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The Catholic Moment: The drama of life

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

By Father Earl Fernandes

Sophocles’ play Antigone opposes the wills of Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, and Creon, the King of Thebes. Creon had two sons: Eteocles, who was destined to reign, and Polyneices, who was exiled by Creon. Polyneices attacked the city. In the battle, the two brothers are killed. The king honors Eteocles as a hero but refuses to bury Polyneices, making a law that anyone who tries to bury him will be condemned to death. In defiance, Antigone attempts to cover Polyneice’s body, rather than leave it to the dogs, while her sister, Ismene, cannot bring herself to go against the law. Antigone is discovered and is brought before Creon.

Creon argues for the supremacy of his law saying,  “No. We must obey whatever man the city puts in charge, no matter what the issue — great or small, just or unjust. For there is no greater evil than lack of leadership, which destroys whole cities, turns households into ruins, and in war makes soldiers break and run away. When men succeed, what keeps their lives secure in almost every case is their obedience.”

Antigone is the advocate of the rights of nature, which express the will of the gods: “I did not think anything which you proclaimed strong enough to let a mortal override the gods and their unwritten and unchanging laws. They’re not just for today or yesterday, but exist forever, and no one knows where they first appeared.”

Elsewhere she says, “And so for me meeting this fate won’t bring any pain. But if I’d allowed my own mother’s dead son to just lay there, an unburied corpse, then I’d feel distress.”

Distress is an understatement! Antigone prefers death to violating her conscience and the laws of the gods. Such is the dignity of conscience! Antigone is full of antagonism. Divine laws are placed against human laws; written decrees against unwritten; temporal against eternal laws. The drama is intense. How is it resolved?

Antigone is sentenced to be buried alive. However, a blind prophet forecasts disaster. The gods are angry with Creon. Creon relents, buries Polyneices and decides to free Antigone. He is too late. In the interim, Antigone hangs herself in prison. Haemon, the son of Creon and fiancé of Antigone, kills himself. Eurydice, Creon’s wife, Haemon’s mother, commits suicide in her grief. Creon loses everything. When human laws and individual choice are allowed to trample human dignity, freedom of conscience and the natural law, written on the human heart by the Creator, one thing follows: death. How tragic!

During this week, we register our objection in conscience to the tragedy of abortion and its promotion in our land. We might also show our support for Catholic healthcare professionals (doctors, nurses, and pharmacists) and Catholic hospitals, by encouraging our legislators to ensure protections for the consciences of individuals and religious institutions and by thanking them for their witness to the culture of life. They are under intense pressure to provide abortion-related services; to furnish emergency contraception and the morning after pill; and to perform sterilizations.

The “right” to abortion of some seems to outweigh the right to conscience, conscientious objection, and life of others. These brave Catholics risk losing their livelihood for following their conscience and objecting to these anti-life practices. Our world is full of antagonism. Divine laws are placed against human laws, temporal decrees against unwritten, eternal laws. The drama is intense. How will it be resolved? What role will you play?

Father Earl Fernandes is the academic dean of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and an assistant professor of moral theology.

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