What are the preeminent life issues?

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By Father Luis Granados, dcjm

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Evangelium Vitae, an old question reappears in our conversations: Can we still talk about preeminent life issues? Are abortion and euthanasia significantly different from other sins? As we will see, St. John Paul II considered them particularly serious and deplorable. By striking the fundamental relationships of the family – the sanctuary of life – these acts break the basic trust of our society and become the highest expression of the strong oppressing the weak.

In Evangelium Vitae St. John Paul II invites us to love, respect and promote life. The encyclical focuses on two offenses against life: abortion and euthanasia. Two solemn declarations condemn them as intrinsically evil, as the deliberate and direct killing of an innocent human being (EV, 62 and 65). But some argue today that it would be better to focus on other ethical issues like immigration, social injustice or environmental sins, which they claim are just as wrong.

By drawing particular attention to the seriousness of abortion and euthanasia, St. John Paul II doesn’t intend to neglect other aspects of life which deserve careful consideration. However, among the many sins against life, some are graver than others. What makes these two offenses graver than sins against the environment or immigrants, for example?

First of all, in the case of abortion and euthanasia, we are dealing with the direct and intentional killing of the innocent. As such, we are dealing with the irreversible end of the life of the victim and, for that reason, also with the destruction of the heart of the murderer. Other sins against life may involve the injustice of not receiving proper means or protection for living (food, housing, legal documents…), but here we are dealing with life itself.

The second reason is the consideration of the victim: an innocent and fragile human being. In abortion, we have the baby in the womb, the most vulnerable and innocent among the vulnerable, while in euthanasia, we have the elderly and the disabled. In other sins against life, we may have guilty or innocent people, but never someone as vulnerable and as in need as the embryo and the elderly.

Thirdly, the greater gravity of abortion and euthanasia is manifested when we consider the murderer. The physician, the father and the mother, those appointed by God as its keepers, are those who destroy the baby, and are subsequently  morally destroyed. Children are called to honor their elderly parents, but in euthanasia, it is sometimes the children who decide to kill them. In both cases, the relationship between generations, the basic bond that builds our society, is destroyed.

Abortion and euthanasia are graver sins because they corrupt the human heart in a deeper way. They extinguish the most basic relationships within the family and therefore in our society. That’s why St. Teresa of Calcutta said that “the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion,” and we could add, euthanasia. Both are a war waged against children and the elderly. What they damage is not only the good of individuals but also the common good.

Finally, abortion and euthanasia are the type of sins that can never be justified. They are intrinsically evil. “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church” (EV, 62). In other sins against life, like immigration, we enter into the realm of prudential decisions: How many immigrants should our country welcome? Under which conditions? But in the case of abortion or euthanasia there is no such deliberation. We are dealing with an action that is always evil: always and in every circumstance (Veritatis Splendor, 52).

What about sins against the environment? In these cases, we are usually talking about indirect actions. Whereby we choose good actions (like flying frequently in order to visit a sick relative or to provide for my family) that may indirectly cause damage to our planet in the long term. We are, of course, responsible of the effects of the actions, sometimes also indirect, but our responsibility is limited to the consequences we can reasonably foresee (and in the measure of our action, not in the measure of the whole effect). The gravity of these sins is significantly smaller than in the case of abortion and euthanasia.

The coronavirus epidemic is helping us be more aware of the preciousness and weakness of human life, especially of the elderly. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “the true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer” (Spe Salvi, 38). The coronavirus teaches us about the fragility of our life and our relationships. In moments of sickness we renew our fundamental faith in the One who heals all our diseases. There is, however, something even worse than the coronavirus. That is the afflictions that come not from outside, from the calamities of the world, but from our own evil, free actions. On this 25th anniversary of Evangelium Vitae, St. John Paul II passes the baton of the building of a culture of life to us.

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.