With the endearing candor only a 15-year-old boy could display, a wide-eyed high school student once approached me before a pro-life presentation with a pointed question. “Why do you guys hate human bodies so much?” he wanted to know. “You've got so many rules against sex.”
By “you guys” I knew he meant Catholics. I also knew I had about five seconds to present my case.
“It's not because we hate the body that we teach as we do, but because we love it,” I told him. “We know how special it is, how fragile it is, and how much care must be taken to respect it.”
The teen seemed to be momentarily satisfied, or at least silenced into thought. But he had given me food for thought as well. For some time afterward, I contemplated the world's love/hate relationship with the human body — and the unique and unified Christian response. It's a response that, if you think about it, under-girds and explains all our teachings about the respect due human life from conception through natural death.
The Christian faith is eminently physical, tactile, appealing to the senses. Look at the creation story. Our God makes us out of the stuff of the earth. He bothers to make us male and female. He doesn't make us angels or disembodied souls, but body and soul. And then, inexplicably, he loves us, body and soul.
It matters to God when Cain kills Abel. And even afterward, Cain's life, including his bodily well-being, concerns God. God places a “mark” on Cain such that all who see it recognize that Cain is not to be killed.
Then, in Jesus, God reveals himself among us as a person, complete with a human body. Our Lord further shows how deeply God cares for our human bodies. Jesus relieves pain, cures blindness, and even raises human beings from the dead and restores them in their physical entirety to their bereaved families. All the while, he assures us that these miracles are signs of God's Kingdom begun among us. God's Kingdom, in other words, contemplates our physical well-being.
And, intriguingly, he leaves behind for us a physical “memorial” of his death and resurrection. For the Eucharist is not merely a “reminder” or a “symbol” of Jesus’ presence — it is his real presence, body, blood, soul and divinity. Tangible presence makes a difference, or God wouldn't have insisted on leaving his for us. Especially considering what a stumbling block the Real Presence is for many.
So it matters to Christians how our human bodies are touched, helped or harmed during our lives here on earth. Which helps explain our passionate feelings on the subjects of abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment.
The child in the womb, no matter how small, is a real physical presence — willed by God and called to a divine destiny. No matter that the body is not yet fully developed or even that he or she cannot yet live independently of the mother; this miraculous creation is physically here, and important.
Recently, credible evidence has come to light that the abortion industry is allowing aborted children to be harvested for body parts. On occasion, it seems some of the children being sacrificed for science are born alive, then killed either before or as their bodies are surgically incised.
Is it any wonder the Church raises its voice to demand investigations of such reports? After all, this is grotesque disrespect for the human body of the most callous kind. It matters what is done to these small bodies.
Just as it matters what is done to the bodies of convicted criminals. In Evangelium Vitae, our Holy Father reminds us that “bloodless means” of defending human life against an aggressor are “more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.” A person does not lose his dignity because he has been convicted of a capital crime. Recent stories about electric chairs gone amok — with prisoners catching fire and dying in a horrifyingly inhumane way — simply reinforce the point. This is no way to treat any human body.
Likewise, it matters what happens to the elderly, the dying, the disabled. Destroying their physical life is not an option for Christians. It is not dignified. It is not reverent. Christians, therefore, are leaders in the movement, not only against killing these persons, but also for providing them genuine palliative care.
Today's world is schizophrenic about the human body. We simultaneously pamper some and destroy others.
If I had had a little more time with that exuberant youth at the pro-life presentation, I would have explained to him that, for reasons we cannot fathom, God loves these frail human vessels of ours — every single one of them. If you're going to call yourself a Christian, you have no choice but to do the same.
Helen Alvaré is director of planning and information of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops