October is Respect Life Month which begins the annual Program of Respect for Life as called for by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The theme for this year's program is Be Not Afraid (Mt 28, 20). These words of our Lord, which He spoke at His Ascension are found over and over again as basic to His teaching and reassurance to each and every one of us. He continually encouraged His apostles and disciples not to fear but to trust in His presence among them and His ability to overcome every form of evil. Not to be afraid is an essential part of Gospel living and it is based not on our ability but on the Lord's power.
Life brings with it many things which rightfully cause us fear. It is only faith that can enable us to face these fears and overcome them in hope. The fears which life can bring sometimes cause us to question the very meaning and purpose of life itself. Certainly, as we look around the world today, we see a world that is bound in fear and does not even recognize it. It is fear of life which causes men and women to become entrapped in their very selves and to see themselves as superior to others. This fear manifests itself in acts of violence, discrimination, exclusion, religious persecution and horrific violent acts of terrorism.
The person who respects life is a person who does not live by fear. That person respects his or her life and the life of each and every other person as a gift from God. This does not mean that there will not be a complete agreeing on all matters among people. However, respect for life recognizes the dignity and value of each and every person as made in the image and likeness of God. Respect for life means that the destruction of another person or the harassment of another person not only goes against the very meaning of life but actually destroys the person from whom such actions flow. How many times in history have we seen races and generations considering themselves superior to others and destroying the lives of those considered inferior. In most recent times, the Holocaust, the horrors of racism manifested within our own country, the expressed superiority of certain religious sects and the exclusion of persons with inalienable rights from the Creator are manifestations of this.
The fear that arises from a sense of superiority always accompanies an exclusion of God and His natural law for His creation. One of the aspects of this phenomena is becoming more prevalent in our society today especially as the impression is given that it is the human person who determines who she or he is. A great deal of hurt is brought into life as the human person tries to become someone other than whom God created. Indeed, the human person is placed on an equal or superior level to God. It becomes even more frightening when laws are enacted which support this phenomena and it becomes "politically correct" to enshrine it to the detriment of those who do not agree with it. While "political correctness" proclaims that its laws are protecting the rights of individuals, these laws are actually subverting those rights.
Respect for life truly means having the courage not to consider “political correctness” on an equal level with respect for rights. This has been one of the great injustices of our society on so many levels. It especially has been the case with the matter of legalized abortion, which views the birth of a new life in terms of the fear that the responsibility for that life will bring. Legalized abortion is not understood as the destruction of a life but as a protection of the right of humanity created by society in its own image and likeness, not in God’s. While, we certainly have great understanding and compassion for a woman who has a difficult pregnancy, offering her support does not come through granting her access to abortion. We cannot be afraid to promote the dignity of the life of the unborn child so as to protect its rights.
We, as believers, have respect for life at every stage. Every human person, made in the image and likeness of God, possesses equal rights and dignities. However, in our day and age the legalization of abortion has led to the subversion of a respect for life at other stages as well. This is easily seen in the movement to legalize euthanasia. More subtly, it is seen in the ability of human beings to exclude others because of race, color, background, culture or creed. The lack of respect for life and the rights of every person has been present long before the legalization of abortion. However, the legalization of abortion has brought with it a “slippery slope” which has encouraged a lack of respect for life at all stages, especially in a society which is governed more by “political correctness” than by natural law.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has clearly proclaimed the value of life at every stage and has called us to reach out to respect the life of every person, especially those at the periphery of society. He has gained great attention because of this call, which is at the heart of our lives as Christians. However, his courageous words on abortion are not often heard. These words are strongly emphasized in his encyclical on the care for the environment, Laudato Si, when he states, "How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society will also wither away." Reflecting on his words helps us to realize that every life is a gift and that we must not to be afraid to reject everything that is destructive and harmful of it. In keeping with our respect for the life of an unborn child, we also reject all that is destructive of life, though sometimes seen as a right in our “politically correct” culture. Assisted suicide, euthanasia, capital punishment, domestic violence, human trafficking, terrorism, unjust war, racism, lack of respect for the poor, homelessness and xenophobia are all evils which stem from a fear of life and a sense of superiority.
As we celebrate Respect Life Month and recommit ourselves to our Respect Life Program, we do so realizing the many challenges that are before us. However, we do so also heeding the words of our Lord, Be Not Afraid. We must not be afraid to proclaim the truth but always to proclaim the truth in love. As Christian witnesses to the truth of Christ, we do so in a way that is always committed to the truth and not to our own agendas. Our society needs to hear the truth, though many times it will make us unpopular. However, we need not be afraid because it is the Lord who is the Creator of life and society and He created it with a purpose that is to bring joy. Anything less than following His purpose is to bring unhappiness and confusion which we many times see around us.
Our faith is always our life and light.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
October 6, 2017