In God's Image: Building a Culture of Life

by His Eminence, Cardinal John J. O'Connor

In her book, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day says: "we've all known the long loneliness. I have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community."

We in the pro-life community know that ours is a lonely work. It is the loneliness of the long distance runner. We are a community bound together with love for life, and with love for one another. But even we can be tempted by the noonday devil of discouragement.

When the horror of partial-birth abortion became known, we thought surely this would move legislators. Surely this was the beginning of the end of such barbarity. Five years later it still has not happened. We looked to the highest levels of government, and watched in disbelief as the President of the United States twice rejected the will of Congress to stop partial-birth abortions. So discouragement is an easy temptation.

In Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, who murdered the woman for her jewels, explains that people are divided into two categories--those who are ordinary, and those who are extraordinary. Ordinary men, he says, must live in submission, have no right to transgress any law, because, don't you see, they are ordinary. Extraordinary men, on the other hand, have a right to transgress the law in any way, simply because they are extraordinary. Of the woman he killed he says:

Dozens of families [might be] saved from destitution, from ruin, from vice, and all with her money. Kill her! Take her money and with the help of it, devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. ... Besides, what value has the life of that sickly, stupid, ill-natured old woman in a balance of existence?

There is nothing particularly new about what Dostoyevsky said. Michael Tooley, a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado, says parents should have some period of time, such as a week after birth, in which infanticide is permitted. Some pro-choice theorists believe that newborns are not persons and should not have the rights of more fully formed human beings. Who thinks this? James D. Watson and Francis H. Crick, for example, co-discoverers of the double helix of DNA. Dr. Watson says: "If a child were not declared alive until three days after birth, then all parents could be allowed the choice that only a few are given under the present system. The doctor could allow the child to die if the parents so chose and save a lot of misery and suffering." Dr. Crick is quoted somewhat differently, but just as chillingly: "No newborn infant should be declared human until it has passed certain tests regarding its genetic endowment, and if it fails these tests, it forfeits the right to live."

Proponents of abortion seem to have little concern for whether or not those who are unborn or partially born are human beings. But their argument of "choice" is really much deeper and light years older than they may realize. For what does the argument of "choice" really mean? To get to the root of the evil, one might read the Book of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve, and how God told them they might eat the fruit of any tree but one, the tree that gives knowledge of what is good and what is bad. The snake explains that God doesn't want them to eat this fruit because it will make them like God--they would be able to determine for themselves what is good, what is evil. For Adam and Eve it wasn't enough to be made in God's image, to be children of God. They had to become gods so they could determine for themselves what is good, what is evil.

And so many of us determine today: for me, abortion is fine. I have my priorities. I have my needs. I will determine for myself what is good, what is evil, what is right, what is wrong. And yet we know that only God is the ultimate legislator of morality. To claim the right to kill the innocent is to claim to be God! Except of course, the true God would never kill the innocent. That would contradict God's own law.

Freedom and Truth Are Linked

In The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II says that "freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth ... which is the foundation of personal and social life" (The Gospel of Life, 19). This is the case when one makes choices based not on the truth, but only on his or her subjective and changeable opinion, or even selfish interest. "I'll determine what's good for me. I'll determine what's bad." This view of freedom, says our Holy Father, leads to a serious distortion of life in society. If the promotion of self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself. And society becomes a mass of individuals living side by side but without any mutual bond. Each asserts him- or herself independently of the other, and in fact, intends to make his or her own interest prevail.

We see this in politics and government, where the inalienable right to life is today questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people. We vote on what is right or wrong. And Pope John Paul II says of this: "To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others. This is the death of freedom"(The Gospel of Life, 20).

What we who would be gods do, of course, is change our laws to fit our determination of good and evil. And one immoral law leads to another. Thus, Derek Humphry of the Hemlock Society could say that Roe v. Wade opened the door to euthanasia--that Roe's declaration "that a woman has the right to control what is happening to her body applies in principle to the right to die issue," he said. "It's an opening of freedom's door." This is what we can do with law in our society.

In many ways, the Church is no longer the great teacher. Nor are the schools, or even families and parents. It is the law. In our society, civil law has become the great teacher.

The law says it is alright to kill infants. Or the law says it is alright to kill those who are feeble or dying. And the law sometimes says government will pay for it. How many children have been raised in accord with such moral values? How many more before it ends?

How do we counter this? Of course, we work to change the laws. We do our best to educate properly. We march peacefully. We write letters, we make speeches. And all of these things are very, very valuable.

Sixteen years ago I said publicly that any woman who was in need and pregnant could come to the Church in New York, and we would provide whatever help she needs. And I know that good people in every diocese today provide such vital services. The Sisters of Life, which I founded in 1991, take care of pregnant women, and they help those who have had abortions to pick up the pieces of their lives. They teach the sacredness of every human life. But they do more. And it was for this reason they were founded. They pray.

What is happening in our country in regard to the destruction of innocent human life is something diabolical, something that can be driven out only by prayer and fasting, supported and within the context of all the pro-life efforts nationwide. This is why I founded the Sisters of Life. They pray, fast, and do penance; they spend about half of each day in prayer and contemplation, and the other half in apostolic works.

Gratitude and Joy

What do we need for a new culture of human life? Gratitude and joy. We are "God's own people, that we may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light"(The Gospel of Life, 79). "A people of life and for life" (Ibid., 78).

Each Sister of Life has in her room a small sign: "Without joy there can be no Sister of Life." Life should mean joy, joy in this God who brought us out of darkness into His marvelous light. A people of life, for life. "Gratitude and joy," our Holy Father says, "and the incomparable dignity of man impels us to share this message with everyone."

That is what the pro-life movement is about. We are not simply anti-abortion as we are so often painted to be. We are pro-life, pro the mystery of life, pro the wonder of life, pro the joy of life. And we are impelled to share this message with everyone. We need to bring the Gospel of Life to the heart of every man and women and to make it penetrate every part of society. This involves above all proclaiming the core of this gospel, which is the proclamation of a living God, who is close to us, who calls us to profound communion with Himself and who awakens in us the certain hope of eternal life. It is the presentation of human life, as a life of relationship, a gift of God, the fruit and sign of His love, it is the proclamation that Jesus has a unique relationship with every person, which enables us to see in every human face, the face of Christ.

It seems to me that the real means that the devil used to dupe Adam and Eve was to blind them to the glory of being human. In their lust for power, they lost sight of their own sacredness as human persons. They already had free will to choose between good and evil; they wanted to be the sole authority of what is good or evil, so that no other authority could tell them what they must do or not do.

Is that not what we are really dealing with in this culture of death? That everyone has become God? Governments have become God; so have legislators, judges, and all sorts of organizations. And so how do we bring a culture of life out of this culture of death? By fighting fire with fire? By being more clever than the dealers of death? More articulate, better advertisers, smoother purveyors of slogans? These can be very helpful, but are we better than the apostles?

In his letter to the people of Corinth, St. Paul says: "Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning. ... I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness, and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive [words of] wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God"(1 Cor 1:17, 2:1-5).

Perhaps the cleverest ploy of the anti-life movement has been to insist that the issue has nothing to do with religion, nothing to do with God. And many of us, with the best of intentions, have agreed. We are afraid of being branded, afraid of being ridiculed. So we devise ways to avoid having to say what we believe--that God is life and all life comes from Him, that a culture of death is simply a culture without God, who is life.

We must change this. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once said: "If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I'm not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved."

Perhaps you know the beautiful work by Myles Connolly called Mr. Blue. Mr. Blue is an extraordinary character, truly a mystic of the world. He is standing on a parapet, high above the ground. And he says,

I think my heart would break with all this immensity if I did not know God Himself once stood beneath it, a young man, as small as I. ... When God became Man, he made you and me and the rest of us pretty important people. He not only redeemed us, He saved us from the terrible burden of infinity. ... Without Christ we would be little more than bacterium breathing on a pebble in space or a glimpse of ideas in a whirlwind void of abstractions. Because of Him, I can stand here, out under this cold immensity and know that my infinitesimal pulse-beats and acts and thoughts are more important than this whole show of the universe. Only for Him I would be crushed beneath the weight of all these worlds. ... But behold, behold, God wept and laughed and dined and wined and suffered and died, even as you and I. ... For those who would have me a microcosm in a meaningless tangle of an endless evolution, I'm no microcosm, I too am a son of God.

Is it too shocking to say about every baby who is put to death, every frail person, everyone vulnerable, that we are putting Christ Himself to death? Elie Wiesel, in his book Night, tells of the last hours before his father's death in a Nazi concentration camp. Elie, then just a boy, was advised not to waste soup and bread on his ailing father, but to take his father's ration for himself. For only a fleeting second Elie agreed in his heart, although he dared not admit it. He says of this:

Only for a fraction of a second I felt guilty. I ran to find a little soup to give my father, but he didn't want it. All he wanted was water. I brought him some water . ... I laid down on the top bunk. ... I would not leave my father. There was silence all around now, broken only by groans. In front of the block the SS were giving orders. An officer passed by the beds. My father begged me, "my son, some water, I'm burning, my stomach." " "Quiet over there!" yelled the officer. The officer came up to him and shouted to him to be quiet. But my father did not hear him and he went on calling me. The officer dealt him a violent blow on the head. I did not move. I was afraid. My body was afraid of also receiving a blow. Now my father made a rattling nose and it was my name. I could see he was still breathing, spasmodically. I did not move. When I got down, after roll call, I could see his lips trembling as he murmured something. Bending over him I stayed gazing at him for over an hour. Engraving into myself the picture of his blood stained face, his shattered skull. Then I had to go to bed. I climbed into my bunk above my father who was still alive. It was January 28, 1945. I awoke January 29th at dawn. In my father's place lay another invalid. They must have taken him away before dawn and carried him to the crematory. He may still have been breathing. There were no prayers at his grave, no candles were lighted to his memory. His last word was my name. A summons for which I did not respond.

I have come to know Professor Elie Wiesel very well. Well enough to ask him, after he had won the Nobel Prize: "You have spent your entire life in preaching about the Holocaust. Are you so driven because your father called your name when he was dying and you failed to respond?" And he answered, "yes."

May we never fail to respond to the summons--the call of the vulnerable, pleading for life.

His Eminence Cardinal John J. O'Connor was the beloved Archbishop of New York until his death in May 2000 and a former chairman of the NCCB Committee for Pro-Life Activities.