A Significant Battlefront

(Homily for Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C)

I’d like to begin with a show of hands. How many of you watched the presidential debates? Those of you who did are good citizens and I commend you. I have to admit I did not see the last debates myself. However, I did read through the transcripts and I want to comment on one part because it very much ties in with our faith – and the Gospel we just heard.

A lady asked one of the candidates what he would say to a voter who believes that abortion is murder and wants reassurance that his or her tax dollars will not be used to support abortion. The candidate responded that he respects that belief and that as a Catholic he shares the belief that life begins at conception – but he would not use legislation to impose that belief on anyone else.

There is a misunderstanding here. The Catholic Church does not desire to impose her beliefs on anyone. The Holy Father has said, “The Church proposes, she imposes nothing.” However when someone misrepresents Church teaching – especially if that person is a Catholic – we should do what we can to correct the misunderstanding.

The Catholic teaching is this: You cannot have a just society unless it recognizes the sanctity of each human person. For example, a society which says someone is less of a person because of skin color is not a just society. For almost a hundred years the United States allowed slavery. During that time we were an unjust society. During the thirties and early forties Germany by law said that Jews were not full human beings. It was an unjust society. A society which by law does not recognize the unborn child as a full human being is not a just society.

The candidate in question went even further. He claimed that the United States Constitution guarantees the right to abortion, that is, the taking of the life of an unborn child. Therefore, he said, it is okay to use public funds to pay for abortions. What this does is force every taxpayer – you and me – to participate in something many of us consider to be a terrible moral evil. In other words, proponents of legalized abortion are imposing their views on the rest of us by making us pay for abortions.

This does relate to today’s Gospel. Like the Israelites in today’s first reading, we are involved a great battle. It has many dimensions – spiritual, economic, cultural and political. As the three bishops of Washington State reminded us last week, we have an obligation to defend human life from conception to natural death. Like slavery or the Holocaust, this is the great moral battle of our time.

In the context of this struggle, I would like to now focus on a battlefront we tend to overlook, but which has enormous significance. This focus will help us understand what we are up against. Although the media often present this issue as pure science, it does have important ethical considerations. Some politicians offer it to us as a bright hope for the future of humanity, yet it could wind up greatly dehumanizing our society. I am speaking about embryonic stem cell research.

At this point, we need to make a distinction. The Catholic Church is not against stem cell research in itself. There is no moral or ethical difficulty involved in taking adult stem cells – for example from bone marrow – and using those cells for experiments and research. In fact the use of adult stem cells has already brought certain benefits and shows great promise for the future. The Catholic Church encourages that type of research. The problem lies not in using adult stem cells, but in the destruction of human embryos to obtain stem cells.

In order to understand this issue, we need to ask where these human embryos come from. Throughout our country and our world there are laboratories which possess thousands of them. They live in suspended animation at very low temperatures. But they did not just pop into existence. Each one has a mother and a father. They were not, however, conceived in the usual way by the union of their parents. They were conceived in Petri dishes outside the mother’s womb. The process is called in-vitro fertilization. In some cases their parents are keeping them in reserve in case they decide to place them in a womb to develop into a full child. In a few cases the parents are involved in legal battles over who has the rights to them. And in many cases the parents have abandoned them and the laboratory workers will dispose of them.

I think you can see we already have a problem when parents are treating their offspring in this way. However, it becomes worse. Some people are now saying, “Well, these embryos are going to be thrown out. Why not use some of them for scientific research?” The argument goes this way: They are very small and are not recognizable as human because they have no arms, legs or eyes. Also they are not sentient: they have no central nervous system which enables them to feel pain. So why not experiment on them?

There are a couple of problems with this argument. It is true that it takes about three weeks for a human embryo to develop a beating heart and a bit longer before it has recognizable arms, legs and eyes – and then develops a central nervous system. However, do the people who argue for embryonic stem cell research say that we should defend a baby’s life at that point? Most of them do not. They defend abortion right up to the moment of birth. There is an element of duplicity in the argument based on appearance and sentience.

Moreover, scientists know that arms, legs, eyes, etc. are not the defining qualities of a human being. They know that each of us receives our essential characteristics at the moment of conception. That is the reason why stem cells are so marvelous. An embryonic stem cell can develop into any one of the two hundred or so organs which make up the human body: liver, skin, heart, eyes, brain, nerves, etc. At the moment we are conceived, we’ve got it all.

There was an interesting study a few months back. They surveyed in-vitro fertilization laboratories asking them how they dispose of human embryos. While many appeared to do it very casually, a significant number spoke about their reverence at that moment. Seven of the clinics "performed a quasi-religious ceremony, including a prayer, for each embryo they destroyed." Deep down the technicians know what they are dealing with: human life. It is not like throwing away finger nail clippings or hair. These are tiny human beings.

So what should we do? It seems like we have painted ourselves into a corner – and there is no way out. But that is not true. About twenty years ago, Pope John Paul called upon scientists to stop the production of human embryos. He has repeated that appeal many times. To do so would require the collaboration of research companies, medical facilities, government and of course, potential parents. It would take an enormous effort, but it is possible.

At the very minimum, we should insist that no public funds be used for the production of human embryos and experiments upon them.* To use of taxpayers’ money for such research implicates our whole society in what is a horrible crime. It can only be compared to the Holocaust or to slavery in the way it treats humans as objects. Some politicians are proposing that we spend huge amounts of public money for research in which human embryos will be destroyed. We must resist that in any way we can.

Our greatest force is prayer. In today’s first reading we see that even though the Israelites were outnumbered, the battle went in their favor as long as Moses kept his hands lifted up in prayer. Jesus gives us the example of the persistent widow. She never stopped asking for justice. Neither should we. The widow also represents those who are weak and vulnerable. Jesus wants us to stand on their side. And in our world today, who is weaker, who is more vulnerable than those very tiny human beings?


*This "minimum" will be very difficult to achieve. The proponents of "choice" in regard to abortion have shown no hesitation in forcing the rest of us to participate in their choice. In many states, including Washington, tax money is used to pay for abortions. Planned Parenthood Federation of America - the country's largest abortion provider - receives over a hundred million dollars each year in government funds. According to its 1998-99 annual report, PPFA revenues for the fiscal year totaled $660.7 million dollars. Private contributions, at $232.7 million, accounted for just over a third (35%) of those revenues, while "clinic income," at $211 million, and "government grants and contracts," at $176.5 million, comprised the bulk of the rest. They use their money very effectively to lobby for abortion and pro-abortion candidates - and in the process, receive more government funds. In the battle against abortion - and now embryonic stem cell research - it seems like wishful thinking to hope that we can find some "truce" where both sides respects the other's beliefs and find a way of peacefully living together. In a separate article I tried to outline what would be involved in a true pro-choice position.

Spanish Version

From Archives (Homilies for Twenty-Ninth Sunday, Year C):

2016: Boots Laced Week 5: Little People
2013: Focus on Prayer, Part Two: Persistence
2010: Persistent Prayer - The Eucharist
2007: The Manly Task of Intercession
2004: A Significant Battlefront
2001: Such a Home Is Prayer
1998: All Scripture is Inspired

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