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The Sanctity of Human Life

Saturday, May 17, 2008
On 4 May, Br Lawrence Lew OP was invited to talk with the Lay Dominican Fraternity of Bl. Adrian Fortescue about the Sanctity of Human Life. Below is an edited version of his talk:

 Veni Sancte Spiritus

In the Creed, we profess that the Holy Spirit is “the Giver of Life”; the one who vivifies. I shall use this appellation as a starting point for our reflection. In Genesis 2:7, we find this beautiful description of the vivifying spirit – or the breath – of God: “the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being”. In this regard we can see the verses of psalm 104 as a commentary: “When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Breath, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground”. Hence the word revealed to both Jews and Christians is that God bestows life on human beings and he does so by breathing his divine Spirit into us. Thus the Catechism teaches that “The Word of God and His Breath are at the origin of the being and life of every creature.” In this sense, then, all creation owes its being to God, and so, is sacred, and this reverence for created matter is something that distinguished Jewish thought from the more dualistic tendencies of other ancient cultures. It is on account of such a revelation that our ancestors in Faith held such unique views on the goodness of all creation.

 However, although all creation is good, there is something specifically special and holy about human life that distinguishes us from the rest of creation. As such, to be ‘pro-life’ concerning the human person is not to be equated with being ‘pro-life’ concerning foxes or other sentient creatures. While it is a laudable thing to care for the welfare of animals, the fact that we do care, debate, reflect and argue is a manifestation of uniquely human activities, and this care and concern is arguably a living out of the stewardship over creation given to us by God. So, it seems apparent to me that there is something different about us humans and Aristotle famously calls humankind the rational animal. 

Christian anthropology believes that this difference is due to the fact that we are inspired; God’s Spirit animates us, we bear God’s image, and it is in Him that we live and move and have our being. Not only are we made by God's creating Spirit, like the rest of the created order, but we have been made in His Image. Therefore, St Thomas Aquinas would understand the image of God within us as the gift of a rational intellect that makes us desire to know God, and capable of loving him.
However, as we know, this potential is thwarted by sin, and so we often fall short of the mark, of God, who is our true aim. St Basil says that “he who no longer lives according to the flesh but is led by the Spirit of God and is called son of God, made in the image of the Son of God, is [properly] called spiritual.” Therefore, the Holy Spirit is not just the breath of life within us, but he is God who vivifies us, the living water that wells up within us, and so leads us from the living death of sin into the fullness of life that Jesus says he has come to give us. The Spirit of God wells up to eternal life when we grow in love for God and we recognize Him to be the consummation of all our human desires. It is on account of this friendship with God, which is the unique goal of truly human fulfillment and flourishing, that we believe that human beings are unique in the order of creation. It is on account of the intrinsic value of this human destiny that we say that human life has dignity and worth. It is on account of the indwelling of God’s Spirit in each and every human person that we say that all human life – from conception to natural death – is sacred. Thus in Genesis 4:10, we see that when human blood is shed, it cries out to God from the ground, the ground from which we are all created.

 Creation of EveMoreover, as Joseph Ratzinger put it: “In the human being God enters into his creation; the human being is directly related to God. The human being is called by him… Each human being is known by God and loved by him. Each is willed by God, and each is God’s image… Hence the Bible says that whoever violates a human being violates God’s property (cf Gen 9:5). Human life stands under God’s special protection, because each human being, however wretched or exalted he or she may be, however sick or suffering, however good-for-nothing or important, whether born or unborn, whether incurably ill or radiant with health – each one bears God’s breath in himself or herself, each one is God’s image. This is the deepest reason for the inviolability of human dignity, and upon it is founded ultimately every civilization. When the human person is no longer seen as standing under God’s protection and bearing God’s breath, then the human being begins to be viewed in utilitarian fashion… and [society] tramples upon human dignity.” Notice the scope of human dignity and the sanctity of human life: there is no doubt that this great vision of humanity offers a challenge to all of us.
Often issues of life are confined to questions considered 'controversial', particularly those questions concerning the transmission of new life, or the abortion of the unborn child, or so-called euthanasia. All these questions are certainly important, emotive and relevant issues, and it is not surprising that they should solicit such strong passions, for they touch us intimately. However, our belief in the sanctity of human life also means that we share an equal dignity regardless of wealth, intellectual ability or social standing, etc. Our belief in the sanctity of human life means that human beings are not viable matter for scientific experimentation; that even the most sin-wounded criminal is loved and willed by God; that where a brother or sister is struggling to live – and this can be socio-economic, psychological or physical – we are called to notice and to help. Where the blood of a human being is spilt, we are to cry out from the ground. It also means building a ‘culture of life’ based on deep respect for the human person. As Cardinal Christoph Schönborn OP has noted, “Even today’s widespread cult of the body supports in principle a culture that is hostile to life. If only the strong, healthy, sexually attractive body has any worth, then consciously or unconsciously this promotes an attitude of ‘selectivity’ that leaves no room for the weak and the sick, the handicapped and the dependent. A comprehensive defense of life is animated by an awareness that every human life without exception is precious in God’s eyes and is included under his protection.” Clearly, then, the ambit of pro-life issues which ought to concern a Christian is very broad. I can only touch on some of these issues and do not wish to dwell on any in depth. Rather, by reminding us of the reasons we Christians consider life to be sacred at every stage, I hope to offer a basis on which we may prayerfully reflect on the questions that arise with regards to ‘life issues’. 

The Sick at LourdesI believe that in these areas concerning the sanctity of human life, the position we are called to adopt is no less counter-cultural than it was when the Jews, moved by revelation, affirmed the fundamental goodness of the created order. Christians, also moved by revelation and by the teaching of the whole Christ – by which I mean the Church in union with Jesus Christ, her Head – are called to show to the world a position which is challenging and different precisely because it is based on a radical Christian anthropology, the likes of which the world has never seen. For which other faith teaches that God dwells in us, feeds us with His own Body and Blood, enlivens us with his own Spirit, and divinizes us so that we will share in the very life of the Triune God, and so become gods? If one’s hope is not fixed on these promises of Christ, which came to be because of the Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, then one will indeed have a vision of life that is somewhat morose, functionalistic and ultimately, unappealing. Is it any wonder that those societies who have lost the lofty Christian vision of the dignity of the human person have become so bored of life that new distractions and entertainment are constantly being demanded? Or that life has been devalued, and so, become meaningless and expendable? 
Historically, I am reminded of the early Christians who lived out their faith in the Roman Empire, a world which is in some respects not too different from ours. According to Paul Veyne’s ‘History of Private Life’, the Romans habitually exposed or drowned malformed infants, some abandoned their children because they were poor or wished to bequeath a decent fortune to their surviving heirs and the middle class “preferred to concentrate their efforts and resources on a small number of offspring, for reasons of family ambition”. Moreover, “all classes of the population certainly made use of contraception” and “even the most stringent moralists… never dreamed of according to the foetus a right to live.” Consider too, the fact that condemned criminals were often given over to gladiatorial sport or crucifixion, and we have a picture of a society in which life was expendable. It is in this context of a 'culture of death' that, inspired by their faith, the early Christians derived a counter-cultural ethics of human life. As Robin Lane Fox notes, “Most of the early Christian texts attack abortion simply as ‘murder of the creation of God’” such as is found in the 2nd-century Didache, and contraception was associated with “the beastly habits of the Gnostics” and roundly condemned by St Augustine. Therefore, from the beginnings of the Church, Christians were engaged in life issues, and offering a counter-cultural witness. This witness, as part of our preaching of the gospel, is what we Dominicans have to offer to the world. As Timothy Radcliffe OP has said: “If the Church simply accepts modern sexual mores, then the dangers are just as serious. We would appear to be assimilating ourselves weakly to the modern world, lacking the guts to stand for what we believe. If the Church’s teaching is true, then surely we must proclaim it.”

 The proclamation of this Gospel, which is by no means easy, is one that is vivified by the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who will lead us into all truth and the Spirit who can illumine our minds and help us to understand and live the teachings of Christ. It is the Spirit who will convince us of the truth, and this can be a rather gradual and slow process. It is also a process which one must desire, and this is helpful to recall whenever we are preaching the Gospel. As Origen said, “Christ does not win victory over anyone who does not wish it. He conquers only by convincing, for he is the Word of God.” So, we are not converted to the truth by force, or by the might of authority, or threats and fear but by God’s patient and loving Word. In this regard, I am reminded of our holy father Dominic who spent the whole night patiently convincing the Albigensian inn-keeper of his errors, and with the grace of the Spirit, drawing him towards the light of truth. It is this model we must keep before us as we preach the truth.

I am sure that if we contemplate the Word and ask the Spirit of God to lead us into all truth, then we shall be able to hand on the fruit of our contemplation to a world which needs it so much. The gift we Christians can offer to the world, to our contemporaries, is the very real and lived experience of our faith and hope in Jesus Christ, the Lord of Life whose Spirit gives us abundant life. Permit me to end with a final quotation from Ratzinger. He says: “The ethical recognition of the sacred character of life and the commitment to ensure the respect for life require a context and a perspective, and these are supplied by faith in creation… Christianity is the remembrance of the look of love that the Lord directs to mankind, this look that preserves the fullness of his truth and the ultimate guarantee of his dignity.Love for the poor The mystery of Christmas reminds us that in the Christ who is born, every human life – from the very beginning – is definitively blessed and welcomed by the look of God’s mercy. Christians know this and stand with their own life under this look of love; with this look they receive a message that is essential for man’s life and for his future. This means that they can humbly and proudly accept today the task of proclaiming the good news of the faith… In this task of announcing the dignity of man and the duties of respecting life that flow from this dignity, they know they will probably meet with derision and hatred. But the world cannot live without them.”

Lawrence Lew OP


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