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Tommy Baby and Irv

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February 2010

For years Fr. Tom Fratus faithfully served the faithful of St. Peter’s in the Loop in downtown Chicago. The Franciscan friar was a reverent celebrant, gentle confessor, and engaging homilist. “Take Him with you wherever you go” was his signature sign-off at Mass. Fr. Tom died in his 70s, way too soon for a heart so young.

Every so often Fr. Tom mentioned his friend Irv. Although the two shared a friendship, they did not share a faith. Irv was a committed non-believer, a devoted atheist. “When they plant you, Tommy Baby, it’s all over,” was Irv’s response to things religious. With that comment, Fr. Tom would lean thisclose to the microphone, and with a twinkle in his eyes and smile on his face softly say, “Won’t he be surprised!”

In his book, The Audacity of Hope, then-Senator Barack Obama touched on things religious. He said that in our pluralistic democracy, religious-minded people must translate their beliefs into universal values. “If I want others to listen to me [on abortion], then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to all faiths, including those with no faith at all.” Apparently, now-President Obama sees abortion as a religious issue only, one driven by the religious right. As his policies demonstrate, he has been unable, maybe even unwilling, to find the connection to the universal. But it’s there.

Just ask the Irvs of the world. Many atheists and agnostics firmly hold to the pro-life belief that human life has inherent dignity from the moment of conception. They are willing to see what science now allows us all to see. Medical technology has given us breathtaking views of the developing human baby. It puts to rest the error of calling a developing baby just a mass of cells or a blob of tissue. Frankly, if that description fits them, it fits us, too.

But many atheists and agnostics see beyond the science. They hold that there is inherent value to human life. For them, killing a human at any stage is immoral. Yes, immoral. Atheists and agnostics live under a moral code. They believe in the natural law written on every human heart since the beginning of time. They just don’t believe that it comes from God (won’t they be surprised!). Regardless, they remind us of something very important. Abortion isn’t wrong because the Church says so. Abortion was wrong long before the Church existed, even long before God gave Moses the Commandments. It is wrong because it violates the universally held right to life.

Unfortunately, some in our Church have lost their way on the issue of abortion. Frances Kissling, head of the abortion rights group Catholics for a Free Choice, claims that the moral status of the unborn is linked to the infusion of a soul. Based on musings of Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Augustine that infusion happens after conception, she claims that Catholics may form their own moral views on abortion. Notre Dame theology professor Rev. Richard McBrien writes that an unborn’s rights strengthen as pregnancy advances. According to McBrien, that’s why the Church so strongly opposes partial birth abortion. He claims that in considering the morality of abortion, valid distinctions exist between a fertilized egg, zygote, embryo, fetus, and a baby.

Both are wrong. The Church’s view on abortion is not based on the infusion of a soul. In its 1974 declaration, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that the differing historical opinions on the subject “did not introduce any doubt about the illicitness of abortion.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that since the first century the Church has affirmed the evil of abortion: “This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.” (No. 2271). And there is no basis for a sliding scale of protection based on an unborn’s physical development. “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.” (No. 2270).

Of course, all of that is Church-talk, apparently unconvincing to the President and others. But even atheists and agnostics would fully agree with it. The reason is simple: when we put conditions on the value of life, then we create opportunities to devalue life. Think that it won’t happen? It already has. Years ago, Dred Scott wanted freedom. That doesn’t seem like asking for so much. But our own Supreme Court disagreed. Scott had these conditions: he was black, and a slave to boot. That made him no more than property controlled by his master’s wishes, not his own. More recently there was a group of people bearing names like Horowitz and Goldstein. They, too, suffered from a condition. Adolph Hitler and his followers couldn’t see their inherent value, and they devised a plan to solve that problem. We know what happened.

And, of course, the devaluation of life is happening today. No soul? No value. Too young? Too bad! And so far, over 52 million have been killed in our country alone. They had this condition, you see. They weren’t like us; they were unborn. It won’t stop there. As we race to ration medical care, more value judgments will be made. Babies born with defects will be denied care ⎯ too expensive. The elderly will meet the same fate. Their value is behind them. Think it won’t happen? Just watch.

Whether black, Jew, old, young, even unborn, we all have something in common. Life. That is the universal value, the universal truth. It starts at conception, and it is worth protecting to the max. How can anyone be surprised about that?

Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, where they raise their six kids.

© Paul V. Esposito 2010. Culture of Life. Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted. Comments? Visit us at

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