This October the Catholic Church throughout the United States will observe
Respect Life Month, an annual tradition now in its fortieth year.
Beginning on October 2, 2011-Respect Life Sunday-Catholics across the nation
will join together to witness to the inherent equality and transcendent value
of every human being.
In countless liturgies and events we will give thanks to God for the gift of
human life, and pray for his guidance and blessings on our efforts to defend
the most vulnerable members of the human family.
We will voice our opposition to the injustice and cruelty of abortion on
behalf of those victims whose voices have been silenced. At the same time, we
will remind the living victims of abortion-the mothers and fathers who grieve
the loss of an irreplaceable child-that God's mercy is greater than any human
sin, and that healing and peace can be theirs through the sacrament of
reconciliation and the Church's Project Rachel Ministry.
The theme chosen for this year's Respect Life Program is I came so that
all might have life and have it to the full. In this brief explanation of
his mission (cf. John 10:10), Jesus refers both to our hope of eternal life,
to be restored through his death and resurrection, and to our life in this
By following Jesus' new Commandment of unselfish love, our lives can be
richly fulfilling, and marked by joy and peace. In contrast, treating others as
either means or obstacles to one's self-serving goals, while never learning to
love generously, is an impoverished way to live.
Viewing life as a "zero sum" game, in which advancing one's
interests requires putting aside the needs of others, can lead to callous
unconcern for anyone who is especially weak, defenseless, and in need of our
help. The unborn child, the aging parent who some call a "burden" on
our medical system, the allegedly "excess" embryo in the fertility
clinic, the person with a disability, the cognitively impaired accident victim
who needs assistance in receiving food and water to live-each today is at risk
of being dismissed as a "life unworthy of life."
Jesus' promise of "life to the full" is especially poignant today,
when our culture and sometimes our government promote values inimical to the
happiness and true good of individuals and society. We face increasing attempts
to expunge God and religious discourse from public life. This promotes the dangerous
proposition that human beings enjoy no special status by virtue of their
God-given humanity. Some now even seek to eliminate religiously motivated
people and organizations from public programs, by forcing them to violate their
moral and religious convictions or stop serving the needy.
The same forces, aided by advertising and entertainment media, promote a
selfish and demeaning view of human sexuality, by extolling the alleged good of
sexual activity without love or commitment. This view of sex as
"free" of commitment or consequences has no place for openness to new
life. Hence contraceptives are promoted even to young teens as though they were
essential to women's well-being, and abortion defended as the
"necessary" back-up plan when contraceptives fail. And fail they do.
Studies report that most women seeking abortions were using contraception in
the month they became pregnant. Again and again, studies show that increasing
access to contraception fails to reduce rates of unplanned pregnancies and
Both these trends-a distorted view of sexuality and a disdain for the role
of religion-are exhibited by the Department of Health and Human Services'
recent decision on the "preventive services" to be mandated in
virtually all private health plans under the new health care law. The
Department ruled that such mandated services will include surgical
sterilization and all FDA-approved contraceptive drugs and devices-including
the abortifacient drug "Ella," a close analogue to the abortion pill
The decision is wrong on many levels. Preventive services are aimed at
preventing diseases (e.g., by vaccinations) or detecting them early to aid
prompt treatment (e.g., screening for diabetes or cancer). But pregnancy is not
a disease. It is the normal, healthy state by which each of us came into the
world. Far from preventing disease, contraceptives can have serious health
consequences of their own, for example, increasing the risk of acquiring a
sexually transmitted disease, such as AIDS, increasing the risk of breast
cancer from excess estrogen, and of blood clots that can lead to stroke from
synthetic progestin. Mandating such coverage shows neither respect for women's
health or freedom, nor respect for the consciences of those who do not want to take
part in such problematic initiatives.
The "religious employer" exemption offered by the Department is so
extremely narrow that it protects almost no one. Catholic institutions
providing health care and other services to the needy could be forced to fire
their non-Catholic employees and cease serving the poor and vulnerable of other
faiths-or stop providing health coverage at all. It has been said that Jesus
himself, or the Good Samaritan of his famous parable, would not qualify as
"religious enough" for the exemption, since they insisted on helping
people who did not share their view of God.
All these misguided efforts to foster false values among our youth, to
silence the voice of moral truth in the public domain, and to deprive believers
of their constitutionally-protected right to live according to their religious
convictions, must be resisted by education, public advocacy, and above all by
The founders of our nation understood that religion and morality are
essential to the survival of a freedom-loving society. John Adams expressed
this conviction, stating: "We have no government armed with power capable
of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our
Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate
for the government of any other."
Catholics must not shrink from the obligation to assert the values and
principles we hold essential to the common good, beginning with the right to
life of every human being and the right of every woman and man to express and
live by his or her religious beliefs and well-formed conscience.
As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us last year in one of his Ad Limina addresses
to visiting bishops, "a society can be built only by tirelessly
respecting, promoting and teaching the transcendent nature of the human
person." That common nature transcends all accidental differences of age,
race, strength, or conditions of dependency, preparing us to be one human
family under God.
During this Respect Life Month, as we celebrate God's great gift of life,
let us pray and reflect on how each of us might renew our commitment and
witness to "respecting, promoting and teaching the transcendent nature of
the human person," thereby shoring up the foundations of a society sorely
in need of this guidance.