As any serious Christian knows, human life is a treasure given to us by God Himself. Scripture and the teachings of the Church instruct us that we are all children of God, made in his image and likeness. Christians also realize that God has a place waiting for us in heaven, as long as we live according to the teachings of the Church and take advantage of the sacraments as aids to staying in a state of grace. (After all, we never know the time nor the hour when we will be called to judgment.)
It is very clear to me at least that in the last two centuries we have seen a deep decline in reverence for life, most notably in the West, where an enriched sense of the reverence for life was originally transmitted by Christian missionaries who converted these populations from the paganism that had coexisted comfortably with exposure of infants, depreciation of women and other manifestations of brutal disregard for the sanctity of human life.
Why should such a decline have occurred so precipitously in the very parts of the world with such a beautiful, coherent, and developed doctrine of reverence for human life? In Evangelium vitae, Saint John Paul II illuminates the connection between a rich spiritual life and an appreciation for life itself. He writes,
Those who allow themselves to be influenced by this climate easily fall into a sad vicious circle: when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life; in 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 (21).
This decline in both morality and respect for life did not happen in an instant, but rather as a result of a number of events and cultural shifts over a long period of years.
For the seeds of this decline we could look to the Age of Reason’s disparagement of revealed religion and mechanistic view of nature, or even the evolution of the Protestant Reformation’s enthronement of private judgment and dislike of natural law arguments. However, the sharp acceleration of this decline may have begun with the First World War, which in turn produced another war in which millions of soldiers and innocent citizens throughout the world died in concentration camps or in battle. Inevitably and sadly, life, rather than being cherished, became cheap. This in turn encouraged many people to live in an increasingly frivolous way, drawing on the old mindset of eat, drink, and be merry, because soon you will die. The strong pull of moral conventions largely disguised this shift, but one of the basic motivations of the Americans who survived the horrors of World War II and came home to begin the Baby Boom was a search for security and prosperity.
The 1960s saw the widespread use of the Pill to avoid pregnancy. Many men and women lost their trust in God and his Church and preferred to worship at the altar of medicine and technology, which (as we know) has led to the national and international catastrophe of the legalization of abortion. Once people worship the false god of pleasure as an end in itself, sadly and inevitably they are susceptible to the lure of so-called medical miracles and the promise of a longer life rather than putting their trust in the Lord God. Again, Evangelium vitae gets to the root of man’s disrespect for life: “He (man) no longer considers life as a splendid gift of God, something “sacred” entrusted to his responsibility and thus also to his loving care and “veneration”. Life itself becomes a mere “thing”, which man claims as his exclusive property, completely subject to his control and manipulation (Ibid).
For some time now it has no longer been possible to delude ourselves that the United States is a Christian country. How could it be, given the breakdown of the traditional family of a male and female open to new life, the fruit of their loins and of their lifelong mutual love? It is quite clear that those countries once known collectively as the West, which were traditionally largely Christian, are now with some exceptions populated by relatively few committed and countercultural followers of Christ and his Church. Few live lives that pay much attention to what we Catholics know as the natural law that is written in our hearts and spelled out quite clearly in the Ten Commandments and the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He came into this world as a man to sacrifice himself for our sake so that heaven would be reopened to us after the primordial disaster of our ancient ancestors Adam and Eve. They—like most of the West today—also fell into the diabolical temptation of desiring to be gods, themselves following the insinuations of the devil.
Nonetheless, our God is merciful as well as just and we, as Christians, have to pray for our culture’s repentance as well as for our own fortitude and perseverance in an increasingly hostile environment. We have to give good example and be open to life in many ways, including inner generosity and care for the poor. All this is only made possible by what we refer to as the interior life of prayer and reliance on the sacraments through which we recognize the truth of Saint John Paul II’s words, “The dignity of this life is linked not only to its beginning, to the fact that it comes from God, but also to its final end, to its destiny of fellowship with God in knowledge and love of him” (Evangelium vitae, 37).
Our prayers are very powerful—more than we can know until we reach heaven. So although we must be realistically aware of the challenges of our time, we do not despair: God knows what He’s about. We must trust that our spiritual life of prayer and self-denial can make an enormous difference in the society in which we live in the years ahead. Our God is a God of miracles. We cannot know how He means to respond to the situation that his rebellious children have made. But we know that our prayers and our living of the moral life to the best of our ability have the potential of ending in our lifetime legalized abortion and pornography and reinvigorating the recognition that marriage by its nature can only be between one man and one woman till death do that part. And let us not forget the next year brings a big election year that we be involved in not only by prayer but by healthy involvement in local and national politics. What a great moment it would be if the next president of the United States were a serious Christian and hopefully a faithful Catholic.Fr. C. J. McCloskey III, S.T.D. is a Church historian and Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, DC. He is perhaps best known for guiding into the Church such luminaries as Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Lawrence Kudlow, Robert Novak, Judge Robert Bork, and Senator Sam Brownback. His articles, reviews, and doctoral thesis have been published in major Catholic and secular periodicals. He is co-author (with Russell Shaw) of Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion, and the Crisis of Faith (Ignatius Press) and the co-editor of "The Essential Belloc" (St. Benedict's Press).
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