April Is the Cruelest Month

Author: Archbishop J. Francis Stafford


Archbishop J. Francis Stafford

Springtime Reflections on Three Decisions Regarding Human Life and Dignity

I. Three Decisions

Brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus,

Three recent decisions by individuals from various governmental bodies cry out today for reflection, discussion and action by Catholics.

All three decisions occurred in early 1996: the veto by President Bill Clinton of a partial-birth abortion ban; the invalidation of a Washington State law against assisted suicide by the U.S. Court of Appeals; and the veto of legislation by Gov. Roy Romer that would have prohibited same-sex marriages in Colorado. We have had the springtime to reflect on their meaning.

These three decisions represent our culture's latest massive attacks on the dignity of the human person. We would do well to briefly review each of these actions. They represent a conspiracy against life at every level.

1. Veto of the partial-birth abortion ban

On April 10, President Clinton vetoed a bill that would have banned partial-birth abortions, except in cases when the life of the mother is endangered. In such late-term abortions, the child is delivered feet-first. When only the head remains inside the mother, the attending physician pierces the baby's skull with scissors. A tube is inserted, and a vacuum extracts the child's brain matter. The skull is collapsed.

Three more inches and the child would be fully born and entitled to constitutional protection. Three more inches and the "procedure" would be considered legal murder. The "procedure"—which the president of the United States, by his actions, approves—borders on infanticide. The Second Vatican Council calls both abortion and infanticide "abominable crimes".

One is forced to wonder how President Clinton, who describes himself as a believing Christian, would respond to some key moral questions:

What does the president consider the human fetus within the womb to be in the third trimester of pregnancy? Does the president simply equate the preborn human being with a non-human animal? Does the president agree with abortionists like Dr. Warren Martin Hern of Boulder that the human fetus is a morbid growth, a parasite—in Hern's exact words, pregnancy is "a neoplastic, endoparasitic . . . autoinfection"—in the mother's womb? Dr. Hern has been influential in the decisions of public policy-makers legalizing abortion, including former Gov. Richard Lamm and Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder. Yet he advises fellow abortionists against sharing details of their "medical procedures" with the media. Is the president willing to pursue the motives for Hern's reluctance? Are we?

2. Invalidation of a law against assisted suicide

In March, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit invalidated a Washington State law against assisted suicide. The Appeals Court drew upon past U.S. Supreme Court decisions on abortion to put the interests of the person in power ahead of the life of the vulnerable. It argued that since a state's authority "may vary with the progression of the pregnancy"' the state's interest in protecting people from physician-assisted suicide varies "at different points along the life cycle as a person's physical or mental condition deteriorates".

The court bluntly asserted that the lives of younger or healthier individuals are more valuable to the state than the lives of the sick or elderly. The court's ruling suggests that life's value is connected with what is physically and economically convenient. One doesn't need much imagination to see that the choice to die is near to being coerced. Nowhere is the cruel, blind power of money more evident.

The court's decision engages us in a decisive conflict between the Christian and post-Christian views of death. With the court, post-Christians assert a radicalized will to personal freedom. They treat freedom as the absolutely highest good and deny its dependence on truth. In ratifying the legality of assisted suicide, the court denies the millennial truth that God alone is the Lord of life and death. "It is I who bring both death and life" (Dt 32:39; cf 2 Kg 5:7; 1 Sam 2:6).

To choose suicide is an act of despair. It is to judge that one has been fundamentally deceived by life. Death by assisted suicide is reduced to no more than "a medical problem", a "natural and salutary release" from the absurd contradictions of life. It is the final alienation. The suicide has no "Thou" who can form a bridge leading out of the lonely self. Even within the enclosed universe of our secularized culture, self-murder cannot be anything other than a graceless tragedy.

On the other hand, Christians facing betrayal, sickness, suffering, death and despair continue to trust God against all odds. To be sure, Jeremiah's lament is on the lips of many Christians, "O Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived" (Jer 20:7). But they are unequivocal about the dependence of freedom upon truth. This dependence is expressed most clearly and authoritatively in the words of Christ: "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:32). And the truth is that the Son of Man alone holds "the keys of death and hades" (Rev 1:18).

Disciples live their suffering in Christ. To die to the Lord (Rom 14:8) is to choose freely the supreme obedience to resist in hope the final trial. When all is collapsing, when nothing is possible anymore except the nobility of endurance in Christ, even when the struggle—from a "natural" point of view—becomes grotesque, Christians still embrace the anguish and pain leading to death. Their action is not unlike St. Francis's final embrace of "Lady Poverty" in the church of St. Mary of the Portiuncula in 1226. His biographer writes that "he accepted death singing" and "loved his own to the end". Yes, Christians even rejoice in their sufferings for the sake of their brothers and sisters, and in their flesh they complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church (Col 1:24).

The greatest graces of my episcopacy and priesthood have come about when I have been present to witness in faith this mysterious, surprising, unutterably loving drama of human freedom and divine freedom. This drama unfolds in the death of priests, relatives and others who through the companionship, sympathy and support of other Christians are comforted and consoled by God in their afflictions (2 Cor 1:4).

3. Veto of legislation prohibiting same-sex marriages

Also this spring, Gov. Roy Romer vetoed legislation that would have prohibited same-sex marriages in the state of Colorado even if such unions were recognized elsewhere. Under current law, homosexual "marriages" granted in other states would be recognized in Colorado. Without even a hint of the historic import of his veto, the governor undermined by legal fiat what had been the foundation of civilization for the past 1,500 years.

Until the present moment, people have read reality through its nuptial/marital/covenantal meaning. From the very beginning, the premier sign of God has been the nuptial union of man and woman. "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gn 1:27). Anglo-Saxon law was rooted in such an insight found in the early medieval rite of Sarum, the preferred rite of the English Churches, and before that in the Gregorian Sacramentary. The Sacrament of the Eucharist is the apex of reality as nuptial/marital/covenantal.

That early and medieval peoples interpreted the very nature of reality through the covenantal and bridal relationship of God and creation, of Yahweh and Israel, and of Christ and the Church is clear from this text contained in the ancient Gregorian Sacramentary: "O God, you consecrated the union of marriage by a mystery so profound as to prefigure in the marriage covenant the sacrament of Christ and the Church." This foundational insight about reality lasted until this decade.

As archbishop of Denver, I wish to emphasize again—as I have said repeatedly in the past—that the acceptance and promotion of homosexual activity as a valid moral option are a direct assault on the ancient moral vision which, for more than 15 centuries, has established both the private and public responsibilities indispensable for the achievement of the free order of society. The governor's veto is a repudiation of the basic foundation of the state and society as we have known them.

II. Some Springtime Reflections

In developing these reflections, I wish to express a special concern for young Americans. What effect will these three decisions have upon them? Evil laws will only increase their mistrust and skepticism. The older generation matured in a society that was still in touch with the past. They knew something of the life-giving culture built up over the past 1,500 years.

Yet, the violence of this century had already forewarned us of how far we had drifted from the medieval Christians' perception of the world. The poet Chaucer captured that vision well when he described April with its "sweet, musical showers" as a time of pilgrimage. Since publication in 1922 of the great T. S. Eliot poem "The Waste Land," April—normally a time of new life and rebirth—had begun to be perceived as "the cruelest month." So even for older Americans, creation was fast becoming a loveless place without beauty.

Our young people know little or nothing of that receding world of beauty and of love. Their reading lists include such authors as Fraser, Nietzsche, Freud and others whose writings have undermined that civilization. As students they look into the modern abyss created by these men, and they interpret the fearful spiritual confusion which they see as "interesting", and even "exciting". Reflect upon today's music. Too often, the ugly and cruel have become the contemporary world's standard of value—not beauty and goodness and truth.

Young people instinctively recognize the absence of love and beauty in their world. And in their hunger for truth and goodness, they look for "emergency rations". They seek interpersonal relations of various sorts to fill the void in a world that is at best impersonal, at worst hostile and Darwinian.

World Youth Day '93 in Denver indicated that many young people are burdened with the pain of their loss of God. They look upon one another; they long for the gaze of love to be returned. What do they find? They commonly discover the futile gaze, the empty gaze, or no gaze at all.

In an article appearing recently in The New York Times, Meghan Daum, born in 1970, writes about her generation's experience of such relations. "Three decades after the pill put a government-approved stamp on premarital sex, we've entered a period when mistrust equals responsibility, when fear signifies health . . . What could be sadder? We're not allowed to believe anyone anymore. ... One result is a corrosion of the soul, a chronic dishonesty and fear . . . In this world, peace of mind is a utopian concept."

One senses here that a process of unraveling has begun. Daum speaks of "a specter of death that floats above the pursuit of" intimate interpersonal relations between young adult men and women. One recalls the troubling words of Pope John Paul II that there is "a culture of death" at work on a planetary scale. His words point out the bitterly painful quality of the world's guilt.

The three recent decisions will hasten the sense of weariness one finds in many young Americans today. Having already grown tired and empty within, they experience the further decline of wonder and awe and adoration before the mystery of life and death. Their nonchalance, a close kin to boredom, does not sustain them in the drama of human and divine freedom.

But these three decisions affect us all. The dignity of human life is being eclipsed for everyone. The marriage covenant is no longer how our civil and media pace-setters interpret family, civilization and religious faith. The modern world is being drained of authentic life. The absence of objective truth in the exercise of personal freedom opens the door to the manipulative abuse of power and totalitarianism. Against our will, a new kind of well-heeled, spin-controlled barbarism is being insinuated into daily life, and into the fabric of our families.

How else are we to interpret the `right' given by the president and federal court to a family to kill their own members, whether children or aged parents? What other meaning can be assigned to the decision of the governor of Colorado, who evidently no longer defines the family as founded upon the relation of man and woman? These decisions are an urgent warning about the apathy of our people. It is impossible to overestimate the mischief of these decisions. They strike at the heart of our civilization. Mothers and doctors, at one time universal signs of life, have too often become today signs of the destruction of life.

The direction of the modern state is against the dignity of human life. These spring decisions harbinger a dramatic intensifying of the conflict between the Catholic Church and governing civil authorities.

III. The Catholic Response

Where should Catholic men and women stand in this struggle about our civil and moral foundations?

Obviously, this is not the first conflict between Church and state in history. Many of our ancestors faced similar confrontations when they immigrated to what they perceived (then) to be "this land of freedom". But wherever they lived, our ancestors understood themselves to be walking on pilgrimage through a strange country.

Our pilgrimage today is also in company with Jesus, the "lamb standing, as though it had been slain" (Rev 5:6). He has already drawn the sting from death. So Christians can face the future, despite its anxieties and challenges, with courage and joy. It remains God's secret how many of us today and in the years to come will be admitted to share in the suffering of Jesus in Gethsemane.

Life with the Son of God is a discipleship of folly. This shouldn't come as a surprise. We have known from our morning days that folly—in the eyes of the world—has been the form of the Christian life.

Francis of Assisi dramatized that truth for us in the creation of the first creche at Greccio, where the infant Jesus rests among rough animals. Nor can we forget that the One whom we call Lord and Master later preferred to ride the donkey rather than the elegant stallion. Nor did He choose the soaring eagle or hawk as the image of the Holy Spirit, but rather the modest dove.

Today our weapons cannot be the same as the weapons of those who stand for a "culture of death". Coercion and violence of any kind are not the Christian way. Ours rather are the weapons of the Gospel. "Take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication." (Eph 6: 13-18).

Do not be afraid! "Death and life were locked together in a unique struggle. Life's Captain died; now He reigns, no more to die" (Roman Missal, Easter Sunday Sequence).

J. Francis Stafford Archbishop of Denver Sixth Sunday of Easter, Mother's Day May 12, 1996