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Respect Life movement must become 'the conscience of America'

Archbishop Wenski's homily at statewide Respect Life Conference

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily at the concluding Mass for the 31st annualRespect Life State Conference, which this year was hosted by the Archdiocese of Miami and took place Oct. 20 and 21 in Weston.

St. Augustine taught that Christians are citizens of two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. Thus, we are guided by the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel when he teaches us to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” But in “rendering to Caesar,” we must understand that Caesar does not stand apart from God; Caesar is also subject to God. For this reason, Peter and the other apostles defied the civil authorities of their day when they tried to prohibit them from preaching. They simply asserted, “We must obey God rather than men.”

From the earliest days of Christianity, the Church has taught that unjust laws cannot bind our consciences: because something is legal doesn’t make it right. Our consciences well-formed and informed can and must challenge unjust laws lest we become complicit in their evil.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., used to say: The Church is not meant to be the master of the State, nor is the Church its servant, the Church must be its conscience. As the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s became the conscience of America and helped bring an end to the shame of Jim Crow and racial discrimination, the Respect Life Movement must become the conscience of America and bring about an end to legalized abortion in America.

Thank God for the black churches of the 1960s who became the conscience of America and helped bring to an end the shame of Jim Crow and racial discrimination. The Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s was in its inspiration and leadership a religious movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist preacher. The marches were staged from churches, and the marchers were for the most part church members.

Of course, our opponents will say: They want to impose their beliefs on us! How dare they don’t they know about separation of Church and State? And many will misquote and misuse the words of today’s Gospel to justify a “wall of separation” that would exclude faith-based arguments from the public square. We cannot “privatize” our beliefs and retreat from the public square this is not our Catholic faith, nor are we as Americans required to do so. The First Amendment was not meant to make people of faith second class citizens; it was meant to protect people of faith or of no faith from undue coercion by the state. As citizens of the City of God we do not “impose” our views on the City of Man just as the Civil Rights Movement could not impose. (That’s why it adopted non-violence as a strategy). The movement made a proposition, which as I said touched the conscience of a nation. Today, we must continue making our proposition with patience, with perseverance, with trust in the rightness of our cause.

In the Gospel reading today, those who heard Jesus ask them, “Whose image is on the coin?” could not have not made the inference to the Book of Genesis and Creation. “God created man in his own image; in the divine image he created them.” Jesus is saying, if God’s image is in us, then “Give to God what is God’s.” Caesar too is subject to God as are we for we did not create ourselves. God did.

Pope Francis in his speech before Congress two years ago restated our proposition about the life and dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God. He said that the Golden Rule “reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” In other speeches and homilies, he has denounced offenses against human life, against concrete human persons who are deemed disposable. Whether in bemoaning what he has called the “globalization of indifference” or “la cultura del descarte” the culture of waste he stands in continuity with the Church’s social doctrine that popes since Leo XIII have taught.

Now this social doctrine sometimes can appear to be quite complex and the arguments very difficult. (I know that some have suggested that reading through a papal encyclical can be a good cure for insomnia.) However, I suggest that all the Church’s social doctrine can be summarized in one simple phrase: No man is a problem.

No man is a problem. Any anthropology that would reduce the human person to being just a problem is simply a defective, an erroneous anthropology unworthy of man created in the image and likeness of God. When we allow ourselves to think of a human being as a mere problem, we offend his or her dignity. And when we see another human being as a problem, we often give ourselves permission to look for solutions. The tragic history of the 20th century shows that thinking like this even leads to “final solutions.”

This is why Catholic social teachings proclaim a positive and consistent ethic of life: No man is a problem. For us Catholics, therefore, there is no such thing as a “problem pregnancy” only a child who is to be welcome in life and protected by law. The refugee, the migrant, is not a problem. He may perhaps be a stranger but a stranger to be embraced as a brother. Even criminals for all the horror of their crimes do not lose their God-given dignity as human beings. They too must be treated with respect, even in their punishment. This is why Catholic social teaching condemns torture and works for the abolition of the death penalty.

Yet today, many in America are confused about the truth of the human person. More than terrorism, the tendency to moral relativism in our culture is the greatest threat to authentic democracy today. As the Pope Saint John Paul II said at the U.N. in 1995:

“Detached from the truth about the human person, freedom deteriorates into license in the lives of individuals, and in political life it becomes the caprice of the most powerful and the arrogance of power. Far from being a limitation on freedom or a threat to it, reference to the truth about the human person a truth universally knowable through the moral law written on the hearts of all is, in fact, the guarantor of freedom’s future.”

Today, confusion about the truth of the human person is at the heart of the crisis of human values a crisis that is being played out in politics; and a crisis being played out in the field of medicine. This confusion about the truth of the human person is undermining the family and destabilizing society and all social relationships.

Yet, in the words of the scholarly Pope Benedict XVI: “We are not some casual or meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” These thoughts can sum up the reasons why for more than four decades U.S. bishops have commemorated October as Respect Life Month. We live in a culture increasingly under the sway of a utilitarian ethic in which people are not valued for who they are but rather for what their have. As Catholics, we must recommit ourselves with others of good will to build a world where human life is always loved and defended, a world in which every form of violence is banished.

And while October is Respect Life Month it is also the month in which the Church honors the pious practice of the recitation of the Holy Rosary. We recently observed the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of the Blessed Mother at Fatima. Her appeal to us that we pray the rosary is still just as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago.

I would urge us all to rediscover this devotion which has helped so many generations of Catholics to grow in holiness. A prayerful recitation of the rosary either individually or in a family can help us to reflect upon and deepen our appreciation for God’s most precious gift to each one of us, the gift of life. In meditating on the mysteries of Rosary, which have been described as the “gospel in summary,” we are reminded of why all human life is precious: “Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” God is Lord over us, and over Caesar.

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