October is observed as “Respect Life Month” in the Catholic Church in the United States. When we hear this phrase most of us very readily think of the legalization of abortion in our nation since 1973 (and, actually, most nations now). We might quietly calculate the tens of millions of innocent children destroyed before birth over these nearly five decades. The Catholic Church, the preeminent voice in our nation for the defense of human life, has always seen “Respect Life Month” and multiple prolife initiatives as encompassing a wider consideration than just abortion.
The Catholic Church, in its principles of social teaching, always makes clear that abortion is wrong because it represents the deliberate destruction of human life, life that by biblical and traditional authority we assert is created in the image and likeness of God. In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, in verse 27 we are told, “God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” One could say that much of the rest of the Scriptures then become footnotes to this foundational verse. While all that God created is good and sacred, the Scriptures always magnified the creation of man and woman as the pinnacle of creation. When the Church speaks on human life issues, its teaching flows from the truth that all human beings, without exception, have been created in God’s image. We speak of this as reflecting a consistent ethic of life.
The breadth of the Church’s teaching regarding human life has at times been likened to a seamless garment, evoking a scriptural passage from John 19:23 where it is noted that the seamless robe of Jesus was not torn because it would have been rendered useless, to tear a part of it was to destroy the whole. Thus the executioners cast lots to see who could claim the garment.
It was the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, then the Archbishop of Chicago, who used the image of the seamless garment, though he did not coin the phrase, to teach the authentic and broad reach of Catholic Social Teaching on the value of life. The seamless garment philosophy holds that issues such as abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, economic injustice, contempt for refugees and migrants, and care for creation all demand a consistent application of moral principles that value the sacredness of human life. Bernardin said, “The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill.” Bernardin said that although each of these issues was distinct, nevertheless the issues were linked since the valuing and defending of human life were at the center of the issues. In 2019, and flowing from the extensive writings of St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis, we might reasonably add concern for the environment to matters of importance because of how climate change is impacting the health and well-being of the human family.
Early on, the consistent ethic of life, the seamless garment image, came under attack. People who were passionately involved in voicing moral concern about one aspect or another of this “garment” feared their particular cause might be overlooked. It is true that there were advocates of ending capital punishment who were, perhaps, not so concerned about abortion. And abortion opponents often protested that grouping concerns together might dilute the proper outrage over destruction of life in the womb. To me they failed to grasp the seamless garment of the sacredness of all life.
As a Catholic priest, preacher, and teacher I always found that this broad image of the value of human life was a helpful one. I have experience in seeing hearts changed: an abortion opponent coming to join voices opposing capital punishment; an advocate of ending the death penalty acknowledging that innocent human life in the womb must be protected. Those who so rightly decry the slaughter of millions every year in abortion come to acknowledge that if we say life is sacred even one exception cannot be acceptable. The value of human life is not measured in the worthiness of the person, but in its origin in God. All human life is worthy because God in whose image we are made is worthy.
Is there a place for particular issue advocacy? Certainly. For a myriad of reasons one’s sensibilities are more heightened around one issue and we join groups, write letters, challenge officials to help us protect life, witness to that value in our own lives.
“God created man in the image of himself. In the image of God he created him, male and female, he created them.” If we believe this we do not destroy nor devalue human life. Life in the womb cannot be discarded under a perverse notion of choice. Adam and Eve had a choice in the Garden of Eden and they made a bad and sinful choice. We cannot tolerate children locked in cages in the name of our nation. We cannot deny a child of God, young or old, reasonable healthcare, nourishment, housing and dignity. As difficult as it may be we cannot decide who lives and who dies based upon their failures and crimes. And we cannot continue to allow our planet, God’s creation, to be destroyed for material profit.
All human life is created by God, in God’s image. A seamless garment.
Most Reverend William F. Medley
Diocese of Owensboro
Originally printed in the October 2019 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2019 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic