As we grapple with the sad reality of forty years of nationwide abortion on demand it is necessary to identify the roots of the poisonous vine that is the abortion regime and culture of death. If we will free our nation from the strangling vine, we must identify and properly uproot the whole plant – roots and all.
Blessed Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical, Evangelium vitae, identifies three distinct but interrelated roots: 1) the contraceptive mentality, 2) an exaggerated notion of freedom as absolute autonomy and finally, 3) a blindness to God. It is this last root cause that I would like to examine here.
In the same encyclical, Blessed John Paul II writes: “freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth” (EV, 19). Since God is the source of all truth, it is blindness to Him that inevitably leads to societal support for acts which demean and destroy man.
When God is no longer known as lawgiver, judge and indeed, Truth itself, man perceives freedom as the legitimate rejection of objective truths. What he declares arbitrary standards are in fact, objective truths and universal norms.
John Paul recalls the objections of conscience and refusal of the Egyptian women to comply with Pharaoh’s command to kill their newborn males. They choose the good out of fear of God and obedience to His law. Awareness of Him and knowledge of His law prevents the women from doing grave evil. “It is precisely from obedience to God… that the strength and the courage to resist unjust human laws are born” (EV 73). When there is no God, the choice to kill a newborn (or the unborn as the case may be) appears to be a legitimate choice of self-preservation. “Don’t judge,” we are told, “you haven’t walked in her shoes. Only she can decide what is best for her.” Self-interest and its handmaid, relativism, become the sole arbiter of what is worthy of choice.
“When freedom, out of a desire to emancipate itself from all forms of tradition and authority, shuts out even the most obvious evidence of an objective and universal truth, which is the foundation of personal and social life, then the person ends up by no longer taking as the sole and indisputable point of reference for his own choices the truth about good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion or, indeed, his selfish interest and whim” (EV 19).
Having rejected objective truth and being beholden to “his selfish interest and whim,” man’s blindness to God has a profound impact on our understanding of the dignity of persons. “When the sense of God is lost” John Paul explains, “there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life” (EV 21). In the Catholic tradition, we tend to speak of dignity in two ways: human dignity and personal dignity.
Human dignity is either elevated by virtuous acts or it is lost by misuse of freedom and the choice for vice. Blindness to God inevitably diminishes human dignity as man uses his freedom for evil. In doing so he becomes less like God. Blindness also leads us to no longer perceive personal dignity, the permanent endowment of every person as an imago dei.
The image of God is not seen in the unborn child, who is considered a burden or impediment to development, success, and exercise of absolute autonomy. While blind, we move to one of two extremes: We attribute to the individual the status of god, thus reducing human dignity, and we demean the other by treating him as though he is just another animal whose life can be taken at will.
If man exalts his own freedom and at the same time fails to perceive in every human being an imprint of God’s Divine image, attacks upon human beings who represent a threat to his absolute autonomy are inevitable.
Blindness to God leads “to an extremely serious and mortal danger: that of confusion between good and evil, precisely in relation to the fundamental right to life” (EV, 24). It is only in God’s light and by recognizing that we are made in His image and likeness that the person can understand that he is neither beast nor God, and insofar as we treat him as one or the other we threaten and preclude the potential for good.
Once we head down this road we, individuals and society, become desensitized to both the evil we have habitually chosen and to greater evils. This leads to further enshrinement of evils into the law and a gradual darkening of the individual’s ability to perceive any wrong as it is known by God. “[I]n turn, the systematic violation of the moral law, especially in the serious matter of respect for human life and its dignity produces a kind of progressive darkening of the capacity to discern God’s living and saving presence” (EV, 21). Unable to discern God’s presence, God is deliberately driven out of the public square, giving rise to abortion and other symptoms of the culture of death.