Wednesday, July 5, 2017

THE MESSAGE OF LIFE


Homily for July 9th, 2017: 14th Sunday in Year A. Mt. 11:25-30.
AIM: To proclaim the sacredness of human life.
 
          Last Tuesday we celebrated the anniversary of our country’s Declaration of Independence. It is a noble document. Though only one of the signers was a Catholic, it is a document of which we Catholics can be proud. The second paragraph contains these eloquent words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
          In 1776, and for the better part of a century thereafter, there was one group of people in American society, however, who were not deemed worthy of liberty. People brought here from Africa as slaves, and their descendants, were not free. Our Supreme Court, reviewing a case originally heard here in St. Louis in 1847 and 1850 in the courthouse just west of today’s arch, held in the Dred Scott case that a black person “whose ancestors were ... sold as slaves” was not entitled to the rights of a citizen under our Constitution; and in consequence did not possess the right to liberty which the Declaration of Independence had said was unalienable and self-evident. It took a terrible Civil War and a courageous act by the man whom many believe to have been our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, to make clear that this dark chapter in our country’s history must end.        
In the two hundred forty-one years since our Declaration of Independence the circle of those to whom we extended the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was steadily expanded. We welcomed immigrants, we freed the slaves, we extended legal protections protection to workers. After World War I women received the right to vote. The Great Depression of the 1930s brought government aid to the needy and Social Security for the elderly. After World War II we ensured civil rights for all and made public spaces accessible to the handicapped. In all these ways America became a steadily more inclusive society.
          This slow but steady expansion of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was reversed in January 1973. The same Supreme Court which said, in the infamous Dred Scott case, that there was no constitutional protection for black slaves, in 1973 ended the legal protection previously given in all our states to society’s weakest and most defenseless members: babies in the womb. And incidentally, those laws protecting the unborn were passed by overwhelmingly Protestant, often strongly anti-Catholic, state legislatures.
          Everyone born since 1970 has grown up in a world in which the killing of the unborn has been legal, respectable, and frequent. The death toll in this slaughter of the innocents is now approaching sixty million. All but a tiny minority of these fellow members of our human family were killed for no other reason than convenience. 
          This is the only world known to every person forty years of age or younger: the world of the quick fix, in which a fellow human being whom I dislike, who gets in my way, who causes me financial or other pain (or conceivably might) may be not just ignored or pushed aside, but killed. A tenured professor at Princeton advocates the view that parents may kill a baby in the first month after birth if they decide that the little one’s life is not worth living. 
          The killing of inconvenient humans is not merely defended today as unfortunate but necessary. It is trumpeted as a sacred right, a magnificent breakthrough in humanity’s upward march from superstition and slavery to enlightenment and freedom, something to be defended by all right-thinking people. Protesters are dismissed as kooks and screwballs, members of the despised “religious right”: evil people as dangerous for our society as armed criminals because they spread the subversive idea that there is a law higher than the laws made by politicians and judges. 
          The attack on life’s other end is already well advanced. The same powerful molders of popular opinion who defend the killing of the unborn as a sacred right (even when this takes place during actual birth, a procedure which doctors tell us is never medically necessary) are now arguing that physicians should be permitted to kill the elderly and infirm when continued life becomes burdensome for themselves or even for others. The burden may be of any kind: mental, physical, or financial. And in a society in which health care is increasingly dictated by insurance companies, we can expect the financial argument for ending the life of old people to become ever sronger.                 
          Advocates of euthanasia try to make it attractive by calling it “mercy killing” or “death with dignity.” They bid us look to the Netherlands where the practice is legal, if certain guidelines are followed. They fail to tell us that in that much smaller, far more homogeneous country, where guidelines are much more easily enforced than they could ever be here, up to a thousand people are now killed annually without their consent. The neighboring country of Belgium recently legalized the killing of children.
          Is it any wonder that Pope St. John Paul II spoke often about “a culture of death”? This culture of death will be reversed only when respect for life at every stage, from conception to natural death, is implanted deep in our citizens’ hearts and minds. Then, and only then, will our country’s laws again protect society’s weakest members: the unborn, the aged, ill, and infirm. Then we may be able to see that even the execution of those guilty of horrible crimes undermines respect for life. 
          Let’s be honest. Which of us doesn’t feel that there are certain crimes so heinous that the perpetrator has forfeited the right to life? But Pope St. John Paul II reminded us many times that society can be protected without recourse to the ultimate penalty. The death sentence is arbitrarily imposed: when was the last time you heard of a wealthy white person being executed? Moreover, since the criminal justice system is a blunt instrument, there is no guarantee that the innocent will never be executed. If you doubt that, consider the following statistics. Since 1973 over 7000 people have been sent to death row nationally. And more than 100 of them have now been released because of evidence either strongly pointing to innocence, or clearly exonerating them.
          The culture of death in which everyone under the age forty has grown up has not yet gained universal acceptance, however. Many people still yearn for something better, the young in particular. How else can we explain the millions who come together on successive World Youth Days to see our Holy Father; to hear, and to cheer, his powerful message of life? These are today’s “little ones”, as Jesus calls them in today’s gospel: little not in size or importance but in the sense that most of their life span is still ahead of them. They welcome the beautiful message of life. 
          Who today, on the other hand, are the “wise and the learned” from whom the beauty and power of this message is hidden, as Jesus says in today’s gospel? We see them every evening on the television news programs. They write the editorials in our leading newspapers. They head our major foundations and elite universities.   
          Upholding the message of life, insisting as our Founding Fathers did over two centuries ago, that all people have a self-evident and unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — not just the strong, the healthy, the fit, but all — is a difficult task, at times heart-breakingly difficult. Today’s enlightened and powerful shapers and molders of public opinion regard this message as quaint and old-fashioned at best, dangerous and pernicious at worst. Today’s culture of death is pervasive. It affects us all. When we grow weary and wonder if it is really worthwhile swimming against the stream of public opinion, Jesus’ words from today’s gospel comfort us. They are the good news for us today:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of hear; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.”