Respect Life 2015
RESPECT FOR LIFE (October 2015)
Dear members of Saint Mary’s Parish,
During the month of October the Church invites us to consider efforts which promote and protect the dignity of every human life. October is, therefore, referred to as the “Respect Life” month. In recent years I have written an October letter which addresses some “Respect Life” themes. In this year’s letter I want to focus on a few issues that have occurred over the past twelve months and which relate to respect for human life. For example, recently a few U.S. Catholic bishops delineated specific guidelines as a part of their diocesan contract for Catholic school teachers. Some of the clauses in the contracts stated that teachers will give no public support to positions that are contrary to Roman Catholic Church teaching with regard to abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, surrogate parenthood, or same-sex unions. These are basic issues which protect the respect for life. However, some high school teachers as well as advocates for these teachers were critical of the bishops’ initiatives. In San Francisco, for example, a petition was signed by a number of people who adamantly opposed the Archbishop.
The example mentioned above indicates how difficult it has become for bishops who are teachers of the Catholic faith to expect that official Church teaching will be honored or practiced, even by some who call themselves Catholic. Nevertheless, the example reminds us that for a Catholic to navigate successfully in a secular-oriented world, he or she needs to realize that what the Church teaches with regard to the respect for life will be criticized. We will be told that because we oppose direct abortion, we are intolerant of women’s health concerns and because we say that marriage should be between a man and a woman with the possibility of bringing new life into the world, we are therefore intolerant of homosexuals who desire to marry. The Church’s “Respect Life” issues will be turned against her and her members will be told that we are disrespectful of life. For example, when it is diagnosed that a fetus within the womb has a serious disability and that it would be better to terminate the pregnancy, for us to speak of the sacredness of ALL human life and to bring that life to term will be condemned by some as disrespectful. So be it – the Gospel is challenging.
The premise that all human life should be respected from conception to natural death is based on the fact that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Being made in God’s image and likeness means that we have intellect and free will. With our intellect, we discern which policies and practices protect the fundamental right to human life and which do not. Pope Francis, in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Sí, reminds us that the support of human life is the work of individuals as well as the family. The Holy Father states that the family deserves great respect for it plays a very significant role in the welfare of society. He reiterated that point during the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia on September 26-27. Some of the issues for society’s welfare about which the Holy Father spoke to the joint Houses of Congress and to the United Nations include health care, just wages, compassion for the disadvantaged, the environment, etc. However, since the unborn child is the most vulnerable of all human beings, we must keep as a priority the protection of these precious children who are still developing within their mother’s womb. In other words, although the Catholic Church in its respect for human life does not consider abortion to be the single issue under consideration, it nevertheless remains the most fundamental issue when addressing the respect that is to be given to human life.
There is a strategy behind the cultural pro-choice/pro-abortion/pro-euthanasia/pro-gay/pro-anything agenda. The strategy is this: 1) desensitize people to any moral impropriety of the issue, 2) advance the issue through social media, and 3) speak about the issue as the new “normal.” Here is an example. In Washington, D.C., an abortion spa launched an ad campaign aimed at removing the stigma of abortion. In fact, the term “abortion” is touted in the television advertisement. The ad features three timid women who use euphemisms to describe a friend who had an abortion. They are interrupted by a young woman who exemplifies today’s culture. She says, “Wait a minute. You guys are talking about abortion. There’s no shame in it. Abortion. Yeah, we do that.” The spa’s billboard sign, prominently displayed in the D.C. area, repeats the words: “Abortion. Yeah, we do that.” This is but one example of the in-your-face advancing of the issue and its portrayal as the new normal.
Another portrayal of the “new normal” involves a procedure that makes the DIS-respect for life more accessible, providing an alternative way for women to terminate a pregnancy. For example, the Montana governor vetoed a bill that would ban abortion by what is referred to as a Doctor Visit Card (DVC). The DVC procedure allows a doctor who can be several hundred miles away from a remote area to “examine” a woman by television. Once the “examination” is complete, the doctor pushes a button that opens a drawer at the woman’s location. She ingests the pills, and within a few days undergoes a self-induced miscarriage. When vetoing the bill, the governor stated, “We should all be working together to expand access to health-care services in Montana” and described the procedure as a “safe, effective, and efficient means of delivering health care.” Unfortunately, this form of health care is yet another example of death for the unborn child. As would be expected, Planned Parenthood touts this alternative for it allows them to make money on abortions in large, rural states where abortionists are few. By the way, the Montana Legislature sought to protect conscience rights by stating that health insurers who cover abortion in their medical plans were also to offer the same plan without abortion coverage. Montana’s governor also vetoed that bill. The result of this story is that we have another example where abortion is treated as ordinary, as the “new normal” to which I referred earlier.
Speaking of Planned Parenthood, videos were released earlier this year exposing Planned Parenthood for its disgusting practice of selling fetal tissue after abortion. Those who continue to defend the work of Planned Parenthood despite the proof contained in the videos of the organization’s disregard for human life are blinded by the sin which Planned Parenthood promotes. These videos have provided a great service for the unborn and they have pricked the conscience of many and have given rise to Congressional hearings to consider limitations to funding Planned Parenthood with taxpayer money. Unfortunately, individuals without a moral compasswith regard to the sacredness of all human life from conception to natural death also lack moral compass-ion in this area.
In August a group who identify themselves as “Catholics for Choice” made the news when they delivered cakes to women’s health clinics associated with Planned Parenthood. In their press release the absurd statement was made that “Catholics for Choice delivered cakes and message of goodwill to women’s clinics on behalf of Catholic supporters, showing that only a small minority of Catholics agree with the extremist voices of the bishops on the question of abortion.” Extremist voices? Since when have Catholic bishops become extremists when they speak about the evil of direct abortion? Also, since when has it been that only a minority of Catholics support the right to life for the unborn child? Their statement is bizarre. The fact is that from the earliest of times the Church has taught that abortion is mortally sinful. This is the objective truth which continues to be transmitted by the bishops with regard to the dignity of all human life and the atrocity of abortion. Perhaps the members of this so-called Catholics for Choice might need to re-examine their statistics with regard to how faithful Catholics view abortion. They would also do well to check their own moral compass. Life here is short – eternity is forever. Let’s hope that they get things right with regard to the protection of life before their own life journeys conclude, at which time for all of us an accounting of our life before God will be given.
I had mentioned at the beginning of this letter that I would be referring to situations that have come to light during this past year. I could not help but notice that the President of the United States, the most blatantly pro-abortion president our nation has ever had, addressed the Catholic Health Association this past June. He spoke about needed health reforms and included anecdotes about his work when he was a community organizer in Chicago and how kindness, compassion and faith were the elements that could change peoples’ lives. He stated: “I saw the power of faith – a shared belief that every human being, made in the image of God, deserves to live in dignity; that all children, no matter who they are or where they come from or how much money they were born into, ought to have the opportunity to achieve their God-given potential.” Those are profoundly beautiful words. But don’t forget the oft-quoted maxim: Actions speak louder than words! Also, the President’s own words a year ago at a Planned Parenthood convention concluded by asking God to bless Planned Parenthood. It has to strike any honest person that there is great duplicity when asking God to bless the work of Planned Parenthood which supports abortion and then for that same individual to say “that every human being, made in the image of God, deserves to live in dignity ... and ought to have the opportunity to achieve their God-given potential.”
Although actions speak louder than words, words are important. It was insightful to hear this past April how a former Secretary of State and a current candidate who desires to serve as the nation’s president said the following at a Women of the World Summit: “Laws about reproductive health care and safe childbirth have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.” The assumption that we can make from her statement is that “reproductive health care” rights are simply a euphemism for abortion rights. Her position places her squarely with a progressive mentality that wants to jettison anything that does not conform with what would be considered as contemporary enlightenment. Also, notice how she stated NOT that we have to change to conform to God’s ways but that religious beliefs have to change in order to conform with society’s ways.
Members of the Catholic Church and those of other Christian denominations know about the Ten Commandments which have come to us from God. To violate any of God’s Commandments is a sin. Yet we do not hear often enough about the serious sinfulness associated with many of the “respect life” themes. For example, we know that direct abortion is wrong, but its sinfulness has significant repercussions – like whether after death we will be in heaven or not. The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses this issue in paragraph 1861 which states: “If it (i.e., the mortal sin that has been committed) is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices forever, with no turning back.” Like the concept of sin, hell is usually omitted from any discussion about direct abortion. However, as a priest and teacher of the Catholic faith, it is my duty to transmit the teaching of the Catholic Church to members of this parish community. The teaching of the Catholic Church is this: any intentional act of abortion is a mortal sin and one who procures an abortion or anyone who cooperates with its procurement (a doctor, a nurse, a boyfriend who pays for the abortion) has also committed a mortal sin. If not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, the person who dies in the state of mortal sin places his or her eternal salvation in jeopardy. You and I know that some people will say that they are offended when they hear this kind of talk about sin and hell. Others simply disregard it. Some have left the Catholic Church because they do not want to hear about these topics. If someone disregards or leaves the Church because of these truths, we have to respect their choice and their free will. However, the Catechism is clear when it states that “our freedom has the power to make choices forever, with no turning back.”
There is another issue that I would like to address in this “Respect Life” letter – the issue of suicide. Several times during this past year I have asked how God judges someone who has committed suicide. I believe that suicide is seriously wrong but I also know that God is merciful. With the upcoming “Year of Mercy” that has been declared by Pope Francis (beginning December 8, 2015), I think that the issue of suicide and God’s mercy is timely. I tried to address the question of suicide in a weekend homily this past June. Several people have since asked that I make available the homily that I had given. Therefore, I am including the homily in the section below:
A few weeks ago I was asked after the Sunday Mass if God loves people who commit suicide. I want to address that question because within the last few weeks I’ve been informed about the suicides of several people who are close to some of you -- like the suicide of a well-respected man whose wife and child recently died and who then took his own life, or the suicide of a nurse who was loved and admired by many, or that of a teenager who felt bullied, or the suicide of a recently divorced man who is a long time friend to one of our parishioners, and a couple days ago I heard about the unfortunate suicide of a Catholic priest. So back to the question that I was asked: Does God love those who commit suicide?
The first reading today is from the Book of Job (Jb 38:1,8-11). The message from this book is that God wants us to trust in Him in good times and in bad. This might be easy to say but when things around us seem to collapse, the message is not so easy to accept. To trust in God in those moments is not impossible, but it is difficult. Job himself struggles with suffering and so, like most who suffer, he asks God why. The story of Job is the story of a man who experiences one trouble after another, yet he trusts in God despite the hardships. While it is an inspiring story about trusting God, we know that the reality is that there are good people, sensitive people who believe that either the lives of others will be better if they are not around or they conclude that the suffering they have endured cannot continue – and so they end their lives by suicide.
The Gospel (Mk 4:35-41) presents a story of a violent storm and describes how water filled the boat of the fearful Apostles. When I think about those who commit suicide, the image of their life being overwhelmed by some burden could be like the water filling the boat. In the Gospel story Jesus says to the wind “Quiet. Be still.” Perhaps that is what suicide victims hope to find in the midst of the storm that they are experiencing – quiet and stillness.
So back to the question: “If God loves everyone, what about those who commit suicide?” On the same day that I was asked this question, I turned on the television and there was a program where a sibling of a woman who committed suicide asked a Catholic priest to offer a Mass or some type of Catholic service for her sister. In the television program, the priest was shown as caring yet, nevertheless, stated that the woman was not allowed a church funeral because of the suicide. That movie does a disservice to the Catholic Church because it wrongly portrays the Church as insensitive to human suffering and great sorrow. The movie also convinced me to address the topic. So again the question: If God loves everyone – what about those who commit suicide?”
When I have been asked this question, I can only respond with what I believe in my heart – which is that God understands. God understands when someone leaves this world in a depressed or tormented or shattered way, unable to find the peace that he or she is looking for in this life. In those instances, I can only hope that God’s love touches the person in their death and that God’s love provides the peace that was not found in this life. In these cases I am referring to individuals who commit suicide because of overwhelming sadness or depression. This is distinct from an individual who fully and consciously plans his or her death by means of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. My comments refer to the former as distinct from the latter group of individuals.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states the following: “Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of Life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.” So – to take one’s own life violates God’s sovereignty over life. Suicide has traditionally been considered a gravely wrong moral action. However, with advances in psychology, we now understand that many people who commit suicide had been dealing with circumstances such that their death could not be considered a voluntary act that had been committed with full consent of the will. So the Catechism says the following: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” So what the Church is teaching us is that although suicide is never a right action to take, the person who commits suicide may not be totally culpable for the action due to circumstances in his or her life. And so the Catechism continues with words of hope: “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to Him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.” And so, contrary to the movie that I was describing, the Church does allow for the funeral of a suicide victim, during which time we pray and invoke God’s mercy for the one who died and His comforting grace for the grieving loved ones.
For any of us to answer definitively what happens to the person who commits suicide would be irresponsible since ultimately it is God who judges. In my own heart, I entrust the person who died by suicide to the mercy of God. I have known some holy and virtuous individuals whose burdens in this life were extreme and who apparently could only find solace through suicide. And in my own mind, I believe that those who leaves this world with so much pain and sorrow and who consider that the only way to find peace is to end their life, I believe that God in His love embraces them and holds them close, realizing the hurt and pain that caused them to end their earthly lives. I want to believe that the words of Jesus in the Gospel, “Quiet ... Be still,” are also spoken to those who left this world by suicide because they could not find that quiet or stillness here.
So where does that leave us other than to think about God’s compassionate response? What can we do? I think the best thing that we can do is to pray – and specifically to pray for three intentions. First, for those whom we know and those we do not know who have committed suicide, we can pray for their souls and for their peaceful union with God. The prayer “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them” is a fitting prayer. Secondly, I believe that we should pray for ourselves so that we do not become callous to the ever increasing number of suicides that are occurring. If we become numb to suicide, then the victim of suicide will become for us another statistic rather than a suffering person who saw no alternative other than death. I believe that praying for our own sensitivity toward anyone who has committed suicide allows us to be the kind of human person that God wants us to be – that is, compassionate. Thirdly, knowing that there are many people who contemplate suicide, I believe that we should pray that the person thinking about suicide will find someone – perhaps a family member or a friend or a counselor – but to find someone who will be a voice of compassionate reason in a moment when impaired judgment overtakes the person who is thinking about suicide. So the three petitions include those who have committed suicide that they find eternal rest, that we ourselves not become insensitive to the pain of suicide, and that whose who contemplate suicide will find someone with a voice that offers heart-felt compassion and prudent reasoning.
The “Respect for Life” should begin with respect for God’s life that is offered to us in Jesus. The sacrament of Holy Communion is the lasting way through which we receive the Bread of Life. It is the presence of Jesus Christ, the Source of life. When we remain close to this fundamental truth – the reality of Jesus Christ who is truly present in our midst – then we remain in the light that illuminates our path in the world. Therefore, our relationship with Jesus Christ as the Bread of Life (John 6) is the key to all other life issues (health, ecology, just wages, artificial contraception, abortion, etc.) Blessed Paul VI (pope from 1963-1978) wrote in his 1965 encyclical Mysterium Fidei (The Mystery of Faith) that Christ is truly and physically present in the change of bread and wine that occurs during the Mass. After the consecration of the Mass, what was once bread and wine is no longer, “since once the substance or nature of the bread and wine has been changed into the body and blood of Christ, nothing remains of the bread and the wine except for the species – beneath which Christ is present whole and entire in His physical “reality,” corporeally present, although not in the manner in which bodies are in a place” (paragraph 46). As we consider the various themes that focus upon the respect for life, I believe that the love and respect which we show for the Bread of Life, the physical presence of Jesus Christ, is THE moral compass whereby we can judge any of the other issues that pertain to a healthy respect for human life.
In closing, I would say that for Christians, a respect for all human life comes not only because we believe in God or believe in Jesus but because we follow the path that God has laid out for us. By this I mean that we try to follow Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Following Jesus is MUCH more than simply saying that we believe in Him. Lots of people who believe in Jesus do not necessarily follow Him. Consider those who accept practices which Jesus would not condone and which the Catholic Church, founded by Jesus Christ and trying to follow in His footsteps, does not condone. The invitation to respect all human life is an invitation not only to believe in Jesus but to actually follow Him. May God give us this grace.
Rev. Joseph Diermeier, Pastor