Question of Faith for November: Pro-Life teachings abound in the Bible
Q: Is the foundational concept of respect for life, especially concern for the unborn, something that is in the Bible or is it rooted more in church traditions?
A: The Catholic Church is noted for its respect for life: from the moment of conception to natural death. Like all church teachings, the beliefs are drawn from divine revelation found in Scripture and handed down through Tradition. Since life issues are broad and threats to life have developed over time, some teachings on life cannot be found explicitly in the Bible (for instance, the terms euthanasia, abortion, or in vitro fertilization are not in the Scriptures).
For every teaching on the sanctity of life, the Bible provides the foundation for the church’s belief. Among the numerous Scriptural passages on respect for life, we can cite the fifth commandment that prohibits murder (Exodus 20:13) and the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus repeats this teaching and extends it: “You have heard it said … ‘You shall not kill … But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22). These parallel passages remind us of the importance of protecting life and the attitudes and actions that may threaten life.
In addition to these Scriptures that directly address the question, the church’s witness to the dignity of life proceeds broadly from its understanding of the human person. These teachings, too, come from the Bible, especially the Pentateuch and the Prophets. In Genesis, for instance, in the story of the creation of man, we see that God created mankind as “good” with a special dignity. In the book of Jeremiah, we hear how God formed each of us in our mother’s wombs and “knew us” even before we were born.
The church’s teaching on life is also witnessed in tradition. The early church showed a supreme respect for life. “The Didache,” one of the earliest church documents outside of the New Testament, written about 80-90 AD, indicates Christians lived differently than their contemporaries: “You shall not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide.” Similarly, the “Letter to Diognetus” (second century) explains that Christians “like others, marry and have children, but they do not expose them” – a reference to infanticide.
Counterculturally, Christians upheld the dignity of all life at a time when the lives of women, children, and girls, in particular, were not valued. As one writer stated bluntly, “It was a simple economic fact of life that a female child was worth¬less.” She could cost a great deal to feed and raise but provided the family with little economic benefit. Many girls were simply abandoned by parents – euphemistically speaking, “exposed” – and left to die. Christians, viewing them as persons to be respected, attempted to save as many of these children as possible. Some had odd non-Christian first names that could be translated as “cast off” or “dung heap” or “excrement,” evidence that these children had been rescued – literally from the trash – and later received Christian names at baptism.
The Bible and tradition both show the roots of the church’s teaching and indicate that the church from the beginning has been consistent in defending life. It has always held that life is sacred.
Whether explicit or implicit, whether a prohibition against taking life or a positive vision of the human person, the Bible contains the foundation for the church’s pro-life teaching, witness, and work.
Father Endres is dean of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West and the Athenaeum of Ohio. Send your question of faith to strosley@CatholicCincinnati.org.