Ending Abortion: Cultivating a Culture of Life

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By Ben Duphiney: The Catholic University of America

If a human being is no longer safe in his mother’s womb, where in the world can he be safe?

Phil Bosmans

Human life is threatened each day. Each year, approximately 876,000 abortions take place in the United States.[1] The unborn child, who is perhaps the most vulnerable member of the human race, is no longer seen as a human. In the wake of the passing of Roe v. Wade in 1973, children have progressively been seen as problems, rather than blessings from God. Abortion in the United States has been celebrated as a right, a choice, and healthcare, among many other deceptive euphemisms that hide the evil reality of abortion. The Catholic Church is one of the strongest advocates for unborn children. The Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962-1965, began to see the “magnified power of humanity [threatening] to destroy the race itself.”[2] New threats to human life, including “murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person,” are continually normalized from a new understanding of freedom and ethical relativism.[3] While abortion is seen as normal––even sometimes essential––the Catholic Church teaches that “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.”[4] Not only does the Catholic Church teach that abortion is a grave offense, it teaches that God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life and life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception.[5] Rather than simply taking this stance, the Church teaches how to end the practice of abortion. While there are many other life threatening issues, addressing abortion is where the Church can start cultivating a culture of life. The practice of abortion must become illegal––and even unthinkable––and this begins with “the renewal of a culture of life within Christian communities themselves.”[6] With eyes turned towards the hope of ending the practice of abortion, the Church teaches against the practice of abortion, how individuals, particularly Americans, must respond to abortion through their legal rights, and how to cultivate a culture of life. It may seem overwhelming to move against the strong, normal current in the world, but there are already examples of communities that have already begun this mission.

What the Church teaches about Abortion

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…[7]

Jerimiah 1:5, NRSV

“Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion.”[8] This teaching is rooted in scripture, contrary to moral law, and the practice of abortion goes directly against the command of Jesus: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[9] Yet after 1973, abortion has become more popular within the United States, especially revolving politics. The Church teaches that “formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense.”[10] Many think that abortion is simply the choice of the woman; in each abortion, there are three human beings involved: the mother, the doctor, and the unborn child. When an abortion is performed, “a person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,” or automatic excommunication from the Catholic Church.[11] The Church stands strongly with this teaching, and despite the changing times, the Church has not loosended any part of this teaching. Perhaps because of the severity of abortion. Because there are three human beings involved––and it breaks the heart of the mother, destroys the heart of the unborn child, and hardens the heart of the doctor––abortion damages the larger body of Christ. Abortion is evil, but “The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy.”[12] Many women who are coerced into having abortion are forced by family members––or boyfriends––which lessens the culpability of the sin. There are countless charities that offer post-abortive help and counseling. The Church offers an abundant, infinite amount of mercy in the Sacrament of Confession. There is always hope and healing after death and sin.

While there are complications involved with pregnancies, human life “must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.”[13] Despite any medical complications, the mother, father, doctor, and anyone else involved with the decision of the unborn child is responsible for defending human life; it is evident that the child in the womb cannot defend his or her life. Unfortunately, it is quite popular that unborn children with prenatal diagnosis, such as “Down syndrome are nearly twice more likely to be aborted than others.”[14]According to the Church, “prenatal diagnosis is morally licit, ‘if it respects the life and integrity of the embryo and the human fetus…it is gravely opposed to the moral law…with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion, …a diagnosis must not be the equivalent of a death sentence.”[15] These diagnoses must be “directed toward healing the improvement of [the unborn child’s] condition of health, or its individual survival.”[16] Additionally, it is popular for parents to design their baby’s height, hair and eye color, and other various genes. Such biological manipulations disrespect life and view the child as less than human. “Certain attempts to influence chromosomic or genetic inheritance…are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being and his integrity and identity’ which are unique and unrepeatable.”[17] Each human being is unrepeatable, and the unpredictability of their unique traits are not a burden. The Church remains in solidarity with each member of its body, including the unborn.

The Second Vatican Council “stress[ed] [the] reverence for man; everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his life and the means necessary to living it with dignity.”[18] The Church recognizes the human dignity of each person, despite their condition, diagnosis, or any sort of ailment they may have. In the secular world, most humans are valued by what they can do or produce. The Church respects each person because they are from God: “Endowed with light from God, [the Church] can offer solutions…that man’s true situation can be portrayed and his defects explained, while at the same time his dignity and destiny are justly acknowledged.”[19] Any threat to human life, with one of the most pressing threats as abortion, is a “poison [to] civilization…and [insults to human life, such as abortion] debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honor of the creator.”[20] The Church strongly affirms the dignity of each human person. “No human being can ever be unfit for life, whether due to age, state of health or quality of existence. Every child who appears in a woman’s womb is a gift that changes a family’s history, the life of [each family member]. That child needs to be welcomed, loved and nurtured. Always!”[21] Everyone in society plays a crucial role in ending the practice of abortion and protecting the dignity of all human life, including life in the womb.

Legal Role of Man in Society

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

The Declaration of Independence states that each person has “certain unalienable Rights [endowed by their Creator], that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[22] How is life protected is abortion takes the life away from the unborn child? It is the right of citizens of the United States to “[support] laws and policies to protect human life to the maximum degree possible, including constitutional protection for the unborn and legislative efforts to end abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia.”[23] Members of the faithful are also called to form their consciences, because the Church has an “obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith.”[24]  “Christ, the Teacher, shows us what is true and good, that is, what is in accord with our human nature,” and therefore in order to be fully alive and human, man is called to respect human life.[25] Practically speaking, man has a responsibility to vote “according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods.”[26] It is his responsibility to be formed by the Church and her teachings. Because there is a separation between Church and State, difficulties may arise when voting. “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion…if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil.”[27] There may be times when a Catholic, who does not agree with certain positions, votes for a candidate who supports evil acts; they may vote for the candidate for other moral reasons. “Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.”[28] Many difficult moral dilemmas surface during times of voting and legal actions, but it is “essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience…these decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue.’[29] Voting is a complicated process, but it is an opportunity to further the respect of human life, and the greater Church. In addition to voting, Catholics may also use their first amendment right––freedom of speech, religion, and press–– to speak out against the injustice of abortion. For families particularly, “Serving the Gospel of life thus means that the family…works to ensure that the laws and institutions of the State in no way violate the right to life, from conception to natural death, but rather protect and promote it.”[30]

“Roe vs. Wade effectively legalized abortion throughout pregnancy for virtually any reason, or none at all. It is responsible for the grief of millions of women and men, and the killing of millions of unborn children in the past quarter century.”[31] This is an injustice, and citizens should be upset by this harsh reality. Safely, respectfully, and out of love, men and women may protest in various ways, speaking out against the practice of abortion. Each year in January since 1973, thousands of people––religious and secular––have fled to Washington D.C. to march in the annual March for Life. For those who have been, it is truly a celebration of life. Peaceful protesting allows man to place something greater at the center of the Pro Life movement: “The Lord is the goal of human history…the center of mankind, the joy of all hearts, and the fulfilment of all aspirations.”[32] Protesting in any form should be inspired by love, noticing an injustice with a desire to amend what has been broken. Another form of protesting is sidewalk counseling. This is a common practice in larger cities, especially New York City and Washington D.C. Outreach to women who are entering abortion clinics is encouraged by many bishops and the United States Council of Catholic Bishops “advocates passing pro-life legislation and as sidewalk counselors, they’ve saved the lives of countless children, while sparing an equal number of mothers and families the pain and grief of losing a child in an abortion.”[33]

Cultivating a Culture of Life

Changing hearts and minds

In the wake of 1973, “grave crimes and radical denials of freedom have also been committed and are still being committed in the name of ‘ethical relativism.’”[34] In the secular world, there are many “who consider such relativism an essential condition of democracy,” whereby everyone is expected to “guarantee tolerance, mutual respect between people and acceptance of the decisions of the majority.”[35] Ethical and moral relativism is rampant among the culture, and “individuals claim for themselves in the moral sphere the most complete freedom of choice and demand that the State should not…limit itself to guaranteeing maximum space for the freedom of each individual, with the sole limitation of not infringing on the freedom and rights of any other citizen.”[36] The understanding of freedom has shifted to unlimited choice for anything and everything. It is out of love and keeping up with “the signs of the times”[37] that the Church teaches “we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the ‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life.’”[38] The Church, especially with the leadership of St. Pope John Paul II, teaches members of the body of Christ to “witness the establishment of a new culture of life, the fruit of the culture of truth and of love.”[39]

Cultivating a culture of life is one of the most important things that the Church encourages to end the practice of abortion. With eyes fixed on Jesus, the journey towards a culture of life is “guided and sustained by the law of love: a love which has as its source and model the Son of God made man, who ‘by dying gave life to the world.”[40] The law of love is a law nonetheless, whereby it condemns abortion vehemently. It is out of justice that love arises, because abortion is a grave injustice that must be combatted by prayer and changing hearts (not just minds).  Since the practice and “choice” of abortion is widely accepted culturally, the culture must be addressed and given new life. Using our threefold baptismal call––priest, prophet, and king––members of the “Gospel of life” are called to follow the “Author of life” to become a “people for life.”[41]

Prophets speak truth, and each member of the living body of Christ is called “proclamation of the Gospel…in catechesis, in the various forms of preaching, in personal dialogue and in all educational activity.”[42] Among these prophets, there are “teachers, catechists and theologians have the task of emphasizing the…respect for every human life.”[43] They are on the front lines with young children and adults, which makes their role essential to cultivate a culture of life. By sharing the truth with new members, the “newness of the Gospel of life shines forth…[to] fully reveals what man is and the meaning of his being and existence.”[44] Bishops play an important role as well, as they “are the first ones called to be untiring preachers of the Gospel of life.”[45] As for all members of the Church, our proclamation must also become a genuine celebration of the Gospel of life.”[46]

The priestly mission calls members of the Church to celebrate life and to proclaim the “outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility…discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image.”[47] With this renewed outlook on life––rather than viewing life as a challenge or burden––wonder arises, thus introducing a “contemplative outlook” on the dignity of each life.[48] Life should be celebrated, and the Church calls us to “celebrate the God of life, the God who gives life: ‘We must celebrate Eternal Life, from which every other life proceeds.”[49] Following our role as kings, priests are encouraged to sanctify their people through sacraments, which are “efficacious signs of the presence and saving action of…Jesus.”[50] For the faithful, including the laity, Sacraments “make us sharers in divine life, and provide the spiritual strength…to experience life, suffering and death in their fullest meaning.”[51]

Beyond the walls of the Church, a service of charity is essential for the culture of life. The service of charity “which finds expression in personal witness, various forms of volunteer work, social activity and political commitment…is a particularly pressing need at the present time, when the ‘culture of death’ so forcefully opposes the ‘culture of life.’”[52] To fight the culture of death, members of the Church “must care for the other as a person whom God has made us responsible for” because “as disciples…we are called to become neighbors to everyone.”[53] The view of the “other” as “neighbor” is manifested in many different ways, depending on one’s vocation. For priests and bishops, serving the faithful and administering the Sacraments allow them to partake in loving their neighbor. For religious communities, serving in various apostolates and praying is an expression of love for neighbor. The majority of the Church, which is families, partake in a great responsibility. As members of the laity, families have “a decisive responsibility…[and] a special role to play throughout the life of its members, from birth to [natural] death.”[54] Families are responsible for bringing life into the world and living the Gospel of life. The home of the family serves as a “sanctuary for life: the place in which life––the gift of God––can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks” of the secular world.[55] Additionally, families celebrate “the Gospel of life through daily prayer, both individual prayer and family prayer. The family prays in order to glorify and give thanks to God for the gift of life,” and rely on divine strength in times of fear and doubt.[56] Celebrating life also calls families to be willing “to adopt or take in children abandoned by their parents or in situations of serious hardship.”[57] The Church, various communities and states, with members and resources, “must guarantee all the support, including economic support, which families need in order to meet their problems in a truly human way.”[58] Moving away from a tainted view of freedom, parents are called to form the consciences of their children, because “the first and fundamental step towards this cultural transformation consists in forming consciences.”[59]

Church Teaching in Action: A Sign of Hope

“There is no true freedom where life is not welcomed and loved; and there is no fullness of life except in freedom.”[60]

Evangelium Vitae, no. 96

The Church’s teachings are not welcomed by the secular world. It can sometimes seem like cultivating a culture of life is quite impossible, and it may seem like a mountain. Christ tells us if “you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”[61] Nothing is impossible with Christ, and the culture of life is already in the making. John Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York from 1984-200, was a strong advocate and leader of cultivating a culture of life. On a trip to Poland, “he spoke putting his hands in the brick ovens in Dachau, and felt the intermingled ashes of Jews, Christians, rabbis, priests, lay people…and meditated upon the horrors.”[62] After this powerful experience, he returned to the United States and vowed to “keep in focus the sacredness of the human person, no matter what [he] would do.”[63] O’Connor received much pushback from the city of New York. Despite the controversy, he spoke out against abortion, often calling it a modern day holocaust. Not only did he speak about the Gospel of life, he also lived by it. His episcopal motto reads “There Can Be No Love Without Justice,” which is manifested in cultivating a culture of life. Justice and love are equally required to respond to the injustice of abortion. “No one proclaimed what Pope John Paul II has called the ‘Gospel of Life’ with greater effectiveness than Cardinal O’Connor. It was in proclaiming that Gospel of Life that” Cardinal O’Connor became a public figure.[64] While he grew in popularity within the United States, he began to read the “‘signs of the times’ [and this] led him to believe that the culture of life was missing a particular spiritual component that would combine contemplation and activity,” and so he founded the Sisters of Life in 1991.[65]

The Sisters of Life are an example of hope, strength, courage, and grace for the entire Church, who is called to cultivate a culture of life––thus leading to the end of the practice of abortion. This religious community is both active and contemplative, spending many hours in prayer while also serving women in crisis pregnancies. Cardinal O’Connor frequently reminded the Sisters of Life that “the attack on the life of every unborn child is an attack on the life of the Infant Christ in his mother’s womb.”[66] Additionally, he told the sisters to “never speak…of a ‘fetus’ [but] of a baby, ‘little and terrifying,’ fashioned after the Word of God.”[67] The Sisters of Life work tirelessly each day to cultivate a culture of life by welcoming pregnant mothers to live with them in their convents, helping them financially, spiritually, and emotionally. The Sisters of Life respond to Evangelium Vitae with their entire selves, thus promoting the sanctity of every human life.  In fact, when Cardinal O’Connor was “formulating the Constitutions of the Sisters of Life, several documents were vital, especially John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae.”[68] The sisters continually fight hatred with love and justice, engaging with the contemporary culture as their fourth vow––in addition to the three Evangelical Counsels––is “protect and enhance the sacredness of human life,” inspired by the zeal of their founder, John Cardinal O’Connor.[69] It is with hope that the rest of the Church can look at communities, such as the Sisters of Life, to be inspired to cultivate a culture of life in whatever capacity––or vocation––a person can. True freedom must be sought, and there is a “necessary link between freedom and truth…[and] when freedom is detached from objective truth it becomes impossible to establish personal rights” for each individual human person, including the unborn child.[70] Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.[71] He is our Guide and our Hope, and through the “grief and anguish of men of our time,”[72] Christ is the light which “reveals man to himself and brings the light of his most high calling.”[73] Man’s calling is living life to the fullest, and helping others to live in life as well.

[1] https://abort73.com/abortion_facts/us_abortion_statistics/

[2] Gaudium et Spes, no. 37

[3] Evangelium Vitae, no. 3

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2270

[5] Gaudium et Spes, no. 51

[6] Evangelium Vitae, no. 95

  Cover page image art: The Madonna of the Streets, Roberto Ferruzzi (1854–1934)

[7] Jerimiah 1:5, NRSV

[8] CCC, 2270

[9] John 13:34, NRSV

[10] CCC, 2272

[11] Ibid.; can. 1398.

[12] CCC, 2272

[13] CCC, 2274

[14] https://church4everychild.org/2015/10/13/whats-the-data-about-special-needs-and-abortion/

[15] CCC, 2274

[16] CCC, 2274; CDF, Donum vitae I,5.

[17] CCC 2275, CDF, ùonum itae I,6.

[18] Gaudium et Spes, no. 27

[19] Gaudium et Spes, no. 12

[20] Gaudium et Spes, no. 27

[21]http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2019/may/documents/papa-francesco_20190525_yes-to-life.html; Yes to Life, paragraph 2, Pope Francis

[22] Declaration of Independence; https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript

[23] Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, no. 65

[24] Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, no. 9

[25] Ibid.

[26] Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, no. 34

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, no. 37

[30] Evangelium Vitae, no. 93

[31] Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, no. 5

[32] Gaudium et Spes, no. 45

[33] Life Matters: The Call to Greatness, USCCB; paragraph 3

[34] Evangelium Vitae, no. 70

[35] Ibid.

[36] Evangelium Vitae, no. 69

[37] Gaudium et Spes, no. 4

[38] Evangelium Vitae, no. 28

[39] Evangelium Vitae, no. 77

[40] Evangelium Vitae, no. 79

[41] Evangelium Vitae, no. 78; cf. Acts 3:15, NRSV

[42] Evangelium Vitae, no. 82

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Evangelium Vitae, no. 83

[47] Ibid.; cf.Gen 1:27; Ps 8:5

[48] Ibid.; Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 37: AAS 83.

[49] Evangelium Vitae, no. 84; cf Pseudo- Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Divine Names, 6, 1-3: PG 3, 856-857.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Evangelium Vitae, no. 87

[53] Ibid.; cf. Luke 10:29-37

[54] Evangelium Vitae, no. 92

[55] Ibid.; cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 39: AAS 83 (1991), 842.

[56] Evangelium Vitae, no. 93

[57] Ibid.

[58] Evangelium Vitae, no. 94

[59] Evangelium Vitae, no. 96

[60] Ibid.

[61] Matthew 17:20, NRSV

[62] John Cardinal O’Connor and the Culture of Life, p. 31

[63] John Cardinal O’Connor: Founding the Sisters of Life, documentary

[64] https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/cardinal-oconnors-funeral-in-new-york-3805

[65] John Cardinal O’Connor and the Culture of Life, p. 61

[66] Ibid., p. 66

[67] Ibid., p. 75

[68] Ibid., p. 86

[69] Ibid., p. 84

[70] Evangelium Vitae, no. 96

[71] cf. John 14:6, NRSV

[72] Gaudium et Spes, no. 1

[73] Gaudium et Spes, no. 22

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