. In addition, the number of abortions performed in this country, while still too high, have become fewer with the passing of each year.
My point in this reflection is not meant to be political, for the election has blessedly been settled, but not in until after mayhem and bloodshed ensued. Genuine respect for all human life entails the possibility of some discomfort, for we may have to sacrifice some of our long held feelings in order to get to where Jesus would like us. Let us be willing to make those sacrifices, examine our consciences, see where we have helped and where we have hindered the pro-life movement, and let us by all means stand united in our defense of human life, from womb to tomb.