Sunday, January 24, 2010

Let there be life:
Catholic teaching on abortion, other life issues, and human sexuality

It is a common perception in the outside world that, when it comes to moral matters, the Catholic Church (and Christianity in general) is harsh, negative, and oppressive, obsessed with sin and controlling people’s lives, imposing its will, and maintaining its power with a bunch of rules and prohibitions. But all of these things are totally false.

Catholic theology - including moral theology - is not a collection of mere opinions. It is not the fruit of a bunch of old men dictating on-high what they think is or ought to be. And it is not a set of arbitrary negative rules dictated or revealed to us by an arbitrary God. It is not a restriction on authentic freedom. Notwithstanding the many “thou shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments, and the teachings of the Church against things like extra-marital sex, contraception, and abortion, Catholic moral theology is positive, not negative.

Christ and His Church do not present us with a set of prohibitions and restrictions - they give us joyous "good news," and it is good news that is grounded, first and foremost, in Love and Truth, truth which sets us free. It is grounded in reason. And it is all of these things even if you never actually use the words "Christ" or "God" or "sin," such that it is applicable to believers and non-believers alike.

All of Catholic moral teaching, including the teachings on life issues and human sexuality, is reducible to the supremely positive commandments which were discussed between the Jesus and the Pharisee – “You shall love the Lord thy God will all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And, again, as Jesus said to the Apostles, "love one another. As I have loved you, so too should you love one another." Those are the teachings of Christ and His Church in a nutshell. This is our general vocation - to love God and one another.

So what does that mean in practical terms? Well, who/what is God? Quite simply, He is what He said He is when Moses asked His name, He is the "I am," and He is as described in the Gospel of John, the Logos, meaning Creative Reason. Thus, God is the "Is." He is Ultimate Reality itself; he is Truth itself. So to love God means, among other things, to love Truth. And we come to know and understand truth and Truth by both divine revelation and right reason. God is also Love - caritas - eternally a communion of love in the relation of persons that is the Trinity. God is Love, but we ourselves are not gods. So, we should follow truth and take love into our heart.

And what does it mean to “love one another in truth”? God's love is the highest love, the most perfect love, and it is that kind of true love that we are called to practice. To love perfectly and truly, we must love as God loves. Such a love is more than an emotional feeling, more than an attraction or desire for personal happiness, much less a base desire for physical pleasure. Such true, total, and perfect love is turned outward, not inward, it is a conscious act of the will to subordinate oneself, and to unconditionally and selflessly seek the good and welfare of the other, including the gift of self for the other’s benefit, whether that love is returned or not and whether or not the other “deserves” to be loved.

Again, to love perfectly and truly, we must love as Christ loves us. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." Jesus presents us with His Body, which has been given up for us. Such a love as we are called to demonstrate is not concerned with pleasing oneself and seeking to solely benefit oneself, but is instead a gift of self, totally and completely.

In practical terms, to "love one another" means that we should affirm and respect the truth of the inherent dignity of every human person from the very beginning of their creation, from the instant of existence, as children of God made in His image, no matter how seemingly insignificant, undesirable, or useless. We should treat others as subjects, not objects; as ends in and of themselves, not as a means to be exploited by us; and as persons, not things to be used up and then tossed aside or thrown away as if they are trash. We all have intrinsic value, every one of us.

All Catholic moral teaching is grounded in and must comply with these two pillars of Love and Truth. It is not a matter of opinion, it is not a matter of the Pope having the power to impose his own personal preferences. When Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae, or Pope John Paul II taught the Theology of the Body, they were not expressing what they subjectively and arbitrarily thought what should be, they were not engaged in a raw assertion of power. The Pope and the Church are bound in their teachings by Love and Truth.

And one purpose of such teachings is to assist us in the formation of our consciences, which involves an act of reason, not feeling. In doing so, the Church does not really teach anything new, anything that was not previously revealed by God or is not already written as the natural law on men’s hearts and accessible by reason.

Far from thinking that sex is bad and dirty, the Church teaches that human sexuality is a moral good; indeed, it is very good, it is one of the highest goods. Being created by God, it is necessarily a great good. But sex, like any other activity, is a good only insofar as it is consistent with Truth and with Love, that is, when it is consistent with a total gift of self, recognizing both the unitive and procreative aspects of human sexuality. In other words, in the context of marriage and without the barrier of contraception or even a contraceptive mentality. When it is less than consistent with Truth and Love, then it begins to be something less than good, even if the people involved subjectively believe and insist that they are acting out of love.

As with all things, in the context of our sexuality, we must love as Christ loves. Now, in His love for us and for His Bride, the Church, Jesus gave us the totality of His Body. Jesus is also the Word, the Logos, which means not only Reason or Truth, but a creative power as well, because it is through Him, the Logos, that all things were made. That means that our union with another must be a true love that is free, total, spousal, faithful, and fruitful. Jesus also loves in a Trinity of relations, such that our sexual activity must similarly take place between a husband and wife, one flesh, in union with God if it is to be consistent with authentic love and the truth of who we are as human persons, male and female. We cannot simply put God in the closet or otherwise bar Him from the bedroom and still have our sexual relations be acts of love in truth.

Whether it is sex outside of marriage, contraception, abortion, embryonic/fetal experimentation, euthanasia, or suicide, the teaching is the same. All of these things are contrary to the Truth. If you eliminate truth, reason, and love from the equation, then all you are left with is a utilitarianism and existentialism that practically demands that one take "charge of the process" as if he were a god himself. It is the philosophy of utilitarianism, the idea that the morality of all things must be determined, not from objective truth (or Truth), but from their usefulness, with one's happiness or pleasure being the ultimate measure of usefulness -- to the extent of allowing, if not compelling, the use of human persons as means to an end, as disposable things -- it is this corrosive philosophy, together with the related idea of existentialism, that we must create our own meaning of existence, which has brought us to where we are today, in a hyper-sexualized materialistic and hedonistic society awash in the blood of millions slain by abortion, the sick and elderly at risk of being medically euthanized daily, and all too many individuals despairing of life and committing suicide.

So, what is the truth of abortion? What is the truth regarding the entity in the womb which is expelled by the act of abortion? As a purely scientific matter, we know what “life” is. It has a specific scientific definition. And we know what a “human” is. Again, it has a scientific definition. And we know what an “individual being” is. This too has a scientific definition. Yet, some continue to insist that science cannot answer the question of the beginning of life. The fact is, science can answer it, science has answered it, and it is only because some do not want to hear the answer that they insist that this is some unknowable and unanswerable question. Rather, it is a matter of scientific fact that the life of an individual human being begins at conception.

It is not a matter of opinion, it is not a matter of wishful thinking, and it is not a matter of religious faith that the entity existing at the time a human sperm penetrates a human ovum is itself (a) human, that is, genetically a member of the species homo sapiens, (b) animate and living, with continued growth, and (c) distinct from either the woman who contributed the ovum or from the man who contributed the sperm cell. In short, a human being, however nascent. This is true whether that human being is floating along the fallopian tube or attaching him- or herself onto the uterine wall or sitting in an IVF petri dish or frozen in liquid nitrogen or about to be harvested by embryonic stem-cell ghouls.

A human being does not begin as something other than human, and only later convert or change into a human state. He or she is and always has been human. Life does not begin magically during the prenatal period. It is only because the entity within the womb is alive at the moment of sperm-ovum union that it begins the process of cellular division and reproduction and taking in nourishment and giving off waste and developing more recognizable organs and features, growing and growing and growing for the next 70-80 years.

To deny the humanity of the unborn child and kill him or her by abortion is contrary to the truth that the entity in the womb is a living human being. To use another person (or ourselves) as merely an object for our sexual pleasure, as if he or she were a toy, and/or to allow ourselves to be controlled by our passions, rather than we controlling them, is contrary to the truth that we are persons and subjects, not objects or things. And to assert that one has the power or right to determine his or her own concept of right and wrong, his or her own morality, as if he or she were a god, and decree that the child in the womb is merely a thing that can be eliminated by abortion, or that killing the sick is an act of "mercy," would likewise be contrary to the truth that we are not gods or equal to or greater than the one God, who is Love and Truth.

Rather, we should love and respect one another as subjects, not as objects or playthings to be exploited for our own pleasure and used up. Babies, be they born or unborn, are not things to be thrown away like garbage. And the old and sick and poor are not useless eaters, taking up needed resources, such that we can eliminate them by euthanasia. There is no such thing as life unworthy of life.

These teachings are not harsh prohibitions or restrictions on our freedoms, they are not a denial of “freedom of choice,” but instead are truths that lead us to authentic freedom. These truths are already written on our hearts, but because our ability to reason and discover these truths ourselves has been corrupted by sin and the temptations of the world, in order to help, the Holy Spirit guides the Church in teaching us and explaining these truths.

However, we should be clear in understanding that the teachings of the Church on matters of morality are not a bunch of harsh prohibitions, merely a list of don’t do this, and don’t do that, but are instead a positive exhortation to do this and do that – do love, do live in truth, do live in the light of love and truth in authentic freedom.

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI explains it this way:
Christianity, Catholicism, is not a collection of prohibitions: it is a positive option. It is very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We have heard so much about what is not allowed that now it is time to say: we have a positive idea to offer, that man and woman are made for each other, that the scale of sexuality, eros, agape, indicates the level of love and it is in this way that marriage develops, first of all as a joyful and blessing-filled encounter between a man and a woman, and then, the family, which guarantees continuity among generations and through which generations are reconciled to each other and even cultures can meet. So, firstly, it is important to stress what we want. Secondly, we can also see why we do not want some things. I believe we need to see and reflect on the fact that it is not a Catholic invention that man and woman are made for each other so that humanity can go on living: all cultures know this. As far as abortion is concerned, it is part of the fifth, not the sixth, commandment: "You shall not kill!" We have to presume this is obvious and always stress that the human person begins in the mother's womb and remains a human person until his or her last breath. The human person must always be respected as a human person. But all this is clearer if you say it first in a positive way.
--Interview of the Holy Father in Preparation for his Apostolic Journey to Bavaria
August 5, 2006

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