Choose Life: What is on the Horizon

A reflection for the Archdiocese of St. Louis’s CHOOSE LIFE Lenten Pro-Life Series

February 26, 2023

As an ethicist, I am afforded the privilege of challenging our world to step back from individual solutions to ensure that the practical goods they are pursuing are aimed at man’s absolute good. In a culture, that so often values doing whatever is possible, as an ethicist, it is my place to challenge the culture to ask, not simply what can we do, but rather, what should we do. In our desire to build an authentically life-affirming society, we can be tempted to become very practical and simply ask what can we do. For example, what can we do to make abortion illegal or what can we do to promote the welfare of families. While it is true, we need practical solutions to the many practical evils we face in this world, we must also step back to ensure that those practical solutions are ordered towards what we should do and not simply what we can do.

When asking what we should do, we need to begin with the truth that every human life is sacred and so the foundation of all our pro-life work must be the respect of the dignity of the human person. While much ink has been spilled over exactly what it means to respect the dignity of each and every human person, at its core, human dignity is essentially tied to who we are and what our purpose on this earthy really is. Of course, as people of faith, we know that “Sacred Scripture teaches that man was created “to the image of God,” is capable of knowing and loving his Creator, and was appointed by Him as master of all earthly creatures that he might subdue them and use them to God’s glory.”[1]As a reflection of the divine and ordered towards communion with Him, each of us was thus made “to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.”[2]

When seeking practical solutions to the practical evils of the world, we must step back and ask ourselves if those solutions are truly pro-life, that is to say, if they conform to what we owe to one another as members of the same human family. This recognition that each and every human being is a member of our shared human family and thus each and every human life is sacred and worthy of protection, must be the impetus that leads us to find practical solutions to the many practical issues facing our world.

Sadly in 21st century America, we are faced with many issues that attack the dignity of the human person, including but certainly not limited to abortion, physician assisted suicide, racism, supporting families, inclusion of immigrants, etc. While we must work to ensure the dignity of every human person is respected, not all issues attack human dignity in the same manner and so while every issue is important, we cannot fall prey to the logical fallacy that every issue is of the same weight. Of course, prioritizing those issues that lead to a greater attack on human dignity does not mean that the other issues are not important, but rather with limited time and resources we must prioritize those issues that bring about the most egregious attacks against human dignity. Take as an example the case of a person robbing a gas station with a gun and a person robbing a gas station without out gun. Yes, of course, both robbers are wrong and should be punished, but I think we would all have to agree, and the law, through the punishment handed down,[3] certainly agrees, that robbing a gas station with a gun is far worse than robbing a gas station without a gun. This is because the second a gun is pulled in a robbery, the life of another person is at stake, whereas when no weapon is used, the respect owed to another and their livelihood are compromised but their fundamental right to life is not, at the moment, under attack. In both cases a violation occurs to the person working at the gas station, but clearly a threat to the life of the worker is far worse that the taking of their livelihood. While in an ideal world, the local police would respond to both calls immediately and end the illegal activity, I think we would all agree that if they had limited resources, ie. only a couple of officers available, the police would respond to the call with the gun and then hopefully follow up with good detective work to solve the other stealing case without a gun at a later time.

As we look forward to the future and ask what it means to be pro-life, we must first acknowledge that “there are acts which in and of themselves, independently of circumstance and intentions are always gravely illicit by reason of their object.”[4] There are those actions which are always and everywhere wrong, while there are other actions that people of good will can disagree with. Taking as our starting point that every human person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, we can quickly come to see that there are some pro-life issues, like the killing of an innocent human person, which happens in abortion, that always and everywhere violates the dignity of the human person and thus is always and everywhere wrong and there are other issues, like the question of whether immigrants who have come to our country through illegal means should be given amnesty, which does not necessarily violate the dignity of the human person, that people of good will can disagree about.

The principal, that every human person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect holds for all people, in all places, for all time, but so long as the basic human dignity is protected their can be legitimate differences about practical solutions to these problems. Every immigrant who comes to this country must be treated in a way that does not violate their dignity, and this certainly includes things like ensuring they have safety, essential health care, and other basic goods, but people of good will can debate about the best immigration policy and certainly people of good will can disagree over whether amnesty should be given to all or not. Afterall whether someone is granted amnesty, does not directly relate to their dignity being violated. On the other hand, that same call to respect the dignity of every human person means that every human person must be given the right to life and thus people of goodwill cannot disagree about whether abortion is permissible or whether physician assisted suicide should be permitted, because these actions always include that taking of a life which is in violation of the dignity of the human person. One who permits abortion or physician assisted suicide permits a direct violation of human dignity by ending the life of an innocent human person, whereas someone who may disagree about immigration policy does not necessarily violate the dignity of the human person. Thus, when we look to the future of the pro-life movement, we must first address those issues which always and everywhere attack the dignity of the human person.

Moving forward, we must begin with the dignity of the human person. Perhaps as we move forward, we are really moving backwards to the teaching of Jesus Christ, “do to others whatever you would have them do to you.”[5] When trying to find solutions to build a truly life-affirming society, we must ensure that any solution is linked back to the fundamental principle of human dignity, to ensure that each life is being treated as sacred, worthy of protection, and provided the opportunity to fulfill their purpose of becoming saints. As we look to what is on the horizon, we need to step back and ask not simply what can be done, but also, is what we are doing treating each person for who they are, a child of God, and will it help them fulfill their destiny to become a saint.

[1] Paul VI. Gaudium et Spes. December 7, 1965. Papal Archive. The Holy See. < §12

[2] The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism. Question 6

[3] Stealing under $750 is a misdemeanor offense in the state of Missouri (Mo. Rev. Stat 570.030 §8) and carries a maximum sentence of no more than a year in jail plus a fine of no more than a $2,000, whereas robbery is a class A felony (Mo. Rev. Stat. 570.023) punishable by a prison sentence ranging from 10-30 years.

[4]Catholic Church. 2000. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Huntingdon, PA: Our Sunday Visitor. §1756.

[5] Matthew 7:12

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