Some years ago, Mother Teresa spoke at a Congressional Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Arrayed before her were some of the most powerful leaders of the world, including the President of the United States. With the strength that comes from holiness, she spoke simply, truthfully, and powerfully about the value of each human life, including the life of the unborn and the very poor. She could barely be seen over the podium, but her words towered over all of us gathered there. Her words struck a deep chord, even with those who were on record in support of abortion.
One immediate result of her talk was a new and expanded adoption effort in the D.C. area. But her witness to the value of life continues to reverberate beyond a single program, worthy though it is. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, from her place in eternity, calls us - as Catholics and as citizens, as believers and as a people of reason - to bear witness to the value of human life from conception until natural death. And the challenge she places before us is formidable.
But first, let's do away with a myth. During the last presidential campaign, Senator John Kerry, a Catholic, was asked about his support for abortion. Referencing the Church's teaching on the humanity of the unborn, Candidate Kerry said he was unwilling to impose "Church dogma" on our free and democratic society - whatever he might hold personally. In responding that way, the Senator gave credence to the unfounded view that the Church's consistent ethic of life is solely a matter of Church teaching, unsupported by reasoned and reasonable arguments. We need to set the record straight.
Most moral teachings and values are derived from reason, not faith. They are rooted in moral innate sentiments, shared by people across diverse religious and cultural lines, that certain things are wrong, either all of the time or some of the time. The ethical values and conclusions toward which these inborn sentiments tend are confirmed by common sense, experience, observation, logical arguments, and sometimes by scientific analysis. Those same values and conclusions are often codified in civil law - in whole or in part. Again, those same values and conclusions are undone only by going against one's inborn moral sentiments. That always requires mental and semantic gymnastics.
The Church, for her part, does not "invent" moral values. Rather, with reason illumined by faith, she recognizes those moral values that are true to our humanity and true to the Author of our humanity, and makes them her own. The Church tests moral values and ethical conclusions for reasonableness, consistency, decency, and compassion. Are they coherent, truthful, good, and beautiful? If so, they are clarified and elevated by the light of faith and are recognized as integral to what it means to lead a life that corresponds to the Gospel and also to the inherent requirements of human nature.
Some moral teachings are perhaps too subtle for unaided human reason fully to grasp; only with the assistance of faith we can see their inherent reasonableness and truth. The more complex or subtle the rational argument, the more necessary is faith to guide one through the intricate steps that lead to an ethically correct conclusion. Sometimes it takes the light of faith to cut through the fog of popular culture, so that we can see and think clearly. But most teachings, including the value of human life from the moment of conception, can be known and argued from reason alone. And it is both legitimate and necessary for people of faith to be voices of reason when society turns its back on fundamental human values.
Take the question of when life begins. The inherent moral sentiment of the vast majority of people for thousands of years, representing diverse cultures and religions, is that human life in the womb is just that - human - and thus deserving of respect. Scientific observation has confirmed that deep moral sentiment. The closer science looks at the embryo, the more apparent is its humanity. Modern embryology tells us that the "the initial one-celled zygote is 'the beginning of a new human being' and defines the 'embryo' as the 'developing human during its early stages of development.'" (see Richard Doerflinger, "Congressional Testimony on Embryonic Stem Cell Research," Origins, November 18, 2004). Last summer, Dr. Jennifer Lahl, executive director of the Center of Bioethics and Culture in Oakland, asserted, "Once the sperm and egg are united and the DNA double helixes are raveled and unraveled, you have a human. If you put that embryo in a woman, you're going to have a baby in nine months' time. . . " Those definitions and insights are continuously verified by contemporary discoveries in the science of embryology which underscore the continuity of human development from its very earliest stages.
To say that embryos bear no resemblance to a human being may score political points but it is an unreasonable, unscientific statement. Nor is it logical. The human embryo will never develop into a tree or a giraffe. It simply isn't reasonable to think of the embryo as other than human.
Or take the argument that it is ethically acceptable to ignore the human-ness of the embryo because embryonic stem-cell research promises help to people who suffer terribly from tragic diseases. Our inborn moral instinct tells us that there is danger ahead when we start thinking that the end justifies the means. That same inborn moral sentiment, confirmed by grim historical experience, experience, warns us that experiments that do harm to human beings are off limits. It warns against making one class of human beings (embryos) mere instruments to serve the needs (however pressing) of other human beings.
Beyond that, science tells us that adult stem-cell research is more than "promising" - it is currently delivering medical advances. So this is not a Church vs. science debate, with the Church blocking the way of progress.
As a matter of fact, the Church - in its teaching and through its research institutions - actively supports two types of stem-cell research: umbilical cord stem cells and adult stem cells. A third, embryonic germ cells, are under study by Catholic ethicists. In truth, the Church opposes only that sort of research which reason itself is warning against.
During the months ahead, some in the General Assembly of Connecticut will likely push for state funding embryonic stem-cell research - in spite of a looming budget deficit. Sadly, some, such as Senator George "Doc" Gunther of Stratford, have attacked the Church's representatives to advance this cause. It is time for us to speak out, to contact our legislators early, and to say that we are opposed to such funding, not on religious grounds, but on scientific, logical, ethical and humanitarian grounds. Our faith gives us the clarity of vision and the inner strength to do this.
If it is clear that the embryo is human, how much clearer is it that the developing child in the womb is human and deserving of respect? I hope that many will attend the March for Life, in Washington, DC, on Monday, January 24. I'll be there, and groups will be traveling on buses from parishes in Fairfield County. There's still time for you to join us (see article on page 13).
And finally, as part of a consistent ethic of life, I hope we will also raise our voices against the death penalty (see article on page 1). Reason and experience have demonstrated that taking life is not the morally acceptable way to defend life. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta has given us a lot of work to do!
May she support us by her prayers!
This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.
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