It was 4pm and I was seated in my office waiting for my appointment to arrive. Just about then, a middle aged couple arrived. I have never met them before but they had called to make an appointment to see me. I did not know what to expect. As we began to talk, James & Agnes (not their real names) explained that they have been married for over 10 years and they do not have a child. They feel that as they grow older, time is running out for them to have a child. About two weeks before they met up with a doctor and he suggested that they try IVF. They left the doctor’s office with renewed hope. However, being regular Church go-ers, they wanted to discuss this with a priest before making the decision. Now I understood the reason for coming to see me. After about half an hour discussing the various options and the Church’s position, I could see their faces change to disappointment. They had come expecting to receive the approval of the Church but that option was quickly fading. What they could not understand is why the Church was opposing a noble idea of bringing a child into the world and caring for the child with love with opposition. The encounter ended with the couple feeling that the Church lacks compassion towards couples like them who desperately want to have a child of their own.
There are many people who can identify themselves with James & Agnes in thinking that the Church lacks understanding or that the Church’s theology is not moving with the times. There are many “issues” that lead people to think this way…
- Why can’t the Church allow abortion in cases where pre-natal diagnosis has shown that the child to be born is going to be severely handicapped? Why allow the newborn to suffer?
- When a young girl is found to be pregnant after having being raped by a stranger…why can’t abortion be an option?
- A serial killer…wouldn’t it make more sense to sentence him to death than try to rehabilitate him which would incur the state costs?
- An elderly person is bed ridden and in a lot of pain…wouldn’t we be helping the person if we hastened death so that there is less suffering and pain?
- Why is embryonic stem cell research wrong? Wouldn’t such research bring much benefit to humankind in overcoming some diseases?
- In a country stricken with poverty, why must the Church object to birth control since children born into such a context will only experience a poor quality of life?
It is not difficult to understand why many people see the Church lacking in understanding because from a human perspective, many questions concerning human life are very relevant and close to the human experience. For most people, the end result is what drives their thinking processes. Therefore, if the end result is good, then it must be good. This is where the fallacy lies. The end cannot justify the means.
In tackling life related issues, whether it is the beginning of life or the end on life, the fundamental position of the Church is that life is sacred. Therefore, in all circumstances, life has to be protected. One may ask why life is sacred. It is simply because it comes from God: “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves ‘the creative action of God’, and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can, in any circumstance, claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human being (Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation Donum Vitae , Introduction, No. 5)
To understand further, the position of the Church is that life begins at the moment of fertilization, ie., when the male sperm is fused with the female egg….life begins. There are many other opinions in the scientific world. However the Church’s position is extremely clear. The sacredness of life is not dependent on how life was conceived. If we were to put conditions that life is only sacred when it is conceived under certain conditions, then we run the risk of classifying life as sacred and non-sacred. The position that life is sacred must be absolute. Pope John Paul II in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, made it clear when he said “human life is sacred and inviolable at every moment of existence” (n. 61). This simply means that all human life is sacred from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.
Today, there are those who talk about the quality of life. There is no doubt that the quality of life is an important criterion for improving humanity. But the quality of life cannot determine whether life is worth living or not. Quality of life can be extremely subjective. For someone living in a large city, wanting a better quality of life may be different from another person living distantly from the city in another part of the world. For this reason then, the quality of human life cannot be the guiding principle in deciding issues concerning human life.
If we can accept the fact that all human life is sacred, then we can enter into a positive dialogue to deepen our understanding. Sometimes our reasoning is coloured by the consequences of an action. For instance, if an unmarried pregnant teenager decides to keep carry her baby to full term, would it not destroy her whole future? Or wouldn’t having a baby through IVF bring great joy to the parents who can then shower great love on the child. I have often been asked why is the Church so rigid?
Coming back to the predicament of James and Agnes, their comment that the Church lacks understanding can totally be understood as coming from their desire to start a family. It is not that the desire is bad. The problem seems to be the fact that in IVF many embryos are created in the laboratory so as to increase the chances of them having a baby. What they fail to understand is that the process also involves the destruction of other embryos that are “not used” and the fact that embryos are created knowing very well that some of them will not have a chance to survive. Contrary to what other people may say, for the Church, an embryos is human life. We need to accept the fact that “no good intentions or good consequences can justify choices radically incompatible with love of God and the dignity of the human person” (cf. EV 75)
Therefore, the Church has the duty to protect the innate dignity of human life in its earliest form just as it has the duty to protect all from death penalty, social injustice, racism, human trafficking and all other assaults on human life. That is why Pope John Paul II made clear that “as far as the right to life is concerned, every innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others” (EV 57).
This brings us to another disagreement that is often posed against those who are pro-life promoters. This is brought by those who advocate the concept of pro-choice, ie., favouring or supporting the legal right of women and girls to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy to term. Here again it is only the right of the mother that is seen and consequences that benefit the one who otherwise has to deal with carrying the child to term and caring for the child. What about the right of the child to live? Aren’t human rights supposed to protect those who cannot defend themselves and those whose voices are not heard by the majority? Here is a clear situation that the Church has taken a pro-active stand to promote this culture of life. In 1980, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) said that “nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a foetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, and old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a dying person.” In other words, the sick, dying, maimed, and the criminal deserves the right to live and no one can take that away.
Having discussed at great length about life at its beginning, we also need to look at other issues. It may not be possible to discuss all issues in this article but the principle that needs to be followed is the same. If life is to be protected at all stages, then it should apply in all situation. It is not only applied when life is threatened by death but we also need to apply the same principle to death dealing forces. For example, in situations of abuse, oppressive / unjust laws, violence, war, etc. In all circumstances life has to be protected. From the moment of conception (embryo) right to the time of natural death, humanity has a duty to protect and respect life as a gift from God and it is only God who is the giver of the gift who can take back life. We need to understand that and accept that humanity cannot usurp God’s authority and hasten death at any stage. If we acknowledge life as a precious gift from God, then life is to be celebrated.
We should be concerned of the dangers of ethical relativism. This is where nations legitimise laws and actions that destroy life and sometimes we can be drawn into similar reasoning. Laws that go against life are against the law of God and therefore as Christians we have no obligation to follow them: “The whole tradition of the Church supports the idea that civil law must be in conformity with moral law. Laws authorizing and promoting abortion and euthanasia offend against the good of individuals and the common good. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection” (cf. EV 72, 73).
In conclusion, the commandment “You shall not kill”, even in its more positive aspects of respecting, loving and promoting human life, is binding on every individual human being. It resounds in the moral conscience of everyone as an irrepressible echo of the original covenant of God the Creator with mankind. It can be recognized by everyone through the light of reason and it can be observed thanks to the mysterious working of the Spirit who, blowing where he wills (cf. Jn 3:8), comes to and involves every person living in this world.
It is therefore a service of love which we are all committed to ensure to our neighbour, that his or her life may be always defended and promoted, especially when it is weak or threatened. It is not only a personal but a social concern which we must all foster: a concern to make unconditional respect for human life the foundation of a renewed society (EV 77).