Recently I had occasion to spend time with a man who had been a prisoner of war for more than seven years in Vietnam, five of them in solitary confinement. During those years, Jeremiah Denton was severely tortured, both physically and psychologically. He lost more than 90 pounds and was reduced to little more than skin and bones (some broken). I asked him how he managed to survive and he uttered one word — “Abba” — which, in Aramaic, means father.

When Denton was finally released, he became an admiral, a distinguished U.S. senator, and a champion for the rights of the unborn. The America he returned to was different than the one he had left. The culture had changed dramatically with the “sexual revolution” of the '60s and all the attendant social evils of contraception, “free sex,” abortion, pornography, divorce, child abuse, and homelessness. Denton was shocked by what he saw in the States in the early '80s. A culture of death had replaced a culture of life.

It occurred to me that his awareness of God's “fatherhood” was not only a cause of his survival, but is also a solid foundation for restoring the culture of life. “You are my son, today I have begotten you,” the second Psalm reads. “You are my son” are words addressed to Christ — but also to all baptized Christians. Through baptism we have received the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit which makes us adopted children of God, enabling us to cry out, “Abba.”

Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God. His filiation from God the Father is direct, unique, and unrepeatable. Yet, the reality of our filiation as “adopted” children of God is as real as our personhood. In fact, it is what gives us nobility. In his last will and testament, Jesus asks his Father: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” (Jn 17)

In St. John's Gospel, Chapters 14-17, Jesus uses the word “Father” more than 45 times. Jesus' will is that we should remain united to the Father through him. The unity with the Father that Christ asked for us, is the gift he gave us in dying, rising again, and establishing his Church with the sacraments that bring us closer to God. His adopting us as redeemed sons and daughters accomplishes that union.

Our Divine Sonship

Awareness of the reality that we are indeed beloved children of God has consequences for our lives and our attitudes toward living. For our spiritual lives, awareness of this reality will make us “alive to God.” We will experience the joy of living even in sorrow and travail, because through it all we remain children of God. This is the cause of our joy, our cheerfulness, our gratitude, our trust, and our asceticism. To nurture our awareness of God's fatherhood, we should set aside time to consider our relationship to God, filling ourselves with an awareness of our divine filiation, which is the foundation of true piety.

We will also begin to see in others the image and likeness of God. By creating us in his image and likeness, God takes delight in our existence. We are the only creatures roaming the earth made in his image. When we see others as beloved children of God also, the virtues of justice and charity will enter into our lives in practical ways. When an employer ceases to see his employees as mere bodies or “instruments of production” and begins to see souls created by God for his glory, then the American competitive and individualistic spirit will be tempered by charity and the bonds of unity.

For civil society, the implications of our awareness of being beloved children of God are obvious. Individuals bonded through marriage will see in their spouse a person worthy of committed service through love. Married couples will see children as the fruits of their cooperation with God's creative powers. Human sexuality will be understood as blessed participation in the creative power of God. The unitive and procreative aspects of conjugal love will be viewed with awe and appreciation. Children will recognize in their parents the image of God's fatherly (and motherly) love, and will be formed in the understanding that true love involves a spirit of service. They will come to understand that their nobility as beloved children of God is the source of happiness, and they will grow in the human and supernatural virtues.

Our government will truly be by the people, for the people, and of the people, losing its tendency to be oppressive and intrusive. Our leaders will see power as an opportunity to serve, not as a podium for personal glory. As citizens, we will recognize not only our rights, but also our responsibilities. In the awareness of our being beloved children of God, our friendships with God, family, and friends will be based on trust and confidence.

There is no perfect human being on earth — we all make mistakes, we all sin. Scripture tells us that the just man sins seven times a day. What about the rest of us? We must learn to see even sin in the context of our divine filiation.

Lessons of the Prodigal Son

The story of the prodigal son is enormously encouraging. The prodigal son was from a noble family with means and a good name. However, as in many families, one or another child finds the temptation to leave overwhelming. The prodigal son went off with his wealth, his prestige, his good looks, and his honor to live the good life. This is tantamount to a young man in suburban America, from a well-to-do family, riding off in his BMW to go live it up on the Riviera. After a period of dissolute living, the prodigal son became aware of his own debasement.

He felt the wounds his adopted lifestyle had left on his soul and body. Rembrandt portrays the prodigal son as torn, maimed, and forlorn, yet his sword is still hanging from his tattered clothes. The sword in Rembrandt's Prodigal Son represents the nobility of his family. The sword is his awareness of his continued filiation with his father's noble home. Recognizing that the relationship had not changed — despite his sins — he went back to his father, out of a deep trust in him.

The return of the prodigal son is what we experience whenever we confess our sins in the sacrament of reconciliation. We are restored to our dignity as children of God. While the dignity of our relationship as sons and daughters of God may be lost through sin, we can never lose our filial relationship to God, because the relationship does not depend on our virtue. Sons and daughters remain sons and daughters throughout life, even though they may exercise their freedom to “leave home.” It was precisely the awareness of that relationship which enabled the prodigal son to return to his father — he had kept the sword of his filiation and remembered the nobility of his father.

Compare the story of the prodigal son, the sad story of Judas' betrayal, and the account of Peter's denial of Christ. All three sinned. By denying Christ, they left home. Judas failed to recognize his relationship as a son and, in despair, he hung himself. The prodigal son and Peter recognized their sins, but also recognized the unconditional love of the Father and Jesus, and so each wept and returned home. Soon after Peter's repentance, he became “the Rock” on which Christ built his Church.

These events, described so vividly in the Gospels, provide a powerful lesson for living and are repeated in our own time. Take, for example, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). He admits to aborting more than 70,000 babies — some his own children. At some point he recognized, through God's grace, his horrible crimes against innocent human life. He repented, trusted in God's limitless mercy, and was baptized a Catholic. Today, “Bernie” is at the forefront of the pro-life movement. The same thing happened to Norma McCorvey, otherwise known as Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade. McCorvey was working in a Planned Parenthood clinic when a Christian minister befriended her. Through their friendship, she became a baptized Christian and ended up joining those fighting for the rights of the unborn. Despite McCorvey's history, the minister recognized her hidden dignity as a beloved daughter of God.

In our time, the war between life and death confronts us every day. Teenagers kill other teenagers. Ayoung woman delivers her own baby at a prom, kills the baby, then goes on to dance the night away. We have enshrined the killing of innocent human beings under the bogus constitutional phrase of “a woman's right to choose.” Partial-birth abortions which many have rightly termed “infanticide,” is supported by the highest office-holder in our land. Euthanasia, “eugenic engineering,” “fetal reduction,” and forced sterilization of unsuspecting women, are just a few among many atrocities that hardly phase us.

Like Hitler's Germany?

The parallels between our society and that of Germany, even before Hitler, are striking. The most influential book published in Germany in the first quarter century was The Justification of the Destruction of Life Devoid of Value. Its co-authors were a distinguished jurist, Karl Binding, and a prominent psychiatrist, Alfred Hoche. Neither Binding nor Hoche had ever heard of Adolf Hitler or the Nazis.

Nor, in all likelihood, had Hitler ever read their book — he didn't have to. The ideas expressed in their book were from the “best” minds of the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic — from physicians, social scientists, and jurists. Perhaps, with the best secular intentions, they wished to improve the lot, socially and genetically, of the German people, by getting rid of the unfit and the unwanted. They had no concept of the fact that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. The death machines were alive and operating in Germany long before Hitler arrived on the scene. He merely directed the culture of death as it obliterated the Jewish people, Catholics and other Christians, and others it deemed undesirable.

Once the principle that innocent human life can be destroyed for whatever reason gains acceptance juridically, medically, and socially, it does not take a prophet to predict what will happen next. It is not difficult to imagine an electorate or a court 10 or 50 years from now who would favor getting rid of useless old people, the homeless, mentally handicapped children, anti-social blacks, illegal Hispanics, gypsies, Jews, homosexuals, and the list goes on and on.

The only remedy to such a future is a growing awareness that we are beloved children of God, created in his image and likeness, unconditionally loved, and gifted with a nobility that cannot be taken away. The only unforgivable sin is the sin that does not want to be forgiven. The only danger for the beloved child of God is to turn his back on the Father's love, or throw away the sword which represents his noble home with the Father.

A growing awareness of our nobility as sons and daughters of God holds the promise for the new millennium, which could become, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “a civilization of love in a culture that loves life.”

Robert Best, president of the Culture of Life Foundation, writes from Washington,