The Shadow of Death

A gravestone inscribed "In memory of all innocent victims of abortion"Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A – today the parish hosts the SPUC White Flower Appeal.

Who are the people who dwell in the land of deep shadow?

This reading applies to us. Sadly, for the last 50 years, Great Britain has been a land of great shadow – the shadow of death.

In 1945, our nation celebrated its hard-won freedom from the threat of invasion, but in 1967, Parliament decided to make it legal to destroy a child in the womb up to the 28th week of pregnancy. In 1990 the time-limit was changed to 24 weeks – but no time limit would apply to a child which was seriously handicapped in mind or body.

We’re going to hear a lot about this in 2017, because October marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Abortion Act. (Embryo research has also been in the news this week.) I’m sure we’re all aware of the official Catholic position that abortion is wrong under all circumstances. We know what we’re supposed to believe. But perhaps no-one has ever talked about why the Church reached that conclusion, or why this is so important that we might seek to impose our point of view on people who don’t share our faith.

When it comes to questions of human life, we can look in three directions. We can look to science, we can look to philosophy, and we can look to God.

Science is good at answering practical questions. We can ask at what age a growing baby can feel pain, or survive outside its mother’s womb. We can ask at what age it becomes impossible for an embryo to split into identical twins, or fuse into a chimera. But what science can’t do is tell us what moral value we should put on these findings.

Philosophy is the art of “thinking about thinking”. We live in a society of thinking human beings who have lots of different opinions, people who follow different religions. A century ago, most of our laws in Britain could be traced back to the Bible. Now, lots of people reject the Bible and our lawmakers instead ask how we make laws that leaves everybody free to do whatever they like, as long as no-one hurts anybody else.

That’s usually a good starting point – as long as we agree what we mean by “anybody else”. American politics has been in the news a lot this week, including reminders of the time in the nineteenth century when to be a “person” meant to be a “white person, not a black slave”. In Nazi Germany, Jews, Gypsies and Slavs were famously labelled as Untermensch, or “subhumans”. I’m not talking about race, today, though – our question is when a baby in the womb starts counting as a “person”.

Science can tell us some interesting facts. At about 14 days, the embryo can no longer split into twins. At 17 days, the first nerves are beginning to grow. We know how to keep a baby alive in an incubator when it’s just over 23 weeks old. But science can’t tell me when I became a person. Am I a person because I can think? Am I a person because I can feel pain? If I’m not an identical twin, did I mysteriously become a person at that moment when I was 14 days old and nothing significant happened?

Does the Bible say anything helpful? There’s a law in the Old Testament that makes it clear that harming someone else’s unborn child is a crime, and Scripture includes many beautiful words about how God “knit us together in our mother’s womb”. Throughout the Bible, we keep hearing that human beings are “made in the image of God”, and Genesis tells us that because we are human, we are “very good”. But there is no explicit teaching in the Bible about when we should start having the rights which belong to a human person, or about when a child in the womb is granted its soul.

We do, of course, recognise that Jesus was God-made-man from the first moment when He was present in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and this was noted by Pope St Gregory the Great (Moralia in Job, Book XVIII, Paragraph 85). And in Matthew chapter 18, verse 5, Jesus calls forward a little child and says “when you welcome a child in my name, you welcome me”. We know, therefore, that there is something “holy” about every human person, however young, and in the absence of a clear reason not to do so, our Popes have consistently taught that every child must be “treated as” a precious human person from the moment of conception.

In today’s second reading, St Paul acknowledges that philosophy on its own can’t lead us to what God wants us to know – we have to heed what God has revealed. The golden rule that Jesus taught us was to treat others the way we wish to be treated ourselves. We can all* trace our identity back to a single-celled embryo which was necessary and sufficient to develop into a mature human being. How would you have wished to be treated when you were a single cell?

We do indeed live in a democratic society where we respect the freedom of other people to make their own decisions. But in a democracy, who speaks for the voiceless? Who decides whether a child in the womb is “another person”?

Yes, of course if we insist that human dignity begins at the moment of conception, this takes away options that some unwilling parents may wish to keep open. But in a democracy, we are all responsible for making decisions on behalf of the voiceless, and we remember that Jesus called on us to welcome children in his name. St John Paul II warned us of the dangers of creating a “Culture of Death” which believes that human life can be treated as disposable. He asked us to create a “Culture of Life” which recognises that every human life is made in God’s image, and by sharing the gift of humanity, every human is “very good”.

So, my dear friends in Christ, we have a choice. We can live in a nation which says that you are valuable because you have a certain ability to think your own thoughts, or carry out useful actions, or survive without support. Or, when we are asked to make decisions on behalf of the voiceless, we can suggest that every human being is precious because of their own humanity. Wouldn’t you like to help create a world where every human being is treated with respect because she, or he, is made in the image of God?

Jesus began his teaching by saying “Repent! God’s Kingdom is at hand!” In the same way we must be a voice which declares: “Change your thinking! Treat every human being as beautiful, precious, and very good!” Choose life! And God’s light will once again shine upon our land.

Bonus material for internet readers:

Why does today’s first reading mention the “Day of Midian”? This was also a day when light triumphed over darkness, Gideon’s army winning an unlikely victory by revealing the light they carried hidden in their jars.

Why did I not mention Matthew’s Last Judgement – where Jesus says “whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me”? At first sight, this seems like an obvious passage. Many scholars, however, argue that because Jesus speaks about “the least of my brothers” he is referring to the way we welcome those who share our Christian faith, not vulnerable humans in general. If becoming a “brother” depends on faith, it can only apply to children able to speak. If a baptised infant can be a “brother”, even then, a child must be born before it can be baptised. But the value which Jesus places on a child in Matthew 18:5 clearly does not depend on the child’s personal faith or religious identity.

Nor do I mention the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. In the Old Testament, there are many situations where the death penalty is prescribed for some crime, or when the people of Israel are led into battle against neighbouring tribes. This makes it clear the Old Testament commandment is understood in a qualified, nuanced way. Even interpreting it as “do not kill the innocent” is difficult when cities are put “under the ban” or in the context of the death of the firstborn children in Egypt before the Exodus. But Jesus started from “thou shalt not kill” and extended it to even expressing rage against one’s brother as a terrible sin to be avoided.

* Above, I state for brevity that our unique identity is settled at our conception. This is not strictly true in the extremely rare and exceptional case of true human chimeras where the final identity is not settled until two embryos fuse. But prior to that fusion, it would have been presumed the separate embryos would develop into two mature human persons, and they should have been treated as such. In the case of identical twins, everything to give identity was indeed present at the single-cell stage, except for the characteristic of being a twin, which was settled at the moment of division.