In honor of Respect Life Month, we will be focusing on a particular life issue every week of October. To get us ready, we will first discuss a Consistent Ethic of Life.
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A Consistent Ethic of Life
What is the consistent ethic of life? It is a comprehensive ethical system that links together many different issues by focusing attention on the basic value of life. In his attempts to defend life, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin first joined the topics of abortion and nuclear war. He quickly expanded his understanding of a consistent ethic of life to include many issues from all of life. He stated: “The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill.” Issues are distinct and different; nevertheless, the issues are linked. He further said: “When human life is considered ‘cheap’ or easily expendable in one area, eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy.”
The consistent ethic of life rules out contradictory moral positions about the unique value of human life – and it would be contradictory, for example, to be against abortion but for capital punishment or to work against poverty but support euthanasia. Often our convictions seem to cluster around ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ viewpoints, but the consistent ethic of life cuts across such divisions, calling us to respect the life in the womb, the life of a criminal, the life on welfare, the life of the immigrant. It is ultimately rooted in Jesus, in whom the meaning and value of life are definitely proclaimed and fully given.
The consistent ethic of life encourages us to hold together a great variety of issues with a consistent focus on the value of life, and it challenges us to reflect on our basic values and convictions which give direction to our lives. It also leads us to express our commitment to life in civil debate and public policy. During respect life month (October), we will have weekly reflections on life issues and information on how you can become involved in supporting these issues.
FOR REFLECTION: What life issues are most important to you? What life issues do you care little about? Can you name an issue which does not ultimately impact the quality of someone’s life?
FOR EXPLORATION: The USCCB has 46 different sub-headings under “Human Life and Dignity.” Check out what the church teaches on an issue you know little about at: .
FOR PRAYER: Father and Creator, show us In refugee families fleeing violence or war, . In those suffering from hunger, . In children not yet born, . In those enslaved by drug addiction, . In parents who work two jobs but still struggle to get by, . In those on death row, . In young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, . In those aging and alone, . In all faces, we know that your divine image is reflected. Help us to recognize always that image. Help us to work together to protect the dignity of all people—each one created in your image. Lord, in our families, communities and world shape your final work of art with the scraps of our frail humanity. We ask this through Christ our Lord, Amen. reflected in , especially the least, the most vulnerable, the defenseless, and those in need.
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Many of us may not be used to seeing the environment listed among issues of life, but what can be a bigger life issue than the planet upon which all life depends. "The web of life is one. Our mistreatment of the natural world diminishes our own dignity and sacredness, not only because we are destroying resources that future generations of humans need, but because we are engaging in actions that contradict what it means to be human. Our tradition calls us to protect the life and dignity of the human person, and it is increasingly clear that this task cannot be separated from the care and defense of all of creation." – USCCB, , November 1991
The Catholic Church brings a distinct perspective to the discussion of environmental questions, by lifting up the moral dimensions of these issues and the needs of the most vulnerable among us. This unique contribution is rooted in Catholic teaching calling us to care for creation and for "the least of these." (Mt 25:40) In 2015, Pope Francis published Laudato Si, his encyclical on the environment, but Pope Francis’ attention to creation is not a new focus for the papacy. Caring for creation has always been part of Catholic teaching but has seen a new emphasis in the industrial and modern age, especially since 1891, when Pope Leo XIII began the modern tradition of Catholic Social Teaching. Many popes have reiterated that care for creation is a moral responsibility and a core commitment of the Christian faith.
Pope Francis chose his papal name to honor St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of those who promote ecology. He described St. Francis as “a man of peace, a man of poverty, a man who loved and protected creation” – in other words, a person who embodies integral ecology. We are called by our faith to exercise a responsible stewardship over the earth and its natural resources, to dispose of natural resources wisely, and to preserve nature for the generations which come after us. This requires living in such a manner that these values are reflected in our daily habits.
In order to be good stewards of the earth, each of us needs to undergo an “ecological conversion.” In Laudato Si, the Pope says: “It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an ‘ecological conversion,’ whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ becomes evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”
FOR REFLECTION: How does the way you care for the environment reflect your faith? Do you have habits that are inconsistent with your beliefs about the value of human life? What are some concrete ways in which you could improve your stewardship of the earth?
FOR EXPLORATION: In 2006, the USCCB formed the Catholic Climate Covenant to help implement Catholic social teaching on ecology within the Church. Take a few minutes to explore their website at: .
FOR PRAYER: O Lord, grant us the grace to respect and care for your creation. Bless all of your creatures as a sign of your wondrous love. Help us to end the suffering of the poor and bring healing to all of your creation. We ask this through Christ our Lord, Amen.
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Immigration is certainly the biggest political issue of our time, but it is also a life issue, and Catholic teaching on immigration, migration, and refugees is clear and concise. The Church supports the human rights of all people and offers them pastoral care, education, and social services, no matter what the circumstances of entry into this country, and it works for the respect of the human dignity of all, especially those who find themselves in desperate circumstances. The Catholic Church in the United States is an immigrant Church with a long history of embracing diverse newcomers and providing assistance and pastoral care to immigrants, migrants, refugees, and people on the move. Our Church has responded to Christ’s call for us to “welcome the stranger among us,” for in this encounter with the immigrant, the migrant, and the refugee in our midst, we encounter Christ.
There is a long Biblical foundation for hospitality, but nowhere is it made more clear that persons on the move are special in the eyes of God than in the life and words of Jesus Christ in the Gospels. As a baby, Jesus was a refugee who, along with his earthly parents, fled the terror of Herod into Egypt (Mt. 2:14-15). In his public ministry, Jesus was an itinerant preacher, moving from place to place, “with nowhere to lay his Head” (Mt. 8:20). Through his teaching, Jesus instructs us to welcome the stranger: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt. 25-35). In addition to these and other Biblical examples and mandates, a rich body of Church teaching, including Papal encyclicals, Bishops’ statements and pastoral letters, has consistently reinforced our moral obligation to treat the stranger as we would treat Christ himself.
The Catholic Catechism instructs the faithful that good government has the duty to welcome the foreigner out of charity and respect for the human person. Persons have the right to immigrate and thus government must accommodate this right to the greatest extent possible, especially financially blessed nations: "The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him." (CCC, 2241) The U.S. Catholic Bishops accept the legitimate role of the U.S. government in enforcing immigration laws. However, USCCB believes that in the process of so enforcing those laws, the U.S. government must protect the human rights and dignity of all migrants, with particular consideration for the most vulnerable of those migrants – including refugees, asylees, and unaccompanied alien minors. Furthermore, the U.S. Bishops believe that U.S. immigration policy should prevent the unnecessary detention of asylum‐seekers, enhance due process protections, and revise parole criteria.
New immigrants call most of us back to our ancestral heritage as descendants of immigrants and to our baptismal heritage as members of the body of Christ. The presence of brothers and sisters from different cultures should be celebrated as a gift to the Church.
FOR REFLECTION: If due to war, natural disaster, or economic circumstances, you had to suddenly migrate to another country with your family, how would you want to be treated? Are your views on immigration consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church and your own opinions on other issues of life? What have you done to make Jesus say, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me?”
FOR EXPLORATION: Share the Journey is a movement begun by Pope Francis in 2017 to encourage Catholics to get to know their immigrant, migrant, and refugee neighbors. At https://www.sharejourney.org/ , you can hear the stories of immigrants around the world and learn how you can share the journey of your own neighbors.
FOR PRAYER: Lord Jesus, today you call us to welcome the members of God's family who come to our land to escape oppression, poverty, persecution, violence, and war. Help us by your grace, to banish fear from our hearts, that we may embrace each of your children as our own brother and sister; to welcome immigrants, migrants and refugees with joy and generosity, while responding to their many needs; to realize that you call all people to your holy mountain to learn the ways of peace and justice; to share of our abundance as you spread a banquet before us; to give witness to your love for all people, as we celebrate the many gifts they bring. We praise you and give you thanks for the family you have called together from so many people. We see in this human family a reflection of the divine unity of the one Most Holy Trinity in whom we make our prayer: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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We live in a culture of death. Life is treated as if it were cheap, and many are the threats to the dignity of human life. Yet we believe that all human life is from God, and that God alone is the master of life and of death. Saint John Paul II made the defense of the dignity of all human life the centerpiece of his pontificate. In regards to capital punishment, he said:
The death penalty presents itself as a complex moral issue because of the apparently conflicting demands of justice on one hand and charity on the other. Some crimes are so serious and so heinous that they seem to cry out for the ultimate punishment of death. And yet the Gospel message is forever one of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of committed charity toward all without exceptions. As Christians we are asked to visit the imprisoned, minister to their needs, and encourage them to repent and change. We should never lose our conviction that even the worst offenders are our brothers and sisters in Christ, who offers forgiveness and eternal life to all. That process of reform takes time, often quite a long time. The death penalty takes that opportunity for conversion away.
Today, it is clear that the death penalty no longer serves a useful purpose in protecting the sanctity of human life. Perhaps once it was the only way society could protect itself from those who would destroy the life of others, but today in most modern nations, judicial and penal systems have improved so much that they effectively remove further danger to innocent people by incarcerating the perpetrators of criminal violence. Imprisonment is effective in removing the offender from society. Importantly, it allows time for repentance and rehabilitation. And the one sure result of executing prisoners is to make us as a people more vengeful—seeking retribution and satisfying our outrage at the violent crime by more violence.
That is why earlier this year, Pope Francis amended the Catechism of the Catholic Church changing Catholic teaching on the death penalty. Paragraph 2267 now reads: “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
FOR REFLECTION: What does the Catechism mean when it says: “the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes?” Does your belief in the sacredness of all life extend to those who have committed the most heinous of crimes? Do you accept Pope Francis’ amendment of Church teaching on the death penalty as part of your Catholic faith?
FOR EXPLORATION: The latest updates on efforts to end the death penalty can be found at: https://catholicsmobilizing.org/ .
FOR PRAYER: Merciful Father, we ask your blessing on all we do to build a culture of life. Hear our prayers for those impacted by the death penalty. We pray for all people, that their lives and dignity as children of a loving God may be respected and protected in all stages and circumstances. We pray for victims of violence and their families, that they may experience our love and support and find comfort in your compassion and in the promise of eternal life. We pray for those on death row, that their lives may be spared, that the innocent may be freed and that the guilty may come to acknowledge their faults and seek reconciliation with you. We pray for the families of those who are facing execution, that they may be comforted by your love and compassion. We pray for civic leaders, that they may commit themselves to respecting every human life and ending the use of the death penalty in our land. Compassionate Father, give us wisdom and hearts filled with your love. Guide us as we work to end the use of the death penalty and to build a society that truly chooses life in all situations. We ask this Father through your Son Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.
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Racism is an attack on the image of God that has been given to every one of us by the Creator (Gen. 5:1-3). Racism rejects what God has done by refusing to acknowledge the image of God in the other, the stranger and the one who is different. The fact that we were created in the image of God should remind us that each person is a living expression of God that must be respected and preserved and never dishonored. Racism is divisive and damages the harmony and oneness that should characterize all our relationships. What divides us does not have to destroy us. Differences do not have to frighten us. Following the advice of St. Paul, we can pray for the grace to look beyond our own prejudices. The fight against racism concerns everyone.
To our shame, Christians have been part of the problem. So, as Christians, we need to be part of the solution. When asked which was the first of all the commandments, Jesus replied the first is this: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ And the second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mk 12: 28-31). Obviously, racism goes against the commandment of love. We are all called, therefore, to oppose racism in our communities. Loving neighbors who are different from us through kind and generous actions can be as simple as forming friendships, supporting minority-owned businesses, or participating in community activities with those of other faiths or other races. Loving our God obligates us to love our neighbors as well.
FOR REFLECTION: What prejudices do you hold deep inside your heart? Do you stereotype others based on race or ethnicity, tell jokes which cast them in a negative light, or avoid coming in contact with them? How can you be a force for change in the fight against racism?
FOR EXPLORATION: Visit the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development’s blog to find out 5 ways you can cultivate peace and work for racial justice at: https://togoforth.org/2016/08/18/5-ways-you-can-cultivate-peace-and-work-for-racial-justice/ .
FOR PRAYER: We pray for healing to address the persistent sin of racism which rejects the full humanity of some of your children, and the talents and potential you have given. We pray for the grace to recognize the systems that do not support the dignity of every person, that do not promote respect for those who are seen as other, who bear the legacy of centuries of discrimination, fear, and violence. We pray for graced structures so all children of color in Flint, and all children, have access to clean water and health care. We pray for graced structures so children of color in Mississippi, and all children, have quality education that will allow them to develop their gifts. We pray for graced structures so children of color in Camden, and all children, have homes where families can live in dignity and security. We pray for graced structures so children of color in Chicago, and all children, can grow up without fear, without the sound of gunshots. Lord of all, we ask you to hear and answer our prayers. Give us eyes to see how the past has shaped the complex present, and to perceive how we must create a new way forward, with a new sense of community that embraces and celebrates the rich diversity of all, that helps us live out your call to reject the sin of racism, the stain of hate, and to seek a compassionate solidarity supported by your grace and your love. We ask this through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.