Today, December 9, is the first anniversary of my mother’s death. She died on a Monday evening. Because December 8 fell on a Sunday last year, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception was observed that day. It was one of her favorite feasts—of course, since she loved all the Marian feast days, it’s difficult to say which one she liked most of all. Yesterday evening my wife and kids gathered together with my brother and sister for Mass at my brother’s parish, followed by a family dinner in her honor.
Of all the things that my mother taught me and the values she passed down, none resonated more deeply than her conviction that every human life is sacred. I credit my mom and her witness for my belief in the sanctity and inviolable dignity of every human life. For my mom, the protection of the unborn held a special place in her heart. But her conviction extended to all human life: the born and unborn; the old and the young; the citizen and the migrant. She believed in respecting the human dignity of everyone, regardless of race, color, ability, culture, or creed. She had many friends who were immigrants from Latin America, for example, and she believed that they had just as much a right to be here as anyone else.
As I was re-reading Pope Francis’s new book Let Us Dream today, the following passage reminded me of the values and lessons my mom taught me and that I still carry with me today. I felt such a strong call to share these words with you today that I contacted the writer and publisher to ask for permission. I encourage everyone to buy this book! But in the meantime, here is this very important excerpt.
Both slavery and the death penalty were once deemed acceptable, even in societies considered Christian. Today the Christian conscience benefits from a deeper understanding of the sanctity of life that has grown over time. Both slavery and capital punishment are unacceptable, yet both continue: the first clandestinely, the second quite openly as part of the judicial systems of some developed countries, where even Christians try to justify it. But as I said in the U.S. Congress in 2015: “A just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”
While many will be irritated to hear a pope return to the topic, I cannot stay silent over 30 to 40 million unborn lives cast aside every year through abortion. It is painful to behold how in many regions that see themselves as developed the practice is often urged because the children to come are disabled, or unplanned.
Human life is never a burden. It demands we make space for it, not cast it off. Of course the arrival of a new human life in need—whether the unborn child in the womb or the migrant at our border—challenges and changes our priorities. With abortion and closed borders we refuse that readjustment of our priorities, sacrificing human life to defend our economic security or to assuage our fear that parenthood will upend our lives. Abortion is a grave injustice. It can never be a legitimate expression of autonomy and power. If our autonomy demands the death of another, it is none other than an iron cage. I often ask myself these two questions: Is it right to eliminate a human life to resolve a problem? Is it right to hire an assassin to resolve a problem?
The neo-Darwinist ideology of the survival of the fittest, underpinned by an unfettered market obsessed with profit and individual sovereignty, has penetrated our culture and hardened our hearts. The successful growth of the technocratic paradigm so often demands the sacrifice of innocent lives: the child abandoned in the streets; the underage sweatshop worker who rarely sees the light of day; the worker dismissed because his company has been asset-stripped to generate dividends for shareholders; the refugees denied the chance to work; the elderly abandoned to their fate in underfunded care homes.
My predecessor Saint Paul VI warned in his 1968 encyclical letter Humanae Vitae of the temptation to view human life as one more object over which the powerful and educated should exercise mastery. How prophetic his message now looks! These days, prenatal diagnosis is commonly used to filter out those deemed weak or inferior, while at the other end of life, euthanasia is becoming normal: either overtly, through assisted suicide laws in some countries or states, or covertly, through neglect of the elderly.
From Let Us Dream by Pope Francis. Copyright © 2020 by Austen Ivereigh. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.
Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future by Pope Francis (in collaboration with Austen Ivereigh) was released by Simon & Schuster on December 1, 2020. For our review of this book, click here. For our interview with Austen Ivereigh where we discuss the book, click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2. For Pedro Gabriel’s article on what Francis means by “dreams,” click here. For Mike Lewis’s essay on what the book says about Amoris Laetitia, click here. For Mike’s analysis of what Francis has to say about media distortion of his message, click here.
Image: Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.