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Respect for Every Human Person: Benedict XVI’s Pro-Life Legacy

Respect for Every Human Person: Benedict XVI’s Pro-Life Legacy

Pope Benedict XVI kisses a baby in St. Peter’s Square during his Wednesday general audience on Oct. 24, 2012. (photo: Marianne Medlin / CNA)


The late pope wrote and spoke with clarity on the issue of abortion in a way that touched many.

Pope Benedict XVI grounded his writings on abortion and other life issues in the fundamental truth that every human person, from conception until natural death, is loved by God and bears his image and likeness.

Throughout his nearly eight-year papacy and during his time as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope St. John Paul II, he wrote with clarity and depth on threats to human life and the family.

Virginia Coda Nunziante, organizer of the Italian March for Life, told the Register that Pope Benedict XVI has left a rich “intellectual and cultural” legacy for the pro-life movement because “he insisted very much on the non-negotiable values” key to the defense of life and saw the right to life as a foundational issue. She said that he would emphasize that “life depends on God. So only God is the author of life, and only he can give life, and only he can take life away.”

She referenced his statement during a 2007 address to the Pontifical Academy for Life and Congress that “life is the first good received from God and is fundamental to all others; to guarantee the right to life for all and in an equal manner for all is the duty upon which the future of humanity depends.”

In addition to his emphasis on the right to life as a foundational, God-given right, Nunziante praised the “beautiful talks” that Pope Benedict XVI gave to the pro-life movement in Italy, in which he discussed the importance of defending life “today in a relativistic society.”

In a 2008 address, he told members of Italy’s pro-life movement that “defending human life today has become more difficult because a mindset has developed, entrusted to the opinion of the individual, which has gradually debased its value.” In response to society’s devaluing of human life, he said that “the Church never tires of reaffirming that the sacred value of every human being’s life originates in the Creator’s plan” and also “encourages the promotion of every initiative in support of women and families in order to create the favorable conditions in which to welcome life and the protection of the family institution founded on the marriage between a man and a woman.”

Nunziante also praised the late pope’s insistence that countries cannot impose laws against the right to life as it applies to “every human being.”

During a 2005 meeting on family and life issues in Latin America, Benedict said regarding abortion that “in attacking human life in its very first stages, it is also an aggression against society itself. Politicians and legislators, therefore, as servants of the common good, are duty bound to defend the fundamental right to life, the fruit of God’s love.”

As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger was very clear in a 2004 letter to the U.S. bishops that unrepentant pro-abortion politicians should not present themselves to receive Communion. He wrote that an individual’s pastor “should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist,” and “when ‘these precautionary measures have not had their effect …,’ and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, ‘the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.’”


Addressing Emerging Technologies

Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and former chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told the Register that he believes Pope Benedict XVI’s most important pro-life witness came during his time as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Before he became Pope Benedict, George said he faced not only the issue of abortion but also threats to life from emerging reproductive technologies.

The emergence of cloning and in vitro fertilization occurred during his 1981 to 2005 tenure over the Vatican’s body for promulgating and defending Church doctrine. George praised Pope Benedict’s application of “the Church’s historic principles for the protection of innocent human life to the new challenges.” He said Cardinal Ratzinger understood the faithful’s need for clarity on these issues, and “wherever he could say clearly, ‘Here’s what our principles require or forbid,’ he would say so.”

In 1987, Benedict wrote in Donum Vitae that in vitro fertilization is illicit and “in opposition to the dignity of procreation and of the conjugal union, even when everything is done to avoid the death of the human embryo.” He wrote that such a procedure “establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person” in a way that is contrary “to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children.”

He also warned that in vitro fertilization “can open the way to other forms of biological and genetic manipulation of human embryos,” including “fertilization between human and animal gametes” and “the hypothesis or project of constructing artificial uteruses for the human embryo.” He called such procedures “contrary to the human dignity proper to the embryo” and “contrary to the right of every person to be conceived and to be born within marriage and from marriage.” He also wrote that cloning was “contrary to the moral law,” as it is in opposition “to the dignity both of human procreation and of the conjugal union.”


An Emphasis on Love

George said that Pope Benedict XVI would not only declare something illicit, but also “would explain why something is morally required or something is morally forbidden, and often his explanations really would be quite beautiful.”

In a 2006 address on embryonic stem-cell research, Pope Benedict XVI explained the Church’s rejection of research involving human embryos, saying that “the human being is not a disposable object, but every single individual represents God’s presence in the world.”

Ashley McGuire, senior fellow with The Catholic Association, told the Register via email that Pope Benedict “boldly carried the Catholic Church’s comprehensive pro-life ethic forward in the 21st century,” as his “theological acumen bolstered the Church’s teaching against the nihilism and culture of death” that were rampant at the time he assumed the papacy. She also pointed out that his “emphasis on Christian love throughout his teachings and writings emphasized a culture of life that is loving and merciful, characteristics that have come to define the modern pro-life movement.”

During his inauguration Mass in 2005, Pope Benedict reminded the faithful that “we are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed; each of us is loved; each of us is necessary.”

Freddy Gray, deputy editor of The Spectator, wrote shortly after the pope emeritus’ passing that these words gave him courage when he learned of the prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis of his late daughter Celeste.

He wrote, “Benedict’s phrasing helped me realize that, even if I found it hard, and I did, we had an obligation towards this new life we had made. That obligation — complicated by an extra chromosome — was bigger than us.” Celeste passed away shortly before birth, but, Gray wrote, “thanks in part to Pope Benedict, however, I dare to believe that she was not some casual or meaningless product of evolution. She was willed; she was loved; she was necessary.”


Praise From U.S. Pro-Life Groups

Human Life International, a Virginia-based pro-life organization providing resources and education on the life issue from a Catholic perspective, praised Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) as of “fundamental importance to the pro-life movement in its advancement of authentic human development and flourishing.”

The organization praised Benedict’s warning in that encyclical that “some non-governmental organizations work actively to spread abortion, at times promoting the practice of sterilization in poor countries.” He wrote that “openness to life is at the center of true development” and that “by cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones.”

National Right to Life President Carol Tobias called Pope Benedict XVI “an unwavering voice for the unborn, those with disabilities and the elderly,” whose “stalwart support of the right to life was grounded in compassion and love.” She said, in her statement shortly following his passing, that the late pope “will be remembered for his dedication to the pro-life cause and for his work in championing the right to life.”

In 2010, Pope Benedict held an Advent prayer vigil for the protection of unborn life, and he told those gathered that love for all, “if it is sincere, tends spontaneously to become preferential attention to the weakest and poorest,” which “explains the Church’s concern for the unborn, the frailest, those most threatened by the selfishness of adults and the clouding of consciences.”

He entrusted the Church’s commitment to protecting unborn life “to the Virgin Mary, who welcomed the Son of God made man with her faith, with her maternal womb, with her attentive care, with her nurturing support, vibrant with love.”


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