Why pro-life beliefs depend on the sanctity of human life

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a three-part series on pro-life apologetics from the Apologetics Commission of Notre Dame Right to Life.

The need for a proper understanding of Church teaching on life issues becomes all the more apparent in the wake of controversy. This time around, it is Notre Dame’s rejection of President Trump’s rollback of the contraception mandate that has prompted many of us to drag the Catechism of the Catholic Church off the shelf, wipe off the dust, and remind ourselves exactly why the Church teaches what she does on life issues.

Because these topics are especially relevant to the university right now and discussion about them is lively, our understanding of them is likely to be sharper and we more readily share with others what we believe. However, the importance of understanding and being able to articulate our faith and its teachings extends throughout the entire year. Moments of encounter and evangelization are quite often moments we are not expecting, and it is best always to be prepared.

Thus, we have a two-fold mission: on the one hand, explaining and defending Church teaching on life issues to those who disagree, and on the other hand, equipping people who are already pro-life to share their beliefs with others. This is the work of Notre Dame Right to Life’s Apologetics Commission. Currently in its third year, the commission aims to prepare members of the club and engage the rest of the campus community. We work towards the former through informational sessions such as “Apologetics 101,” and the latter through things such as a “When Does Life Begin?” display on campus.

As co-commissioner of the Apologetics Commission this year, if there is anything I have learned so far, it is that generally pro-lifers are very good at talking to the secular world. We know the arguments from philosophy and science like the back of our hand. It is almost second-nature to explain to someone how the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness extend to the unborn, that science demonstrates that life begins at conception, and that we have no basis for civil rights or equality without protecting the most vulnerable.

Where we often struggle the most in the work of Apologetics at Notre Dame is in talking to Catholics. We struggle talking to people who share our faith but do not see how Church teaching on life issues, especially on contraception and abortion, fits into that context, or argue that we should impose those beliefs on others. This is an ironic situation, given that other Catholics should be the ones with whom we have the most in common, but it sheds much light on the contraception mandate controversy, which is predominantly a debate amongst Catholics.

This problem demands a return to the basics. We need to understand how the truths of the Catholic faith lead to its teaching on life issues, not in a defensive secular way, but from a thoroughly Catholic perspective.

The Church teaches that “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being” (CCC 2258). For this reason, “the deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being” (CCC 2261). And we can connect this directly to abortion, because “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person—among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (CCC 2270).

Of course, three short citations from the Catechism only scratch the surface of the theology of the dignity of the human person, but it is certainly a start to recognizing the connection between our understanding of creation as Catholics and why abortion is wrong.

Once we have established why Church teaching necessitates this belief, it becomes much simpler to address other objections raised by Catholics who do not agree with the Church’s position on life issues. For instance, when people claim that there is more to Catholic social teaching than abortion, we can respond that none of Catholic social teaching makes sense if you do not respect the right to life from the very beginning. There is no reason to support the right to life in its more developed stages if it is not supported from the beginning.  There must be continuity in the way we respect human life, otherwise the concept of human dignity means nothing at all.   

It is also important to realize that many Catholics are concerned with not imposing their beliefs on others, or believe that making abortion illegal will harm women. In these cases, pro-life Catholics need to emphasize that making abortion illegal and supporting women are not mutually exclusive. In order to truly solve social problems, we will have to work to eliminate the reasons that women resort to abortion, support them to the best of our ability when they chose life, and work to make sure that the law reflects the dignity of the human person from conception.

One of the beautiful aspects of Apologetic work is the depth of faith that it engenders in the one defending Church teaching. Challenges from both the secular world and those who share the Catholic faith can lead to a deeper understanding of what one has always known to be correct, but could not quite articulate. And deeper understanding of the faith is the road to conversion, the goal of the Christian life.

Noelle Johnson is Co-Commissioner of Notre Dame Right to Life’s Apologetics Commission. She is a sophomore majoring in theology and physics. Contact her at njohns16@nd.edu