Sunday, October 4, 2009

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16
Today is designated by the Catholic Church in the United States
as “Respect Life Sunday.”
The phrase “respect for life” is not simply a code word
for the issue of abortion.
Catholic teaching on respect for life extends to issues
of poverty, healthcare, war, the death penalty,
the environment, the disabled and so forth.
As Eileen Egan put it, “The protection of life is a seamless garment.
You can’t protect some lives and not others.”
I would like to think that part of the strength
of our tradition of Catholic Social Teaching
is precisely the breadth of vision that is involved
when we speak of respect for life.
But I also think it is worth focusing at times
on respect for human life at its earliest stages of development
not least because many Catholics
feel confused and conflicted over how to think about this issue,
feeling as if they are being presented by our culture
with the demand that we choose between concern for the unborn
and concern for women.
Catholic teaching about respect for life says that this is a false choice.
But the only way that we will begin to see
another way of framing the issue
is if we begin with what, for Christians,
is the most fundamental question:
What does Jesus Christ require of us?

In today’s Gospel, we hear that Jesus
welcomed the children who were brought to him;
he blessed them, and told his disciples that
“the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,”
going on to say that “whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child
will not enter it.”
Jesus seems to be saying that those who inherit the kingdom of God
are those who, like children, are without power, without strength,
and who must rely entirely on others — who must rely entirely on God.
Those who are weak and vulnerable
have a privileged place within our community
because they are living signs of who we must become
if we wish to enter God’s reign.
As Catholics, our concern for the unborn
does not grow from a right to life that they possess,
but from the fact that we cannot be the people whom God calls us to be
unless we protect and foster the lives of those
who are least able to care for themselves,
unless we see the unique beauty and value
that grows from that vulnerability,
unless we extend to the most vulnerable
the same welcome that Jesus himself did.
To be who we are called to be as members of Christ’s body,
we must care for the unborn.

This is something distinct from the legal and political controversy
surrounding the issue of abortion.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus treats the question
put to him by the Pharisees
about the Jewish laws concerning marriage and divorce
as rather beside the point
when thinking about how his followers should approach these matters.
Jesus says that Moses gave them that law,
“because of the hardness of your hearts” —
to establish a minimum standard of semi-justice —
not as the standard by which we measure Christian discipleship.
If this is true of the Law given by God through Moses,
how much more true it is of our human laws.
Any legal structure will be at best
a distant approximation of the justice that God desires.
This does not mean that our laws are unimportant;
indeed, with regard to the issue of abortion,
I think every Catholic should desire
that our nation’s laws would foster and protect the lives of the unborn.
But, unlike some, I also think
that the exact nature of those laws,
and how they would relate to other goods
that need fostering and protection,
and how distantly or closely
they might approximate true justice,
are matters over which it is possible for Catholics to differ in good faith.
I have my own ideas about these matters,
and I am sure that many of you do as well,
and it might be interesting to discuss these sometime,
preferably over a drink, or maybe three.
But the political question, important as it is,
cannot be for us the first question.
The first question is not one of legislation
or court decisions
or executive orders;
it is the question, “what should we as the Church of Jesus Christ
do to help create a world
in which every child is welcomed
and cared for from the moment of conception,
and recognized as one of the ‘little ones’
whom Christ himself welcomes?”

In asking this question, we see that our concern for these children
is inseparable from a concern for the mothers of these children.
This is part of the reason why in Catholic teaching
the respect for life is a seamless garment:
we can’t separate the issue of abortion
from the fight against poverty or the fight for the dignity of women.
Our concern for the unborn must extend to the material needs
of women who are pregnant in difficult circumstances —
and this is an area in which individual Catholics
as well as numerous Catholic social service agencies
have an admirable record,
though there is of course always more that can be done.

But our concern must extend beyond material needs.
We have a gospel — good news — to share,
what Pope John Paul II called “The Gospel of Life.”
And part of the message of this gospel
is that even when it appears that there is no way forward,
when we can see no good choices,
when we seem trapped by circumstances,
we can have faith that God can make a way forward,
and, with the help of God’s grace and God’s people,
God can strengthen us to choose life.
People often see the abortion issue in terms of tragic choices,
and I would never want to underestimate the moral struggle
of women who find themselves pregnant in difficult circumstances,
or to suggest that choosing life
does not often require women to live lives of heroic virtue.
Choosing life might mean raising a child
when you are young or single or poor.
Choosing life might mean caring for a disabled child
long past his or her childhood, on into adulthood.
Choosing life might mean living with the life-long sense of loss
experienced by many women who surrender their children for adoption.
These are heroic choices.
But the Gospel tells us that God’s grace makes such heroism possible,
if we can receive that grace with the trust of a child
and if God’s Church is ready to be the kind of community
that will itself go to heroic lengths
to be the kind of community where such heroic choices can be lived out.
The Gospel also tells us that when we fail to live heroically,
there is mercy and forgiveness to be found in God’s Church.

For Christians, there are no tragic dead ends,
because the world’s story is ultimately not a tragedy,
that ends with the bodies of the dead
strewn across the stage of history
and nothing left to do but the work of mourning.
Rather, for Christians the world’s story ends
with the marriage of heaven and earth
and the wedding feast of the lamb.
This is the vision that we have to offer to the world:
a vision that sees the beauty in vulnerability,
a vision that we possess only to the degree
that we actually put it into practice.
This is the vision that must sustain our hope
that our respect for life
can weave together concern for the unborn
and concern for women,
together with concern for the poor, the elderly,
the disabled and the imprisoned,
into a seamless garment in which we,
as Christ’s body,
can be clothed
as we bear witness
to the Gospel of Life in our world.