Defining a Culture of Life [November Reflections]

Terri Schiavo, when in a long-term coma, was denied food and water until she starved to death.  Jack Kevorkian was lauded by many because of his willingness to assist the elderly and infirmed to commit suicide.  LeRoy Carhart conducts a legitimate business in late-term abortions, even when a child may be viably delivered.  The societal acceptance of these practices has been termed a culture of death.  The term is apt and well understood.  It connotes the denigration of human life and society’s utilitarian view of its significance.

Words are important for they bring forth understanding and give rise to consequences.  Shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, groups opposed to abortion coined the term pro-life.  Clearly understood from the very beginning of its usage, the term has a sharp and distinct meaning.  It identifies those who believe that life is a gift from God and thus are opposed to abortion and other practices that destroy life at any stage from conception to natural death.  As such, the term pro-life has been an effective label for creating a movement and keeping it focused.

When Pope John Paul II wrote about a culture of life in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, he presented the concept as the opposite of a culture of death, focusing almost exclusively on abortion and euthanasia.  This usage was virtually synonymous with the term pro-life, but emphasized the importance of societal values so that attacks on human life would not only be prohibited, but the bans would be sustained by the moral beliefs of the people.  The Pope, thus, added an important dimension to pro-life efforts.

The term culture of life, however, is open to expansion and interpretation, which can lead to ends that cheapen human life.  A culture is simply the collective values that guide how a society or an identifiable group behaves over an extended period of time.  These values are shaped by religion, history, tradition, and the communal beliefs in which one is reared.

Culture of life refers to how the group values life and how it should be lived.  A Buddhist culture, for example, holds that after humans die they can be reincarnated as animals, and so it makes no hard distinction between the moral rules applied to humans and to animals.  An Islamic culture holds that strict and enforced societal moral standards are necessary to overcome the self-interest of individuals, while a Western culture holds that the purpose of society is to guarantee order and promote freedom and opportunity to allow individuals to pursue their own interests.  A culture based on Confucianism promotes the importance of the community over the individual.  In contrast, a Christian culture teaches that the individual is created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore has an innate dignity that must be respected.  There are great differences, and even contradictions, among these various cultures, but they all establish values for leading one’s life.

Even from a Catholic perspective, culture of life can mean many things.  Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York, recently wrote an editorial in his diocesan newspaper about the obligation to respect life.  While the Bishop stated that life is God’s most precious gift to us and we have a sacred duty to preserve it, he also wrote at length about the importance of the ecology movement for the quality of life — the need to be concerned about the quality of water, the purity of air, the non-pollution of the oceans, and the preservation of species.  As stewards of the planet God created, these must be our concerns.

The preservation of human life and the quality of life, however, are not co-equal.  The means for improving the quality of life by reducing pollution or increasing economic growth, for instance, can never be population control, abortion, sterilization, or a one-child government mandate.  While no true Catholic would ever condone, let alone advocate, such an approach, the imprecision of the terms we use can lead to similar means, particularly when the underlying moral values of society are materialistic and ignore the transcendental.

In Evangelium Vitae, the Pope identified the root cause on the attacks on life as a loss of the sense of God.  As a result, man regards himself as merely one more organism, granted with a high degree of reasoning, but only another living being.  Until we regain a belief in and reverence for God, and consider life as His sacred gift, man will view life as simply an attribute subject to his personal control and manipulation.

The Pope declared that “we must build a new culture of life,” and it must begin within the Christian communities.  We must form “consciences with regard to the incomparable and inviolable worth of every human life.”  We must acknowledge that we are creatures of God who have been granted life as a gift and a duty.”  We must adopt new life styles on the basis of a scale of values that raises being over having.  We must support and promote human life through personal witness, social activity and political commitment.  And in working to effect this transformation, we must rely on the help of God, and recognize that “prayer and fasting are the first and most effective weapons against the forces of evil.”

We should not allow our efforts to be negated by the terms we use.  If culture of life is the banner we fly, then it must be clearly defined and rigidly adhered to.  Only then can we truly create a new culture of life.

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