This is Sanctity of Life Sunday.
The biggest life issue now is, of course, the killing of unborn children. This stands out for
- The huge number of victims, tens of millions, many times that of any genocide that I
- It is direct killing of the innocent. That is different in kind from capital punishment,
from killing in a just war, or from the indirect killing that accompanies many activities
(driving carelessly is wrong, and has resulted in deaths, but it is not the same as directly
intending to kill).
- Proponents have set apart a group they classify as untermenchen (a term used in
Germany in the early 20
th century, it referred to humans they consider lesser, and therefore
not as entitled to protection). This has been done in the past to Native Americans, to Jews,
to African Americans, and other groups. It is a tool used for the greatest human atrocities.
Some have even referred to unborn children as “non-living fetal tissue.” Where is the
science behind that?
That said, it is essential that we not neglect other areas where the sanctity of life needs to be
affirmed. Many see the lives of the elderly, the disabled and the infirm to be of less value,
and advocate for euthanasia. We must recognize that their lives are precious, and not only
protect them from being killed, but make sure they are not marginalized or forgotten.
We have a constant need to care for the hungry, the homeless, and those trapped in
poverty. There is room to disagree about how, but no room to say that it is not our
We must do something about human trafficking. I don’t know what, but we must do
The Catholic Church has long accepted capital punishment as a proper tool of law
enforcement, but, starting with Pope Saint John Paul II and continuing with Pope Francis,
there has been a movement away. There is a strong body of thought that suggests it does not
help deter crime, and with proper incarceration, it would not be necessary to protect
people. I suggest we can be a better society if we hold precious even the lives of vicious
murderers. That said, I have a very hard time being patient with those who say it is
contradictory to oppose abortion and favor capital punishment. How come I never hear
people saying that if we favor incarcerating criminals, we must therefore favor the
legalization of kidnapping? Honestly.
I recently listened to Daniel Goleman’s book Social Intelligence. He speaks of the
“thingification” of other people, in which they are considered not in terms of their dignity,
their needs, their thoughts or their feelings, but only how they affect us. They are seen not
as people, but as things, as objects. Celeste Headlee in her excellent book We Need to Talk:
How to Have Conversations that Matter, mentions that studies show that empathy is on the
decline. It is easy to figure that the widespread use of social media rather than personal
contact makes things worse. The enormous use of pornography has to be a huge factor. I
see a lot of conversation showing contempt for people who disagree. That can’t help. How
do we build empathy in our society?
Final thought: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could
do only a little.” -Edmund Burke
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. If I understand correctly, the Feast of
Epiphany used to mark the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of the Lord, and the miracle at
Cana, and that marked the end of the Christmas season. It was apparently decided that the
Baptism needed its own feast, and this marks the end of the Christmas season, so tomorrow
we begin good old Ordinary Time.
When Jesus was baptized, He was not, of course, repenting of sin. He was sanctifying
baptism and it will be by the power of His pascal mystery that Christians will be born again
in baptism. It begins His saving work: His life as a manual laborer is over, and now He is
beginning the journey that leads to the Cross. He will refer to His death as a baptism (Mark
10:38; Luke 12:50) (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #536).
John 3:5 says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without
being born of water and Spirit.” The Church has always understood this to refer to baptism.
Baptism has never been treated as a detail, and it is not an option or a matter of
preference. In Jesus’ final commissioning of His disciples at the end of the Gospels of
Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ very concise instructions include baptizing as a core part of the
work (Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:16).
This leads to a question: what about those who are sincere but were not baptized. What
about children who died before baptism? This led to a theological theory called
limbo. Although the Baltimore catechism taught limbo as if it were a fact, limbo has never
been the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict finally laid it to rest and
said it is not a part of the Catholic faith. We now understand John 3:5 to be a mandate on
us but not a restriction on God. The God we have gotten to know in the New Testament is
not about keeping people out of heaven because of something they couldn’t control of have
not been properly taught. Unfortunately, in the meantime, many Catholics have come to see
getting sacraments as the ultimate end of the faith (sometimes literally the end, when they
drop out after getting confirmed because they are “done”). They have come to see the
practice of the faith as a pale shadow of what it is meant to be. The great danger is of people
being sacramentalized but not evangelized. They have helped convince a lot of other people
that Catholicism is superficial, mechanical and legalistic. Seeing the fruits of this is one of
the most heart-breaking things about being a priest.
How should we look at sacraments? St. Paul sees baptism as something we must live out.
“What then shall we say? Shall we persist in sin that grace may abound? Of course not!
How can we who died to sin yet live in it? Or are you unaware that we who were baptized
into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through
baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the
Father, we might live in newness of life (Romans 6:1-4).”
Our belonging to Jesus is meant to make all the difference. It is as drastic as dying. It is
meant to be the controlling, defining reality in our lives, by which all other things find their
meaning. We hand God our lives and invite Him to do whatever He chooses with us,
holding nothing back. Our faith and our response to God is, of course, imperfect, but if our
faith is real, our goal is nothing less than being completely His. Peter Kreeft’s book Jesus
Shock gets deep into this.
A question for 2021 is, “How are we living our baptism?”