A Question of Life or Death

Church-State Conflicts in the United States

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, MARCH 22, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The election of President Barack Obama in the United States was preceded by an acrimonious debate over whether Catholics could support who some regarded as an anti-life candidate, but whom others defended as being essentially pro-life.

Political campaigns aside, the first weeks of the new administration are revealing a worrying anti-life pattern. Shortly after taking office, Obama repealed an executive order that denied federal government funds to organizations that promote abortion overseas, reported the New York Times on Jan. 24.

The so-called Mexico City policy came into force in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan imposed the ban. President Bill Clinton lifted it a couple of days after taking office in 1993, and then President George W. Bush restored it after he took office in 2001.

Subsequently the nomination of Governor Kathleen Sebelius as head the Department of Health and Human Services raised a storm of controversy. Sebelius, a Catholic, was requested to abstain from presenting herself from receiving Communion last year by Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City due to her support for abortion, reported the KansasCity.com site on May 9, last year.

In his March 6 column for the weekly Catholic newspaper, the Leaven, Archbishop Naumann said that, while recognizing the positive contributions of Sebelius, she «has been an outspoken advocate for legalized abortion.»

This was followed by the decision to allow federal funding of research involving embryonic stem cells. Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the U.S. episcopal conference’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, called Obama’s executive order on embryonic stem cell research «a sad victory of politics over science and ethics,» noted a press release March 9.

Then, on March 18, the news service LifeNews.com reported that the Obama administration is set to send a $50 million check to the United Nations Population Fund. The U.N. body has been accused in the past of supporting the repressive measures of Chinese family planning officials.


Often perplexity is expressed at the Catholic Church’s supposed stubbornness when it comes to life issues. Critics would not surprised, however, if they bothered to study a bit of Church history.

This is what Dennis Di Mauro points out in his recent book, «A Love for Life: Christianity’s Consistent Protection of the Unborn,» (Wipf and Stock).

In the book’s introduction Di Mauro, secretary of the National Pro-Life Religious Council and president of Northern Virginia Lutherans for Life, asserts that Christianity has been, is now, and will be in the future, a pro-life religion.

The first chapters of the book examine the Biblical passages that reveal a pro-life message. Di Mauro then turns to the testimony of the early Fathers of the Church. From the very start of the Church, in writings such as the late first-century Didache, abortion was regarded as immoral.

Apologists, such as the second-century Athenagorus, or the author of the second or third-century Epistle to Diogenetus, also clearly regarded the life in the womb as human, Di Mauro explains.

The Epistle states: «They [Christians] marry as do all others; they beget children, but they do not destroy their offspring.»

At the end of the second century Tertullian, in defending Christianity against accusations of infant sacrifice, replied saying that for Christians homicide has been forbidden and that it is not permitted to destroy what has been conceived in the womb. Tertullian also believed that a child received its soul at the moment of conception, Di Mauro notes.

By the fourth century, the book explains, the councils of the Church began to proscribe punishments for those who procured abortions. In fact, transgressors were only re-admitted to the Church on their deathbeds.

In 305 the Synod of Elvira, in Spain, condemned abortion and proscribed excommunication for those who procured abortions.

Culture of Life

Coming forward to the contemporary world the importance of these matters for the Church was well-explained in a book recently published by William Brennan, a professor at the St. Louis University School of Social Science.

In «John Paul II: Confronting the Language Empowering the Culture of Death,» (Sapientia Press) he summarized the response of the Pontiff in confronting the frequent attacks on human life.

John Paul II, observed Brennan, placed a great deal of importance on culture, as opposed to politics or economics, as the driving force of history. He also rejected the idea of cultural relativism, and instead anchored culture in human nature.

Brennan noted that the escalating culture of death is the antithesis of what John Paul II considered to be a central ingredient of culture, that is the flourishing of a life of a people.

«According to the mindset intrinsic to the death culture, death itself becomes a way of life imposed on an expanding number of individuals and groups considered expendable,» Brennan added.

The Catholic Church regards acts against life as so serious because they are considered intrinsically evil, Brennan explained, citing John Paul II’s encyclical, the Gospel of Life.

Another problem highlighted by John Paul II in analyzing the dangers of the culture of death is the consequent damage to the formation of our conscience. Through the use of euphemisms and the obfuscation of the moral reality of the acts committed our moral sensibilities are dulled and the conscience becomes blind or indifferent to the evil being carried out.

This observation led Brennan to comment on the importance John Paul II placed on language in a culture. The success of the culture of death in no small part depends on corrupting language to dehumanize the victims.


Brennan cited John Paul II who in the encyclical the Gospel of Life said that we need to call things by their proper name and have the courage to look the truth in the eye, not yielding to the temptation of self-deceit.

Therefore, John Paul II insisted that we need to know the truth about the human person and to proclaim that truth without tiring.

A large part of the book by Brennan is dedicated to describing the manipulation of language by the culture of death, and to then looking at how John Paul II in his writings and speeches provided an alternative vision, based on a truthful vision of the human person.

Those defending abortion often employ such terms as the «removal of tissue or cell masses.» Or phrases such as «embryonic reduction.»

Abortionists, Brennan said citing a variety of documents, even go so far as to portray pregnancy as an illness or defend abortion as the removal of a sort of parasite.

The manipulation of language is particularly prevalent when it comes to the debate over embryonic stem cells, Brennan observed. A combination of dehumanizing the human lives is involved, plus a rhetoric of unbounded hope is used to justify the destruction of human embryos.

Another tactic of the culture of death is to hide behind an appeal to compassion, or to the need to respect the conscience of the person involved. This requires, however, Brennan noted, detaching conscience from God and objective morality.

«No medical solution could be truly compassionate which would violate the natural law and stand in opposition to the revealed truth of the word of God,» said John Paul II in an address to anaesthesiologists on Oct. 10, 1988, in a passage cited by Brennan.

In a nihilistic climate that places relative values on human life John Paul II responded with a message that insisted on the value of every human being, concluded Brennan. That challenge of proclaiming the truth about the human person remains a pressing task in the face of current pressures to dehumanize innocent lives.

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