Without a right to life, all other rights are contingent.
Most of my sources in this essay are not Catholic. That shouldn’t be surprising. Catholics have no monopoly on respect for human dignity. Catholics do have a very long tradition of thinking about the nature of the human person and society, but I’d like to begin by setting the proper framework for our discussion.
Last year I had the good fortune to read Eric Metaxas’s wonderful book, Bonhoeffer. It’s a biography of the great Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ve quoted Bonhoeffer’s work many times over the years. The reason is simple. I admire him. He could have been a professor. Instead he chose to be a pastor. He could have had a sterling academic career of lecturing about his ideas and his faith. Instead he chose to put them into action and to immerse himself in people’s lives. He was a man not of “values” in the meager modern sense, but of virtues in the classical and religious sense—the virtues of justice, courage, and love, all grounded in the deep virtue of faith in a loving God.
The Third Reich hanged Bonhoeffer for his resistance activities just a few weeks before the end of the Second World War. Today we see him—rightly—as one of the great moral witnesses of the last century; a man who fought for the good, in the face of very grave evil, at the cost of his life.
Another great moral witness of the twentieth century was the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who began as an atheist but ended Russian Orthodox. His history of The Gulag Archipelago, in its indictment of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and the brutality of Soviet repression that grew naturally from their thought, is a masterpiece of modern literature. Like Bonhoeffer, Solzhenitsyn wrote from direct experience of imprisonment and organized inhumanity. Unlike Bonhoeffer, Solzhenitsyn survived the war, survived years in prison camps, and was eventually exiled to the West.
In 1978, four years after Solzhenitsyn left Russia, Harvard University asked him to speak to its graduating students. What Harvard may have expected was praise for Western abundance, freedom, and diversity. What it got was very different.
Solzhenitsyn began by noting that Harvard’s motto is Veritas. This is the Latin word for “truth.” Then he added that “truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.”
Then he spent the next 6,000 words saying what nobody wanted to hear. He methodically criticized Western cowardice and self-indulgence; the vanity and weakness of America’s intellectual classes; the “tilt of freedom in the direction of evil;” the right of people “not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense [and] vain talk” by the mass media; a pervasive Western atmosphere of legalism and moral mediocrity; and the rise of a destructive individualism that now forces decent people “to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”
Some of Solzhenitsyn’s hard words came from his suffering. Some flowed from loneliness for his own country. But while Solzhenitsyn was harsh in his comments at Harvard, he also was accurate in at least some of what he said. Speaking of his Russian homeland he said, “After suffering decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer” than anything offered by the practical atheism now common in the West.
The reason for the problems of the West, said Solzhenitsyn, is found “at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past [several] centuries.” Our culture has fallen away from our own biblically informed heritage. We’ve lost the foundation for our moral vocabulary. This loss has starved our spirit, debased our sense of any higher purpose to life, and destroyed our ability to defend or even to explain any special dignity we assigned to the human person in the past.
Now I’ve said all of this to give a context for four simple points I’d like to share. I’ll be brief.
Here’s my first point. We remember Bonhoeffer, Solzhenitsyn, and other men and women like them because of their moral witness. But the whole idea of “moral witness” comes from the assumption that good and evil are real, and that certain basic truths about humanity don’t change. These truths are knowable and worth defending. One of these truths is the notion of man’s special dignity as a creature of reason and will. Man is part of nature, but also distinct from it.
The philosopher Hans Jonas said that three things have distinguished human life from other animal experience since early prehistory: the tool, the image, and the grave. The tool imposes man’s knowledge and will onto nature. The image—man’s paintings and other art—projects his imagination. It implies a sense of beauty and memory, and a desire to express them. But the greatest difference between humans and other animals is the grave. Only man buries his dead. Only man knows his own mortality. And knowing that he will die, only man can ask where he came from, what his life means, and what comes after it.
The grave then is an expression of reverence and hope. When Christians and other people of good will talk about “the dignity of the human person” and “the sanctity of human life,” they’re putting into words what we all instinctively know—and have known for a very long time. Something elevated and sacred in men and women demands our special respect. When we violate that human dignity, we do evil. When we serve it, we do good. And therein lies one of many ironies. We live in a society that speaks persuasively about protecting the environment and rescuing species on the brink of extinction. But then it tolerates the killing of unborn children and the abuse of human fetal tissue as lab material.
This leads me to my second point. The University of Pennsylvania is one our country’s premier research universities. That’s a great gift to the Philadelphia community. It’s also a great privilege for all of you as students, especially those specializing in the sciences. Science and technology have expanded human horizons and improved human life in vital ways over the last century. They’ve also, at times, done the opposite.
Part of a good education is learning the skill of appropriate skepticism. And that skepticism, that healthy wariness, should apply even to the methods and claims of science and technology. When a distinguished and thoroughly secular scholar like Neil Postman writes that “the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living” —then we need to be concerned.
“ … the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation.”
There’s a proverb worth remembering here: “To a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail.” If modern man is scientific man, technology is his hammer. But every problem isn’t a nail. Knowledge without the virtues of wisdom, prudence, and, above all, humility to guide it is not just unhelpful. It’s dangerous. Goethe’s poem, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice—which some of us probably know from the Mickey Mouse cartoon based on it—sticks in our memories for a reason. We’re never as smart as we think we are, and we have a bad track record when it comes to preventing the worst uses of our own best discoveries.
Science involves the study of the material world. But human beings are more than the sum of their material processes. Trying to explain the human person with thinking that excludes the reality of the spiritual, the dignity of the religious, and the possibility of God simply cripples both the scientist and the subject being studied—man himself. To put it another way, we can destroy what we mean by humanity while claiming, and even intending, to serve it.
We might wisely remember one other fact about science. Eric Cohen observed that “From the beginning, science was driven both by democratic pity and aristocratic guile, by the promise to help humanity and the desire to be free from the constraints of the common man, with his many myths and superstitions and taboos.” In other words, scientists too often have a divided heart: a sincere desire to serve man’s knowledge, and a sincere disdain for what they see as the moral and religious delusions of real men and women. If this doesn’t make us just a little bit uneasy, it should. Both faith and science claim to teach with a special kind of authority. One of the differences is this. Most religious believers accept, at least in theory, that they’ll be judged by the God of justice for their actions. For science, God is absent from the courtroom.
This leads to my third point. God also is absent from the U.S. Constitution—but not because he’s unwelcome. In effect, God suffused the whole constitutional enterprise. Nearly all the Founders were religious believers, and some were quite devout. Their writings are heavily influenced by biblical language, morality, and thought.
America could afford to be secular in the best sense, precisely because its people were so religious. The Founders saw religious faith as something separate from government but vital to the nation’s survival. In his Farewell Address, Washington famously stressed that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” for political prosperity. He added that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” For John Adams, John Jay, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Carroll, George Washington, and most of the other Founders—including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin—religion created virtuous citizens. And only virtuous citizens could sustain a country as delicately balanced in its institutions, moral instincts, and laws as the United States.
Here’s my purpose in mentioning this. The American Founders presumed the existence of natural law and natural rights. These rights are inalienable and guaranteed by a Creator; by “nature’s God,” to use the words of the Declaration of Independence. Such ideas may be out of fashion in much of legal theory today. But these same ideas are very much alive in the way we actually reason and behave in our daily lives.
Most of us here tonight believe that we have basic rights that come with the special dignity of being human. These rights are inherent to human nature. They’re part of who we are. Nobody can take them away. But if there is no Creator, and nothing fundamental and unchangeable about human nature, and if “nature’s God” is kicked out of the conversation, then our rights become the product of social convention. And social conventions can change. So can the definition of who is and who isn’t “human.”
” … if there is no Creator, and nothing fundamental and unchangeable about human nature, and if ‘nature’s God’ is kicked out of the conversation, then our rights become the product of social convention.”
The irony is that modern liberal democracy needs religion more than religion needs modern liberal democracy. American public life needs a framework friendly to religious belief because it can’t support its moral claims about freedom and rights with secular arguments alone. In fact, to the degree that it encourages a culture of unbelief, liberal democracy undermines its own grounding. It causes its own decline by destroying the public square’s moral coherence.
That leads to my fourth and final point. The pro-life movement needs to be understood and respected for what it is: part of a much larger, consistent, and morally worthy vision of the dignity of the human person. You don’t need to be Christian or even religious to be “pro-life.” Common sense alone is enough to make a reasonable person uneasy about what actually happens in an abortion. The natural reaction, the sane and healthy response, is repugnance.
What makes abortion so grievous is the intimacy of the violence and the innocence of the victim. Dietrich Bonhoeffer—and remember this is the same Lutheran pastor who helped smuggle Jews out of Germany and gave his life trying to overthrow Hitler—wrote that the “destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed on this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.”
Bonhoeffer’s words embody Christian belief about the sanctity of human life present from the earliest years of the Church. Rejection of abortion and infanticide was one of the key factors that set the early Christians apart from the pagan world. From the Didache in the First Century through the Early Fathers of the Church, down to our own day, Catholics—and until well into the twentieth century all other Christians—have always seen abortion as gravely evil. As Bonhoeffer points out, arguing about whether abortion is homicide or only something close to homicide is irrelevant. In the Christian view of human dignity, intentionally killing a developing human life is always inexcusable and always gravely wrong.
Working against abortion doesn’t license us to ignore the needs of the homeless or the poor, the elderly or the immigrant. It doesn’t absolve us from supporting women who find themselves pregnant or abandoned. All human life, no matter how wounded, flawed, young or old, is sacred because it comes from God. The dignity of a human life and its right to exist are guaranteed by God. Catholic teaching on abortion and sexuality is part of the same integral vision of the human person that fuels Cathol