When Archbishop Charles Chaput first arrived in Philadelphia, I attended a talk he gave at Penn in November 2011.
It was my first time seeing him in person, and he spoke on “Being Human in an Age of Unbelief,” focusing on the challenge of framing abortion and the larger pro-life movement within the context of human rights and dignity:
What makes abortion so grievous is the intimacy of the violence and the innocence of the victim. Dietrich Bonhoeffer—and remember this is the same Lutheran pastor who helped smuggle Jews out of Germany and gave his life trying to overthrow Hitler—wrote that the “destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed on this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.”
Bonhoeffer’s words embody Christian belief about the sanctity of human life present from the earliest years of the Church. Rejection of abortion and infanticide was one of the key factors that set the early Christians apart from the pagan world. From the Didache in the First Century through the Early Fathers of the Church, down to our own day, Catholics—and until well into the 20th century all other Christians—have always seen abortion as gravely evil. As Bonhoeffer points out, arguing about whether abortion is homicide or only something close to homicide is irrelevant. In the Christian view of human dignity, intentionally killing a developing human life is always inexcusable and always gravely wrong. …
Society is not just a collection of sovereign individuals with appetites moderated by the state. It’s a community of interdependent persons and communities of persons; persons who have human obligations to one another, along with their human rights. One of those obligations is to not intentionally kill the innocent. The two pillars of Catholic social teaching are respect for the sanctity of the individual and service to the common good. Abortion violates both.
This issue has always transcended politics, and it will always be about more than simply the single issue of abortion, because human rights are relational in nature. No single human right can be understood separately from the others if a foundational sense of human dignity is what roots their claim as “rights.”