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The Sanctity of Human Life

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our present conference is on the sanctity of human life. First, by way of introduction, we have so far seen that the foundations of the pro-life movement are the Christian Faith. Reason can go just so far; it needs the resources of revelation from God and Faith from us. We’ve also seen that the great gift of Christianity to the whole world was the recognition that human life is sacred from the moment of conception. It was not coincidental, but profoundly providential, that Christianity came into existence at the peak of the most affluent and politically successful pagan empire in the history of the world. Christianity was born in an ocean of paganism. And, except for Christianity, the pagan world of the first century would still be the pagan world of the 20th century. The one concession that even the pagan world has had to make to Christianity is to date its calendar by the birth of Jesus Christ.

Part One: Why is Human Life Sacred?

Our purpose in the present conference is to look more closely at what we mean when we say that human life is sacred. In other words, why, why is human life sacred? And, I repeat, from conception to the grave. I will take this in stages. First, something of the meaning of the word sacred. Sanctity and sacred are simply the noun and the adjective which pertain to whatever belongs to God. We may, therefore, describe or say that human life is sacred because it belongs to God and we should speak of the sanctity of human life because it is God-like. Thus, as I’ve done over the years of teaching comparative religion, the whole spectrum of man’s religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism you name it, including Christianity … one of the first lectures that I try to give the students is to distinguish between the sacred and the profane. We would not even have the term, not to say the idea of religion unless we knew something about the sacred. Religion deals with the sacred. So what’s the sacred? Well, one way we can come to know the meaning of the term is by comparing it with, well, it’s opposite, it’s antonym. The antonym to sacred is profane. I’ve got seven contrasts between sacred and profane and, let me tell you, there would be no need of a pro-life movement if those who have so little respect for human life recognized that it is sacred, that it somehow belongs to God.

Seven contrasts between the sacred and the profane:

First: The sacred is eternal; the profane is temporal. Human life begins, indeed, at conception, but human life will never end. Is that ever important. Our souls are immortal.

Second: The sacred comes directly from God; the profane, though ultimately from God, comes immediately from creatures. We are human beings with a body and a soul. Our body is conferred on us, our provided for us by our parents, but God must immediately and directly create each individual soul. When? At the moment of conception.

Third: The sacred is spiritual; the temporal is material. The spiritual is that reality which has no extension in space. The material you can weigh, you can measure, you can stretch. God, who existed from all eternity, occupies no space. The infinite God does not weigh a gram.

Fourth: The sacred is heavenly; the profane is terrestrial. Every human being, though it comes into this world, is meant, quite literally, to pass through this world to the world that, we believe, will never end.

Fifth: The sacred is the goal of our destiny; the profane is only the road or the way to this destiny. Again, if we’re going to appreciate the sacredness of human life, how clear we’ve got to become. And others will be only as clear in their thinking as we who have any influence over their lives are clear in our thinking ourselves.

Sixth: The sacred is that which is made to the image and likeness of God. What do we mean? Because, it can know and can love. The profane is incapable of knowledge and love. This microphone, this case for the cassette, another microphone, this borrowed watch, the cloth, the table, the wire—are all profane. One of our problems, as I’ve been telling my students over the years…I will ask a question. I’m too used to teaching not to ask questions. You just shake your heads; our Lord will understand. Is English, the English language, is English a Catholic language? This way or this way? This way? English is not a Catholic language. What is the most Catholic language in the world? What language do most Catholics speak? Spanish. My conversation with Bishop Corrada, oh, God bless him. He’s a Jesuit and is a Bishop and he is absolutely, unqualifyingly orthodox. He told me yesterday, by the year 2000, over fifty percent of the Catholics in the United States will be Spanish, but my friends we better keep them in the Catholic Church. The most zealous missionary effort of Protestantism in 470 years I to convert Spanish Catholics, as they say, away from Catholicism to Protestantism. Our English language is not a Catholic language. The moment the average American hears the word profane, I guess that must be the adjective for profanity. Well, it is, but the primary meaning of profane is that, for our present purpose, which does not have that likeness to God which the spiritual has because the spiritual can think and can love.

Number seven: The sacred is the final purpose of our existence; the profane is only a means of achieving this purpose of our creation. I cannot think, and I’m using my language advisedly. I cannot think of two more profane occupations in which we are all engaged than eating and sleeping. Do we have to eat? Yes. And sleep? Yes, otherwise the soul gets uncomfortable and pretty soon will decide to leave the body. To repeat, the sacred is the final purpose of our existence. That’s what the Beatific Vision means. Beatific, the adjective, identifies the effect of seeing God, which is the vision. Beare in Latin means to make happy. The Beatific vision is that vision of God with our minds seeing God, we will be profoundly happy and share in the very happiness of God. So much for part one.

Part Two: How is Human Life Sacred?

So far we’ve just described briefly the contrast between the profane and the sacred. We are now asking how is human life sacred? It is sacred. We should, therefore, speak of the sanctity of human life. The word sanctity we don’t even quite, in English, have an adjective that goes with the word sanctity. We say simply we’re not quite correct in what we are saying. Human life, therefore, is sacred and therefore we can speak of human life as possessing sanctity because, as we’ve said and we now wish to make more clear, human life is a mysterious participation in the life of God. We ask how so, on several grounds. And this time, eight reasons why we may and indeed should speak of human life as sacred. I’ve told some of you whom I may have had in class, I count everything in sight. Three of this, four of that, subdivision of something else.

Before my Jesuit superiors took me out of my graduate studies in science at the engineering school in Detroit, I was resigning myself to teach chemistry. And you better count; you better measure everything in science. It has helped immensely in teaching theology. Theology is an exact science, my friends.

First reason why human life is sacred. When in the beginning God made the world, He first made the inanimate world of the sun, moon and stars. And then the non-rational of plants and animals. And no matter what we do with Genesis, I’ve taught exegesis and scripture for too many years not to know all kinds of subtle, sometimes over-subtle distinctions that scripture scholars can make. But let’s be sure we know God began when He revealed to the writer of Genesis the secrets of creation. He meant to provide us with some kind of norm for recognizing the sacred by beginning with the profane. Human life is sacred because it is not profane, as already the first chapters of Genesis reveal.

Second, and finally, He made man and we are told, according to Scripture, God made man according to His own image and likeness. We are not animals. We are not even… let’s never speak of our simian ancestors. We are not plants; we are not crude matter; we were made to the image and likeness of God. It says so at the beginning of Sacred Scripture.

Thirdly, this means that God made man to share in His own two divine powers which no other creature on earth in the visible world, for that matter, above the earth, the whole stellar world, possesses. We have the divinely conferred power of knowing with the mind patterned after the mind of God. When God made man, He gave man the power of sharing in His power of choosing with the will modeled after the will of God. God can know; God can choose.

A couple of years ago, one month, I was asked to replace the chaplain of a monastery outside of Chicago. The rectory for the chapel was but a three minute walk from the monastery. The monastery had a jet-black dog, huge but friendly. I took a chance, but I began to stroke the dog, and he liked it. How he knew, but he was always there to see my leave the rectory. And I can tell you this. As I stroked the black dog, it became ritual. I said a prayer: “Thank you, Lord, for not making me a dog.” Except for the creative will of God, would there be any dogs in the world? Any cats? Any cows? Any birds? How we need this, to realize that although God loves all of His creatures equally. Say that again. God does not love all of His creatures equally. Meaning what? He does not share with all of His creatures the same degree or measure of the perfection that he, as God, possesses. God chose from all eternity, deciding who He would make human beings. Lord, thanks, thanks. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even have a mind to know that I have been created, or will to show my gratitude.

When we read in Genesis that God made man to His own image and likeness, He not only conferred on us human beings the power of knowing as He can know, of choosing as He chooses, but of loving others in a human society patterned in God’s mind after the most Holy Trinity. There would be no society in existence in the created world unless there had been, from all eternity, the everlasting, infinite society of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There must be—get the auxiliary verb?—there must be others in order for love itself to be identified.

The Father loves the Son; the Son loves the Father; Father and Son love the Holy Spirit. God is not a solitary Being. There cannot be a God who is one person. Do you hear me? God must be a society.

Fourth. We’re asking ourselves why is human life sacred? We are ____. This was only the beginning of how human life is sacred. Ever since the origin of the parents of the human race… every time a human being is conceived—we said this before, I’ll be a little clearer now—these actions all take place at the same time. The ovum is fertilized: fertilization. A soul is then and there created out of nothing by God: creation. Only God can create, which means “make out of nothing.” The soul which is to animate the body and make it, from the moment of conception, a human person. Let me tell you, if you are going to be successful and effective in protecting human life, and if that be the cause of authentic pro-life zeal and activity, you better know some of the basic premises of our faith.

God must create. It’s not only that we were made by God way back at the beginning. Oh, no. Every time a child is conceived, God is acting as Creator. This, for the record, is a defined article of the Catholic faith, that the human soul is individually, directly, mediately created by God at the moment that a child, as we casually say, is conceived.

Five: Human life is sacred because each human being is personally willed by God in order to know, love and serve Him, and thereby reach his heavenly home. There is no such thing as chance with God. The verb “to happen,” is not in the divine vocabulary. God knows and He deliberately wills that a soul be created and a child conceived and be able to know, love and serve God and thereby reach heaven.

Number six: Human life is sacred because, unlike the rest of the visible world, we are free to choose and love God. Indeed, the rest of the world was made, as we’ve been saying, in order to help us glorify God, with our faith in Him, our hope in Him and our love of Him we are—what a weak word—we are alone in the visible universe are able to know, love and serve the God from whom we came and for whom we were made.

Seventh: Human life is sacred because God became man in order to redeem us from sin and teach us by word and example how we are to become more and more like Him, who is our Savior and Lord. In other words, God became man. Why? That by taking on our human nature He, the infinite God, might reveal as would otherwise would have been impossible to reveal the deity. God became man in order that we might, because we believe, but we had better believe, we believe that God became man and that man, as man, possesses virtues, is capable of doing things that only God can perform. Surely, human life must be sacred if it is patterned after the infinite God become man. God could not have become an animal. He might have become an angel. He bypassed the angels, just for the record … the angels sinned too, remember? But they, unlike us, were not redeemed?

Finally, human life is sacred because of baptism. We receive a share in God’s own divine state of grace, in us dwells the Holy Trinity and by His grace, we are able to do what only God can give us the power of performing. Like what? Like loving others with selfless charity. No way, no way we can do that except if we received power from God and a share in His own divine life. The power of practicing chastity after the example of Jesus and Mary. Chastity is not difficult. Chastity is not merely hard. Chastity is impossible—get the word?—it is impossible without the grace of God. The two virtues that non-Catholic historians tell us converted the pagan world that we were talking about; converted the pagan world to Christianity were the virtues of chastity and charity. At first as the pagans watched the Christians, they – they asked themselves in good Latin: “Quid videmus?” “What are we looking at? “Quid est hoc?” “What’s this?” That’s the language the Romans spoke. Husbands and wives. One husband and, especially, just one wife. I memorized a passage from Cicero, remember? The Roman procurator, also a Senator. One morning the Roman Senate was in session and one of the senators was late for the senate meeting. The rule called for his publicly apologizing and explaining to his fellow senators why he was late. And he said, “Tardus suum,” I am late because I have just divorced, “meam migesimas tertiam uxorem,” “my 23rd wife.” He must have been an especially wealthy man. The very concept of marriage, the very meaning of family… oh, sure, sure the Romans had the word “familia,” from which we’ve derived our English, “family.” But let me tell you, the Roman “familia” was no family. It was, to coin an English word, a household with one man having power of life and death over every person belonging to that household. There was not a wife, but wives, concubines, slaves, servants. Oh, what Christianity did to the languages of the world, but we better know—and this is the purpose of this retreat—we better know what a (end of tape).

Copyright © 2003 by Inter Mirifica

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