Today’s liturgical celebration finds us caught in turbulent wake of the controversial and split Supreme Court decision on Friday in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, reversing the judgment issued 49 years ago in Roe v. Wade, which was reaffirmed and later modified in additional rulings. Protests and celebrations ensued, sometimes leading to violent confrontations. The ruling and its aftermath will surely worsen the serious and stressing rifts that are increasingly dividing the American people against each other as noted widely in the world press, making front page headlines here in Ireland and elsewhere.
It is premature to expect healing, but since the end of America’s bitter civil war national healing has never been so sorely needed, given these perilous times, fraught with war, natural disasters, social unrest, and a global climate disaster advancing inexorably in the face of inadequate international response. St. Paul’s exhortation to his hotheaded Christian converts in Galatia is certainly to the point: “… the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal 5:14-15).
On Saturday, Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich issued a carefully worded and nuanced response, particularly in light of the “seamless garment” of Catholic teaching advanced especially by his predecessor, Cardinal Bernardin [https://www.archchicago.org/en/statement/-/article/2022/06/24/statement-of-cardinal-blase-j-cupich-archbishop-of-chicago-on-the-supreme-court-s-decision-in-dobbs-v-jackson-women-s-health-organization]. Cupich began by reiterating the Church’s traditional teaching on the obligation to protect human life in the womb, but, he added importantly, of “promoting human dignity at all stages of life.” He emphasized our responsibility to support women throughout their pregnancies, but crucially “after the birth of their children” and to “support families, particularly those in need.”
The reminder that in the often vitriolic disputes over abortion and human rights, we become so narrowly focused that the wider situation and our responsibilities to protect and support all life are easily overlooked. The Catholic position, and that of many other faiths and religious traditions, is founded on the belief that “every human life is sacred, that every person is made in the image and likeness of God and therefore deserving of reverence and protection.” Each, it may be argued, therefore has a right to such reverence and protection.
This protection, as Cupich points out, demands the elimination of “the systematic poverty and health care insecurity that trap families in a cycle of hopelessness and limit authentic choice.” Clearly, conflict over abortion is a symptom of much deeper problems and divisions that must be addressed before any kind of reasonable solution can be found. It is not beside the point that the United States suffers the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world, one caused mainly by economic inequity.
If we truly believe that all life is sacred, who is to say that one life is somehow more sacred than another? If all life is sacred, any life is sacred, from the soaring redwood trees of California to the tiny creatures in our gardens and the very microbes that enable us to survive. All life must be treated with the respect, compassion, and reverence that the saints have shown us in caring for the poor, the sick, the suffering, and even animals and plants in the natural world. Not by chance did Pope Francis choose his name or base his great encyclical on the “Hymn to the Sun” by St. Francis of Assisi.
Jesus himself, when plagued with the demand to send fire and brimstone on his opponents, as we hear in today’s gospel, chided his disciples and moved on to the fate awaiting him in Jerusalem, the very emblem of vulnerable innocence sentenced to unjust death.
The death of vulnerable innocents has not abated. In the United States, lethal attacks on worshippers in their places of worship, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim have accelerated in recent times. Elsewhere Uighurs, Rohingyas, Sikhs, and Hindus have been outlawed and often martyred – all in the name of God or political orthodoxy. On June 5th Catholic worshippers at St Francis Church in Owo, south-western Nigeria, were celebrating Pentecost mass when a group of men opened fire, killing 40 people, including four children. A month earlier, Deborah Samuel, a Christian schoolgirl accused of maligning the Prophet Mohammad, was stoned to death and her body burned by a mob of fellow students in Sokota, North Nigeria …
Every day, the world watches in virtually helpless horror as defenseless Ukrainian civilians, including children and infants, are heartlessly killed in bombing and missile fire. Women and children are threatened with inevitable starvation in Yemen as casualties of ongoing domestic warfare.
In our times, we have witnessed the intellectually impaired, the aged, infirm, those suffering from incurable illness, gay and lesbian persons, and the “racially impure” subject to persecution and death in name of a “better society.” Add to this the hundreds if not thousands of innocent victims of unjust conviction and execution by our legal system and those elsewhere.
In the United States, but not only there, for more and more infants and children, as one observer put it, “Life begins at conception and ends in mass shooting.”
Not only is sacred human life in peril. In Africa, South America, Asia, and the Americas defenseless animals are slaughtered by trophy-hunters or poachers, critically endangering several keystone species. Other face extinction by the loss of habitat for commercial purposes. Great forests, the living lungs of the planet, are felled to make shipping cartons and toilet tissue. Any living creature that encroaches on our way of life is in danger of extermination. But are not their little lives also sacred? Shakespeare had it right, I think:
The sense of death is most in apprehension;
And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies [Measure for Measure, Act 3, 1].
Of all the trillions of planets in the universe, only one has ever been found to bear life, likely the rarest and most precious gift in the whole of Creation. Focusing solely on one threat to life is to misunderstand the much wider struggle and human responsibility for its preservation.
Cardinal Cupich’s and other wise voices remind us that, in his words, “This ruling is not the end of a journey, but rather a fresh start. It underscores the need to understand those who disagree with us, and to inculcate an ethic of dialogue and cooperation. Let us begin by examining our national conscience, taking stock of those dark places in our society and in our hearts that turn to violence and deny the humanity of our brothers and sisters, and get to work building up the common good by choosing life…”