Defending Life God's Way:
Lessons from Mount Sinai
by Cardinal Justin Rigali
Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee, presented the keynote address to the Arlington Diocesan Pro-Life Directors Meeting on August 2, 2007. We are grateful for Cardinal Rigali’s permission to reprint his address. (It also appears on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia web site, and was published in Origins, August 16, 2007).
I. Introduction: Scriptural Context from this Week’s Readings (Exodus)
Good afternoon. It is good for us to be here, gathered in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and in service to His people -- the service of life.
I would like to begin by thanking you for your witness this morning on Capitol Hill. Some of you are lobbying veterans, while others stepped into your senator’s or representative’s office for the first time. All of you showed courage. All of you took the risk to speak truth to power.
The ferial Mass readings this week set our annual diocesan pro-life directors’ gathering in a rich context. The Exodus passages speak of Moses, the gift of the law in the Ten Commandments, and the “stiff-necked” people who chose to provide for themselves, instead of relying on God and obeying His Word. We started out on Monday with the disobedience of the Israelites and their worship of the golden calf. Today we see the repentant tribes of Israel building the Ark of the Covenant to celebrate and honor God’s law over them. The Israelites then start off on their journey -- moving forward only on days when the cloud of the Lord’s presence lifts, and resting when the cloud settles over the Ark.
In light of these readings, I would like to explore with you the idolatry at the heart of the culture of death -- as well as some of the subtle ways the temptation to worship false gods can, if left unchecked, threaten to undermine our noble pro-life efforts. We, like the Israelites, are continually called to the purification of our hearts and to follow the Lord night and day, relying on His word, His daily bread.
II. The idolatrous gospel of the culture of death.
Our pro-life work finds its direct mandate in the fifth commandment given to Moses: Thou shalt not kill. The many direct attacks against innocent human life are well-known to you. They happen at all stages, from the earliest hours of the human embryo’s life, through the vulnerable months in the womb, through childhood and adulthood, to the last days of those who are dying.
Rather than offering special care to those who are vulnerable and dependent, many today see the lives of such people as burdensome. In place of the truth about human dignity, many proclaim the idolatrous gospel of total autonomy, sheer utility and false mercy.
Consider the field of biomedical research. Caught up in pride and the pressure to be on the cutting edge of science, many scientists take their direction from an unexamined utilitarian ethic that seeks to maximize the good or happiness for the greatest number of people. In this misguided ethic, the ends are said to justify the means. Its close corollary, the technological imperative, says: “If we can do it, we should”. Any challenge to this imperative is seen as “anti-science” -- a step backwards.
Those who have blind faith in embryonic stem cell research and its so-called “biblical power to cure” (as House majority leader, Nancy Pelosi, called it recently) are worshipping a modern-day false idol. They are putting their faith in an exaggerated view of the wonders of science and in their own ingenuity to overcome disease and aging.
It is all strangely reminiscent of the Israelites’ worship of the golden calf. When Moses ascended Mount Sinai and remained there for forty days, the people got tired of waiting for him to return. In their impatience, stubbornness, and disobedience, they created out of their own possessions -- their own jewelry and valuables -- a god they could control. A god they shaped, rather than one they would be shaped by.
When he first came down from Mount Sinai, Moses saw the idol they had created in his absence. His people, so recently liberated from slavery in Egypt, were now freely submitting themselves to a new, more terrible kind of bondage. In creating the golden calf and bowing down to worship it, the chosen people of Israel inverted the beautiful order that God had set in the beginning and demeaned themselves.
In reading news accounts of so-called breakthroughs in embryonic stem cell research, one would think we were on the verge of finding the fabled fountain of youth. Cures are promised for everything from Alzheimer’s to cancer and diabetes. Like the Israelites bowing to the golden calf they created, excitement around this potential “healing” has the same idolatrous overtones, based on impatience, stubbornness, and disobedience to God’s way.
But this self-asserted strength is illusory. The cause of life cannot be served by destroying life. The ends (no matter how real or truly beneficial) never justify the means. All people of good will are called to resist the technological imperative, and embrace and proclaim instead the inviolable dignity of human life from its earliest stages. Human dignity, not progress at any price, should be the fundamental guiding value in scientific research. When scientists do their job well, they serve humanity and the common good. The Catholic Church supports ethical science. As a recent ad campaign from the Secretariat says: “Let’s find cures we can all live with”.
Extending this analysis to the culture of “choice” is not difficult. Those who promote abortion as a way to further women’s freedom have also exchanged the truth for a lie. Instead of affirming the inviolable dignity of human life, the dignity of women, and respect for the integrity of sexual relations and motherhood, they assert a false notion of freedom made in their own image, a self-made ethic that justifies their own choices.
We can be tempted to despair at times, as disobedience to God’s law pervades the culture. Although the abortion rate continues to decline from its high point in the early 1990s, we continue to lose 1.2 million lives to abortion each year in this country alone. Countless women and men involved in one or more past abortions bear the spiritual and emotional wounds of that supposedly liberating “choice”.
III. Reasons for Hope
At times we are tempted to be overwhelmed or even to give up. Yet as Christians we have every reason to hope. The risen Christ continues to be at work in -- and through -- all the baptized members who make up His Mystical Body, the Church. In the midst of many threats to life, something very encouraging is taking place in our society, due, in part, to your leadership and your commitment to the Gospel of Life.
The rate and number of abortions in the United States continue to decline, most notably among teens. Many teenagers are wisely choosing to abstain from sexual activity -- motivated both by religious and moral values, and the desire to protect themselves from the epidemic of sexually-transmitted diseases that today afflict some sixty million Americans. To be free of disease, to be free of the fear of an ill-timed pregnancy, to be free of a broken heart -- this is the freedom that we want for our young people, and we rejoice that it is unfolding.
Sadly, many Catholic couples today do not yet understand or appreciate this freedom. Therefore the bishops of the United States last November approved the educational document “Married Love and the Gift of Life” prepared by our Committee for Pro-Life Activities, to explain how respect for life should lead us to respect for human sexuality and its openness to new life. For next year we are considering a similar educational resource to explain our teaching on in vitro fertilization and other reproductive technologies, which allow new life to be created and treated not as a gift but as an object for exchange and even experimentation.
The American people are also becoming more pro-life. Major polls in 2006 indicated that support for legalized abortion is waning, with support for Roe v. Wade at an all-time low since the mid-1970s. The Harris Interactive poll -- which misleadingly asked about Roe v. Wade as if that decision made abortion legal only during the first three months of pregnancy -- found that support has dropped below 50% for the first time in three decades. It also showed that 44% of Americans said they would support a law in their own state like South Dakota’s, banning all abortions except to save the mother’s life. Another survey by The Polling Company, Inc. and WomanTrend found that 54% support limiting legal abortion to the extreme cases of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother; and an additional 21% would limit abortion to the first trimester. This is a far cry from the abortion license established by Roe v. Wade, which allows abortion for virtually any reason throughout the nine months of pregnancy. A major 2006 Zogby poll found majority support for abortion regulations such as parental notification laws, with 69% favoring such measures for girls under 17 years old. We will continue to broaden and deepen this trend through our public education efforts, with a strategic focus on those who are either ambivalent about abortion or might be described as “culturally pro-choice”.
This April, the Supreme Court upheld a ban on an abortion procedure for the first time in the 34 years since Roe v. Wade. While we have yet to see the full impact of Gonzales v. Carhart on the Court’s jurisprudence, this candid majority opinion is a significant step in the right direction -- moving away from the infamous “abortion distortion” in Supreme Court jurisprudence, and bringing their interpretation of abortion law more in line with other fields of law. We hope and pray that the newly-upheld federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, and state laws modeled on it, will finally start saving lives, even as the case raises awareness about the barbarism of abortion in general.
Finally, in my own archdiocese, we witnessed a sign of hope this summer -- a sign of God at work in the culture. On June 7, by a vote of 9 to 8, the City Council of Philadelphia declared the City of Brotherly Love to be a “pro-choice city”. The pro-life community could have succumbed to discouragement over it. But instead, we protested, calling the pro-choice label “divisive and erroneous”, and just one week later the Council rescinded their resolution by a vote of 13 to 4. The City Council had mistaken evil for good -- a modern-day act of idolatry; but, just as the Israelites’ revelry was silenced upon Moses’ return from Mount Sinai, Planned Parenthood’s celebration came to an abrupt end when the voice of truth prevailed.
So we can take heart from the spiritual, educational and legislative efforts that are making a difference in the hearts and minds of many Americans.
IV. The Subtle Temptation to Idolize Our Pro-Life Work
It is easy to see the “vendors of death” as guilty parties who have bought into the false gospel of autonomy wholesale. And yet the temptation of doing things our own way can remain even for those who follow Christ and are deeply committed to the culture of life. How might the temptation to idolatry show up in our own lives? How might it be disguised from our view, and thus from the transforming power of reconciliation?
Today I want to offer a gentle reminder to guard against making an idol of our own pro-life work. Is it part and parcel of sharing the hope of the Gospel with others, or does it sometimes spin off into its own discrete project, separate from our broader call to evangelization? Because the “evil one” wants us to fail, there is a temptation to claim this territory as our own and guard it -- not as a gift from God, but as the work of our own hands, the fruit of our own possessions. But if we do so, we risk burning out or even growing bitter in this beautiful task that has been entrusted to us.
God provided for the Israelites’ daily needs, giving them manna and quail in the desert where they would otherwise have starved to death (Exodus 16). God is still a God of providence, a God of abundance, and will provide the same for us, too, if we allow Him to do so. Each day, I encourage you to trust that God will indeed provide the manna for our daily sustenance, the quail we need to do this work. We must rely upon it with childlike trust and resist the temptation to grumble and complain like the Israelites, thinking that we do not have enough God-given resources: time, money, talents, personnel.
While Christians are not defined by idolatrous attachments, we are also not immune to their influence. Hence, we are reminded that the answer to these often-subtle temptations is to cling to the Lord in prayer, receive the sacraments frequently, and seek the strength of Christian fellowship. We are not meant to do this work on our own. We must live every day relying on divine providence, not on our own knowledge or powers, and not in competition with others. Whatever God provides for our use in this work is, somehow, mysteriously sufficient.
This conference hopes to help us move “from strength to strength”, as today’s Responsorial Psalm calls us to do. (Psalm 84:7 “They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God”.) With its prayer, sacramental sustenance, fellowship, and educational talks, this gathering is different from secular conventions, as good as those may be. Yes, we are situated in the shadow of the Capitol building, the halls of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House, but none of these is so powerful as the Holy Eucharist present in the chapel set up for you here in the hotel, the “ark” of the New Covenant. Here, you have a tremendous opportunity to refresh yourselves in our distinctly Christian pro-life mission. I invite you to receive it gratefully as today’s manna and quail on your faithful journey, trusting that the Lord will continue to provide all you will need, today and in the future.
V. Acknowledgments and An Invitation
In conclusion, I wish to thank our hosts in the Diocese of Arlington, Bishop Paul Loverde, Sister Clare Hunter and all their committed staff, as well as Archbishop Donald Wuerl and his auxiliary, Bishop Martin Holley from across the Potomac River. I am also grateful to Bishop Holley for serving on the bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities.
And I want to thank each of you for your commitment to the pro-life cause. As a group, your tenure adds up to over 500 work-years in cumulative service. Along the way, you and your families have made many quiet sacrifices of your time and resources. For all of this the Church is profoundly grateful.
I encourage you, dear friends, to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament this weekend, and to pray for those in positions of cultural and political power here in Washington. While they may not be aware of their deepest human longing, they are hungering and thirsting to hear the life-giving words of the Gospel. If even a handful of the most recalcitrant promoters of the culture of death were to repent -- and then use their power to proclaim the truth about life -- it could have a tremendous impact in defense of life, both domestically and internationally.
Pray, too, for unity among all Christians, especially among those seeking to build the Culture of Life. People will come to know Christ and the hope of salvation if they recognize us by our love for each other. They will dare to embrace the beautiful teachings on life if we make them attractive in our own lives, our families, our parishes and our schools.
This morning on Capitol Hill you “put out into the deep” (Luke 5:4), as Pope John Paul II encouraged us to do at the start of the new millennium. It was an exercise in trust: trust in the Lord’s providence and the expectation of an abundant “catch of fish”. May you continue to make a difference in countless lives -- to the glory of our generous God!
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