Bishop's Interview: Respecting life from conception to natural death
Editor: Bishop, October is Respect Life Month, which people most commonly associate with the issue of abortion. What does it really mean for a Catholic to respect life and why is it so important?
Bishop Vásquez: Catholics appreciate the sanctity of human life. We know that life must be respected, appreciated and protected from conception until natural death. This comprehensive understanding of human life encompasses the serious issue of abortion, but is broader. The moment of conception is when life is most vulnerable, which is why the church speaks so clearly and strong about the protection we must give to the unborn. However, we must also respect and protect children as they develop, adults as they age and elderly as they near their time of death. We must understand that life is a sacred gift from God; therefore, we have to be very watchful and protective of it at every stage.
Editor: Last year the U.S. bishops did a Call to Prayer for Life, Marriage and Religious Liberty during the Year of Faith. Why did they pinpoint these three things and how is this call to prayer important to us as a society?
Bishop Vásquez: The bishops have been concerned with these issues for a long time. We have been advocating for life since before the Roe v. Wade decision, 40 years ago. The bishops have always been concerned about quality of life issues in the U.S. The bishops have highlighted these three particular aspects because we see them as essential foundation of a sound society. When a society supports, defend and protects life, marriage and religious freedom, the society remains strong and vibrant.
We have witnessed the under appreciation of life in the U.S., a lack of respect for the sanctity of marriage, and the imposed limitation on our religious freedoms. There are true battles taking place to redefine life, marriage and religious freedom at the state and national levels. Certainly abortion is part of this debate, as is euthanasia and other end of life issues.
This summer we saw another attack undermining marriage with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn DOMA and then Proposition 8 in California. These changes in the understanding of marriage in our country remove God from marriage. Catholics believe marriage is God given, meaning a man and a woman come together to form a family. As the U.S. bishops wrote in our 2009 Pastoral Letter on Marriage, "Marriage is not merely a private institution, however. It is the foundation for the family, where children learn the values and virtues that will make good Christians as well as good citizens. The importance of marriage for children and for the upbringing of the next generation highlights the importance of marriage for all society." We must continue to pray for married couples and for the sanctity of marriage.
Finally, the bishops feel we must pray for religious liberty. The recent HHS mandate involves the government imposing rules on religious organizations thereby forcing us to provide coverage for procedures that violate our religious beliefs. The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion; this is not only freedom to worship but freedom of religion means we get to define who we are as a religion. The government doesn’t define us, which it is trying to do with recent legislation.
Therefore, these three areas continue to be of great importance to the bishops. The Call to Prayer for Life, Marriage and Religious Liberty is very important because we depend upon God to help us persevere through this struggle. All of our efforts, which include our advocacy in the legislative process, must begin with prayer.
Editor: Respect for human life is essential to our faith but that doesn’t make it easy to embrace. How can Catholics form their consciences and hearts on what it means to respect life?
Bishop Vásquez: The first thing we have to do is inform ourselves about what Scripture and the church teach us about life at all its stages and development. I encourage people to read Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where we can find a wealth of information on the church’s teaching on the beauty of human life. If we depend on society to teach us about human life, we will discover a completely different understanding from what the church teaches. I would encourage those who have difficulty understanding what the church teaches to speak to priests, deacons, religious or lay people. The diocese also has an excellent Office of Pro-Life Activities and Chaste Living that can provide resources for those interested in learning more about the sanctity of human life. The church is countercultural in many ways; therefore, we have to stand up for what we believe and be ready to defend what we believe.
Lately, I have witnessed our young people doing this, which gives me great hope. They are not simply following the popular voice and trends; they are learning and understanding what the church teaches. This is refreshing! Another sign of hope for me is the closing of the Planned Parenthood in Bryan/College Station and other such clinics in our state. Hopefully, this is a sign of more respect for life in our state.
Editor: Blessed John Paul II called our culture a culture of death. How can parishes and individuals promote the dignity of life in this culture?
Bishop Vásquez: We had this terrible tragedy up in Newtown where these innocent children and adults were killed. This very sad tragedy really made me think as a bishop how much our society does not appreciate life. Of course, not everyone would walk into a school and kill innocent people, but this horrible violence is one example of how persons in our society have succumbed to a culture of death. The culture of death is not just a reference to abortion, but it is also about violence to women, abuse of children, and neglect of the elderly. When people are being taken advantage of and when people are hurt by others, the gift of life is impaired and damaged. We must defend the lives of those whose voices go unheard, especially the unborn, the immigrants and the weak, we must speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. We believe life is a precious gift from God; therefore, we must learn how to appreciate it.
Blessed John Paul II, who was very sick in the last years of his life, was a great witness of life for us. He showed us the dignity of life even in the midst of pain and suffering.
I would encourage our clergy to continue to speak on these issues from the pulpit, in counseling and in the sacrament of confession. We must always speak about these matters with great compassion and understanding. As clergy, we are called to help people understand the dignity of the human person and to offer compassion for those who are sick and for those who are caring for them. As Pope Francis has told us, we must stay close to those who are entrusted to our care.
I also encourage people to go out and serve –– go to a hospital or to a nursing home, visit a hospice center or a homeless shelter. All of these places give us an opportunity to be with people and to surround ourselves with those who are sick, hurting or dying. When we do this, we realize the value and the beauty of all human life and our faith is strengthened as we help those in need of compassion and love.
Editor: In August the Fort Hood shooter was sentenced to death. How should a Catholic look at his crimes and his sentencing in regard to respect for life?
Bishop Vásquez: First of all we have to say that what Major Nidal Hasan did was an evil thing. The fact that so much human life was taken was shocking, and our prayers are with the family members who are left trying to make sense of their lives after losing their loved ones. But does this type of act give us a right to take someone’s life? I think not. Again, I go back to Blessed John Paul II, who advocated strongly against the death penalty. We must remember the persons who commit such heinous crimes never lose their human dignity. Taking the life of a criminal does not compensate for the lives that were lost. Respect for life even means respecting the lives of those who commit violent criminal acts. This is extremely difficult. However, we believe that every life is sacred, and it is only God who can give life and take life.
Editor: What is your prayer for us during Respect Life Month?
Bishop Vásquez: My prayer is that all of us will come to appreciate human life in all of its stages, and that we really appreciate first of all the gift of life that God has given to each of us. In coming to appreciate this gift of life, may we grow in deeper appreciation for the lives of those closest to us: our parents, our siblings, our spouses and our children. May all of us come to appreciate life in all of its states from conception to natural death.