Bearing and bringing life into the world is the primordial act of hospitality, the universal experience of co-creating with God and welcoming the stranger, essentially the “first” work of mercy. Many will argue the political nuances of life issues and prioritizing who deserves the loudest voice in a world clamoring for one’s conscience and one’s action. But when we draw a collective breath and the dust settles, we must acknowledge the most basic reality of human life. We have all come into this world as tiny, vulnerable, powerless children dependent on our mother’s bodily hospitality and a warm and nourishing landing spot after birth. All of us. Without exception.
I definitely didn’t “get” this until I was pregnant with my first child and went through the miraculous, traumatic, transformative experience of pregnancy and birth. A lot of things came into focus after that pivotal moment in my life as a woman. I understood for the first time what it meant to literally give your life for another (though I did not actually die). I understood why women (particularly modern, westernized women) resist this. I understood how incredible and distinct each person is and how wonderful the womb and the woman’s body really are.
This reality, that of giving life from life, this foundational act of hospitality, must shape everything that comes after because of its status as a kind of “first principle” for all of human life. Human dignity cannot be understood without a thorough look at the origins and development of human life from the moment a human person exists (conception or fertilization) within his or her mother to the moment he or she draws a last breath and dies.
Everything in between is of vital importance as well. But what the Church does—and that which the world struggles to do—is to hold these things together in tension, not pit them against each other as enemies. Each aspect of the human experience is intimately connected and part of a whole, shedding some light for us on the reality of being “one body” (1 Cor 12:12).
Hospitality and Dependence
I suppose we must take one step back even further. We must be able to say confidently and boldly that every human person’s existence is entirely dependent upon God, the first “host” and sustainer of all life. It is actually from this first principle of hospitality and self-gift that all the rest flows. To say this and follow it to logical conclusions is difficult to do in an age that considers such a statement to be an exclusive, narrow position that does not fit into a pluralistic society, that must encompass people of many faiths and of no faith at all. Everyone must be in. No one must be offended.
Now, I actually believe everyone is in. But whether basic statements of faith will cause offense is not always under our control. I wrestled with these tensions often when working in the pro-life movement while living in the Catholic Worker neighborhood alongside South Bend’s homeless, while dialoguing with local pro-choice leaders, while also trying to make sense of my own motherhood. I’m not saying it’s easy. In fact it’s profoundly difficult to let many facets of the mystery and messiness of human existence bump into one another and not feel completely overwhelmed. It’s so much safer and easier and more comfortable to pick a side. To belong to a team that is against another team and to hold that some lives or some stages of life are more important than others.
But we as Christians are not really on a team. This is something the saints teach us. If there is a team, it’s called the Human Race or more theologically, the Body of Christ. We do not get to choose whom to value and whom to devalue, whom to love and serve and whom to dismiss and ignore. We do not get to pit one child of God against another. This is particularly essential to the life issues and the way we talk and think about human dignity, but it applies to the entirety of the lived Christian life.
Abortion is the most egregious violator of the above. The first relationship is that of a mother to the prenatal child (or fetus, meaning “little one” in Latin). Here lies the most basic dynamic of vulnerability and care that is intrinsic to every person’s experience, one which shapes the trajectory of each person’s encounter with the world, the self, and God.
Championing the Mother
Motherhood and parenting in general has become a questionable prospect, many rejecting this state of life as too burdensome, too demanding, too restrictive of one’s freedoms. And it is demanding, burdensome, and restrictive to be a parent. But when one’s first principles flow from a loving response to an all-loving Creator, love itself places a demand on the person and ultimately brings about a depth of happiness that is only possible through self-gift. We who practice welcoming can ourselves experience being welcomed, known, and loved.
Welcoming the child also means championing the needs of the mother. Too often, her voice is not heard, her burden is not shared by the community, and she finds motherhood to be a lonely, difficult, untenable task. I get this. I have often experienced this loneliness, and I’ve come to understand why women choose abortion, an unnatural but tempting choice if you yourself are not experiencing care and hospitality from others.
It’s also easy to see how some discredit the pro-life position because it often fails to take into account the myriad needs of the child and the mother after birth. And it has typically failed to carry over into the care of other vulnerable populations such as immigrants, refugees, prisoners, victims of war, and domestic violence, to name a few. We have much to repent of as a people of life who must think and love without bias—who must, if there be a preference, always prefer and act on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.
To the Church’s credit, I will offer that the number of people I know personally who do uphold the tensions gracefully may outnumber the people I know who don’t. It’s probably more important to think in terms of actual people and communities than whole swaths of the population, anyway. So many of us defy the typical notions upheld by political categories or caricatures on social media. And we are so much more than the sum of our political or economic decisions.
We are each immortal beings who are infinitely loved and known by an Eternal God.
A Foundation of Dignity
But even if you don’t believe this, even if you reject the Church’s basic doctrines, you cannot build a castle of human dignity and freedom without a strong foundation which acknowledges and protects the humanity and dignity of the prenatal child and her mother. You cannot. It will crumble.
You can certainly build a castle of capitalism and profit and self-interest. You can certainly build a castle of rage and protest and political rhetoric. But these castles are built on violence, not love and mutual understanding.
If you have any interest in love, if you have any desire to welcome and be welcomed fully as you are, if you have any investment in the flourishing of our earth and the people on it, then your castle must be built on a nonviolent foundation of human dignity which sees each person as worthy of care and protection at every stage of life, from the very beginning to the very end. And everywhere else in between. It’s not easy, but it is simple.
Editorial Note: Throughout the month of October Church Life Journal will explore the sanctity of life and the hospitable imagination. What we mean by the hospitable imagination is the ecclesial formation of a way of seeing the world that is more spacious and welcoming. It is a way of seeing that recognizes the inherent sanctity of life and seeks to heal the perceived division between life issues and social justice issues. Catholic Social Teaching teaches us that a radical hospitality for life at all its stages and solidarity with the weak is cruciform. As our authors explore the various dimensions of the hospitable imagination (please click the link for a list of the posts), we invite you to think along with us.
Featured Image: Ultrasound, 12 April 2007, Author: Mylissa; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.0.