Respect Life Month

The Catholic Church in the United States designates time each October to launch a program that highlights and reflects gratitude for God's first gift to us: the gift of human life. Beginning the first Sunday of October we recommit ourselves to building a culture in which every human life is valued, no matter how poor or sick, how old or microscopic that life may be.

Recent tragic events may tempt us to think we are very far from living in a world that values life. When terrorists can readily destroy themselves and thousands of innocent people to promote their cause, it may seem that human life has become cheap.

However, as so often happens in times of crisis, we also have seen humanity at its very best. We learned of office workers, fleeing for their own lives, who stopped to carry their disabled coworkers to safety. Of firefighters who risked, and sometimes forfeited, their own lives in the effort to save others. Of ordinary people facing death whose last words were to reassure their spouses and children that they loved them.

Here was the Christian message about human life in action. As Pope John Paul II reminded us in his encyclical "The Gospel of Life," it is by emptying ourselves in service to the lives of others that we become most truly alive, most truly human. The "Gospel of Life" is nothing but the Gospel itself, and that Gospel is the truth about our highest human destiny.

Our culture sometimes seems to teach that life is not a basic good, that love is but a feeling rather than a commitment to serve others, that we may reject or ignore those who seem burdensome or inconvenient. Women with difficult pregnancies are encouraged to accept abortion, then abandoned to grieve in silence for a lost child. Commercials aimed at elderly citizens subtly caution them not to burden their families or society, while groups advocate suicide and assisted suicide as an end to their problems. High-profile executions become headline-grabbing media events, while society pays little heed to the many anonymous prisoners with inadequate legal counsel who face death with no fanfare. In recent debates on embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, some try to dismiss respect for human life as an obstacle to the noble goal of curing disease.

The Respect Life Program aims to bring to the attention of Catholics information about these and other issues within the context of the dignity and sanctity of human life. Catholics individually and in community are encouraged to help build a culture in which every human life, at every stage and in every circumstance, is defended and cherished. More than ever before, promoting this culture of life and love is essential to our civilization.

This is the text of a statement by Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler in conjunction with the beginning of this year's Respect Life Program.

Hope in a time of despair

While few will forget Sept. 11, 2001, because of the tragic events of that fateful day, another day - Sept. 14, 2001 - likewise should be remembered as a day in which faith was manifested in ways and magnitudes rarely seen in American history.

Friday, Sept. 14, was named a special Day of Prayer and Remembrance by President George W. Bush. Houses of worship were asked to open their doors during the noon hour so that Americans could take time to visit God privately or communally in prayer. In numbers that belie the conventional secular humanist mindset of the day, our churches filled.

During the day, it was standing-room-only for Mass at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church on the campus of St. Louis University. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis likewise was packed for the 12:05 p.m. Mass, with visitors congregating in the vestibule because of lack of pew space in the nearly 2,000-seat church. Local soft rock FM radio station KEZK broadcast the Mass live so that those unable to attend a church service during the workday might still be able to hear a message of faith and hope. In Downtown St. Louis, the crowd for the noon Mass at the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France (Old Cathedral) was so large that visitors literally stood in the parking lot and prayed.

All this on a regular Friday workday. Throughout our land, churches and cathedrals, temples and synagogues, mosques and missions - all were positively overwhelmed by the faith of God's people. Sept.14, 2001, was a special day.

On Sept. 14, it should be noted, the Church celebrates the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. On this day, we hear St. John's message of the triumph of good over evil: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so he who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life." The Gospel reading for Sept. 14 poignantly echoes the reading for Sept. 11 from St. Paul's letter to the Colossians, in which St. Paul stresses that God "pardoned all our sins. He canceled the bond that stood against us with all its claims, snatching it up and nailing it to the cross. Thus did God disarm the principalities and powers. He made a public show of them and, leading them off captive, he triumphed in the person of Christ."

The triumph of the cross! That is what gives us hope in times of despair. That is what draws us closer to our Lord during times of fear and confusion. That is the message we take with us as our nation proceeds in our quest for justice.

While Sept. 11 was a day of tragedy - a kind of "Good Friday" for the civilized world - let us never forget that only three days later the hope of the Resurrection was manifested in our midst. For this, we thank the Lord of hosts!

The facist face of terrorism

During the last several weeks the country has grieved and prayed. It looks as if many aspects of the culture have changed profoundly. Gratuitously violent content in television and film is no longer deemed appropriate, partisan political and ideological differences are somewhat muted, and caution in travel and finances is everywhere evident. But more significantly we should hope and pray for a change in the moral climate of the country; we should hope for the development of a moral focus, a faith-informed moral sensibility out of the Sept. 11 attack on the United States. We should hope to reacquire a moral vocabulary with which to speak about the duties of leadership in times of terror, about the necessary sacrifice incumbent upon the citizenry in times of war, about our role as a nation in a world where there is nihilistic disorder, and about what the proper response of a nation is to the evil perpetrated on Sept. 11.

We can start by unraveling a viper's tangle of moral equivalencies - the very stuff of moral relativism - that has again been raised in the news of the last weeks. We have heard such arguments during the cold war when many of our leaders and citizens saw no difference between the U.S. government and the Soviet communist regime. More to the point, we also heard such arguments in the 1930s with the language of appeasement claiming peace at any cost. We now know that was morally unacceptable. Similar arguments are coming to the fore about terrorism. For example, we have begun to hear that the attack of Sept. 11 is a reprisal for the U.S. bombing of the pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum in 1998. Disconnected university leftists and others condescendingly remind us that the origins of the terrorists' hatred are poverty, inequality and injustice, that they are really victims of Western violence and if we only understood them we could end terrorist destruction. Such arguments of moral equivalence are perilous because they predictably end by blaming the West and the United States for the world's violence and because the arguers start by assuming that our enemies are not our enemies. As one well-known journalist put it, "we have met an enemy, and . . . he is not us."

The reappropriating of our moral sensibility seems to have begun. And here the Church's sons and daughters can be of great help. David F. Forte, a Catholic law professor at Cleveland State University, who was once Jean Kirkpatrick's legal counsel when she was U.S. representative to the United Nations, has already begun to influence the moral stance of the U.S. war effort. When President George W. Bush spoke to the joint session of Congress, on Sept. 20, Forte's long study of the ideology of terror served as the basis for Bush's words. Forte describes bin Laden and his thugs thus: "They are not religious. They are a new form of fascist tyranny." He offers valuable context for our understanding of terrorism by explaining that bin Laden and his ilk want to revive the tradition of the Kharajites, a faction that violently opposed all other adherents of Islam as impure. Though the Kharajites were defeated centuries ago, their beliefs have been revived by bin Laden and others.

Forte understands who the enemy is, and he is not us.

Respect Life

When the U.S. Supreme Court refused this week to reconsider the life imprisonment sentence of Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh's co-conspirator in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, they may have done a valuable service for the pro-life cause. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals still could decide to grant a retrial based on the FBI's belated release of evidence. But barring some demonstration of new evidence vindicating Nichols, he needs to stay in jail all his life. Society has a right to its self-defense from his evil acts. He has an opportunity to repent of his heinous crime. Government has a responsibility to defend us from him.

The Catholic Church's clear teaching against capital punishment, as elaborated in the 1997 modifications to the catechism, acknowledges this right of society to protect itself from criminals. "Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor"(Catechism of the Catholic Church #2267, 1997 modifications from "Editio Typica"). As long as Nichols is deemed "guilty," and if he stays locked up, we must not take his life. Here, also, the catechism is clear, "If non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means."

These measures - life imprisonment of an apprehended and tried perpetrator - are, according to the catechism, in keeping with "the concrete conditions of the common good" and more aptly respect "the dignity of the human person." The Church's precise rationale for this first became clear in Pope John Paul II's encyclical on "the Gospel of Life," when he concluded that the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are rare, if not practically non-existent"(#56).

There is a vital continuity between the fundamental pro-life issues of abortion and euthanasia and other pro-life issues - capital punishment included. This significant connection is most often signaled using terms such as "the seamless garment" or "the consistent ethic of life." But there are differences, equally significant. Abortion and euthanasia are the foundation of our respect for life because they (and some other acts, for example, the destruction of human embryos) are intrinsically evil. They are the direct taking of an innocent human life. They are never morally tolerable.

Capital punishment is not intrinsically evil. We might say it is "circumstantially evil." When the circumstance of justice prevails that assures society can be protected by a secure and lasting detention, then execution is unnecessary, cruel and seriously evil.

In their 1998 statement "Living the Gospel of Life," the U. S. bishops tell us that "adopting a consistent ethic of life, the Catholic Church promotes a broad spectrum of issues." We must work against poverty and injustice, "resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment" (#23). "But," the bishops go on to emphasize, "being 'right' in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. ... If we understand the human person as the living house of God, then these latter issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house's foundation."

On this Respect Life Sunday, when our attention is understandably focused on legitimate self-defense of the innocent here and abroad, let us never forget to speak out with fervent faith and insistent unity for the thousands who continue to die defenselessly in our midst each day. When the foundation is established on rock, the walls will stand secure as well.

We believe in angels

For a few years angels were “in.” Every shop had representations of these heavenly beings — pictures, statues, medals, charms, and much more. Many of these were truly artistic. Many were simply cute. There was no outburst from devout believers over the sometimes trivial portrayal of angels because this was not intentionally offensive. Still, the cutesy approach could convey the impression that angels are no more than a charming religious myth. We do believe in the existence of angels.

A learned professor of theology once challenged his students to read the Gospels, omitting every reference to angels. Angels are to be found on every page. An angel revealed the birth of John the Baptist; Gabriel told Mary of God’s choice of her; angels counseled Joseph and announced the birth of the Savior. Again and again angels ministered to Jesus, including during his agony in the garden of Gethsemane, and helped his followers to comprehend the reality of the Resurrection.

Throughout Europe there are shrines erected in thanksgiving to the intervention of angels to ward off harm and protect men and women. Atop the Castel San Angelo in Rome is a large figure of St. Michael the Archangel, who protected Romans from the Great Plague.

We believe that angels are the creatures most like God. They are pure spirits, endowed with great power and intellect. They are usually depicted with wings to suggest the speed with which they carry out the will of their Creator. Like men they were given free will and put to the test. Like men, those who fell from grace were guilty of pride and disobedience. The name of the prince of the angelic choir, Michael, means “who is like God.” Gabriel means the “messenger of God” and Raphael the “medicine of God.” They underscore the truth that God uses angelic spirits to help us on the road to salvation.

It is Catholic belief that God has placed each of us in the care of a guardian angel. Our Lord warned those who would lead the young into sin that their angels always see the face of our Father in heaven. With great fondness we recall how Blessed Pope John XXIII began the practice of concluding the Angelus with the simple prayer to the angel guardians which we all learned as children.

The sacred writings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all speak of the role of the angels in God’s plan. The liturgy of the Church honors the great archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael on Sept. 29, and the Guardian Angels on Oct. 2. On these days especially we join them in praise and thanksgiving to God. Let us pray for their guidance and protection in the times ahead. May the angels help us to know the message of God in Jesus Christ, and follow him faithfully. Mary, Queen of angels, pray for us!

In self-defense, not from anger

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services wrote last week to chaplains who serve the 1.4 million Catholics in the military worldwide. He directed that his letter be shared with their Catholic congregations. These military troops and their families are among those likely to be most directly affected in the carrying out of the United States’ response to terrorism. The Archbishop gives a helpful application of Catholic moral principles in light of a demonstrated grave danger.

Noting that the nation’s unprecedented action against worldwide terrorism will almost certainly involve military action, Archbishop O’Brien reminds us that the motive for the United States’ efforts “need not arise from a backlash of anger,” or a purpose of retaliation. But ours, the Archbishop affirms, is a “reasonable obligation of immediate and long-range self-defense.”

The terrorist webs that are reported to be deeply imbedded in over 50 countries, including our own, are almost invisible. The pastoral letter points to the “intense, fanatical determination” behind these actions, which appears “heedless of traditional values of right and wrong.” “Their goal is to kill, maim and intimidate in order to instill fear. ... Indeed they personify evil and if not rooted out they will perpetrate similar and even more heinous crimes than the outrages of Sept. 11.” Legitimate governmental authority has “an obligation to respond as forcefully as necessary, even if it requires military action as a last resort to curb and eliminate such terrorism.”

The Archbishop indicates that a full range of initiatives — “political, diplomatic and economic” must be integral to any victory, “from start to completion,” and the “potential military response must be responsible, taking into play the principles of any just war, lest we become unwitting barbarians in attempting to end barbarism.” The deliberateness with which our president and his advisers have been meeting, and their apparent determination “to be comprehensive before ... taking actions,” is, in the words of Archbishop O’Brien “a positive indication that we will not be reacting rashly.”

The military’s Archbishop emphasized the principle that “conflict must be focused as closely as possible on those who have instigated or cooperated in the dastardly destruction of Sept. 11 and on others prepared to act similarly.” He insisted, “Corresponding to a nation’s concern for the life of its military is an obligation to protect the innocent on any given side of the conflict.” The innocent may never be “the direct object of a military strike.” “At the root of all biblically based moral teaching,” the Archbishop reminded, “is the unchangeable and universal fact that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God.” From that fact, ... comes “the widely accepted principle that no one may directly take the life of an innocent person, whether in peace or war.”

“We are entering a new kind of battle, and it is probable that new moral dilemmas will arise for which there is not a pat solution,” said the Archbishop. Sound moral principles, reason and a sensitive conscience “will help us through.”

The continued prayers which Archbishop O’Brien urged for “the guidance of our leaders” are reinforced by Archbishop Justin Rigali in the appeal he makes in his column today. “As we look to the future and anticipate initiatives seeking to ensure justice and to eliminate terrorism. ... especially do I again encourage you — as I did last week — to participate often in Mass and to spend some time in Eucharistic Adoration. From the Eucharist we derive strength to practice works of charity and serve others. Let us never underestimate the power of the Eucharist. At this very crucial moment in the history of the world I ask for an increase in Eucharistic Adoration. As pastor of the Church of St. Louis,” Archbishop Rigali states: “I urge each of you to join me in just such a commitment!”

The full text of Archbishop O’Brien’s letter is available at the Web site of the Archdiocese for the Military Ordinariate, www.milarchusa.org/inside/efobrien.tmpl

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