“We are not our own”: Life and the Sense of the Sacred

(This is Neil.) In the current In Communion, the Orthodox priest John Garvey, also a columnist for Commonweal, writes about a friend and an acquaintance of his. He met both during his days serving as a draft-counselor during the Vietnam War. Regarding moral issues, the acquaintance was at least consistent. He approved of abortion and the death penalty. His thought, says Garvey, showed a “total absence of any sense of the sacred,” easily replaced by a “sense of convenience.”

The friend approved of Garvey’s opposition to the death penalty and the Vietnam War, but she was shocked to learn that he also opposed abortion. Obviously, this was partially unexpected because it crossed certain partisan boundaries. But, as Fr Garvey also concludes about his friend, she only had “a half-baked sense of the sacred.”

What might it mean to consistently possess a full “sense of the sacred” with regard to these difficult issues?

Here is how Fr Garvey would answer, with reference to his friend and acquaintance:

But neither had a sense of life as truly sacred. Nor, I think it must be said, do those who call themselves pro-life and defend capital punishment based on the argument that the murderer has forfeited the right to life by taking the life of another. In both cases – one side often secular and the other side often ostensibly religious – there is a sense that a life’s value depends somehow on our end of the deal, our sense that a life is of value (because completely innocent, as in the case of the child in the womb) or that a life has forfeited its sacred status (because it violated the sacred status of another life, as in the case of a murderer).

This makes us too important, and God’s role as creator a wimpy cameo. How I regard the life of a child in the womb – whether I want it to be born or not – does not matter in the face of the fact that this unique being exists. To argue that it is a tiny collection of cells and therefore unimportant is not far from arguing that it is not so grave a matter to murder a dwarf as it is to murder a giant; and it makes my attitude toward another life more important than that life’s existence, its God-givenness.

To argue that the life of a murderer can be taken because the murderer has violated the life of his victim is to say that the murderer gets to define the limits of the sacred. The terrible fact is that the murderer’s life is sacred, because God has willed that life, and none of us has the power to cancel the holiness of having been called into existence from nothingness. We may wish to cancel our vocation; in the horror of some lives it may be an overwhelming desire. But we cannot. And Christians have to bear witness to the sacred character of all human beings, no matter how innocent or how guilty, all of them people for whom Jesus Christ died. We are not our own. This applies to the newly conceived baby, and to any murderer on death row.

(If anyone wishes a slightly more sustained theological argument, I’ll also place a link here to an earlier post of mine on “John Paul II’s Positions on Capital Punishment and War.”)

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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