Who Is My Neighbor?
Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The scholar of the law asked, "Who is my neighbor?" And we're told that he asked this "in order to justify himself". That reminds me of something the Catholic writer Mark Shea once said: People ask questions for one of two reasons: We can ask a question either because we want to know the truth, or we can ask because we're hoping to avoid the truth. So, for example, someone might ask "What does the Church say about our duty to pay taxes? Or, he might ask, "it's not a big deal if I fudge a little on my taxes, right?" Those two questions are about the same issue, but betray much different attitudes. Well, the Lawyer here is asking the question "who is my neighbor" so as to find a "loophole" in the moral law.
And Jesus shows us in the parable that there is no loophole. Our neighbor is anyone we encounter who is in need, anyone who is downtrodden, anyone who is weak, or cannot speak for himself. Our neighbors, in fact, are all around us. The weaker or more defenseless a person is, the more he is our neighbor.
If we want to know what loving our neighbor looks like, if we want to know how we're supposed to live that out in the real world, we have to look to Christ. We must look to the Gospel, to the teaching and example of Christ. We must "put on Christ", as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans. That means Christ must guide our judgments, Christ must guide our priorities, Christ must guide our values, and Christ must guide our decisions.
We must look to Christ, and to the Church that Christ Himself founded. We say that the Church is the Body of Christ. That means that when the Church teaches, she does so with the voice and with the mind of Christ. So all of us have a duty to form our consciences, to form our judgments about what is right and wrong, and to make decisions, according to the teaching of the Church.
Now, whenever we talk about making moral decisions, we get into an area that moral theologians call "prudential judgment". Prudential judgments are decisions about how we will go about loving our neighbor. Prudential judgments are about deciding what is the best way to carry out our duty or fulfill our vocation. Here's an example: Those of you who are parents, you know that you have a duty to feed your children. It's part of your God-given responsibility to make sure that your kids get enough to eat. You make prudential judgments about when your kids will eat, and what they will eat. You can make a prudential judgment that you will not give your kids chocolate cake and ice cream for dinner, but you can't legitimately make a choice not to feed your kids at all.
Most of the time, if we get into trouble, morally speaking, it's because we decide either to create a loophole for ourselves in the area of who our neighbor is, or we get mixed up in what is or isn't the proper area for prudential judgment.
Today, our society has decided, as a matter of law, that a whole group of persons is not our neighbor, and because of that, they can be deprived of the most basic right, the right to life. I'm speaking of unborn children, pre-born human beings who, through the injustice of abortion, we strip of the most basic human dignity, because they are unseen and unheard.
Those who try to justify abortion come up with clever rationalizations - but they're just like that scholar of the law in Jesus' parable - trying to avoid the truth. They do so in the name of a woman's "right". But what other right is built upon the bodies of the innocent? They do so in the name of "compassion". But abortion is most certainly not compassionate to the child whose life is ended in the womb. And for the woman who has one, abortion is also a cruel and perverse kind of compassion. What sort of compassion is it to tell a woman that the solution to her problems lies in the death of her child? That is why we must always offer the mercy and forgiveness of Christ to women who have had abortions: most often they have been frightened, duped, pressured, or even forced into having the abortion; In doing so, abortion robs them of their dignity as women.
But in addition to denying that the unborn child is our neighbor, the defenders of abortion also try to confuse the issue by making it seem equal in importance to other issues. Unfortunately, there are a number of politicians, some of whom even call themselves Catholic, running for office right now who are doing this: confusing issues in which there is room for prudential judgment with those in which there isn't. You see, there is no such thing as a prudential judgment in favor of abortion. Abortion is always wrong. The Church teaches, and it's really just common sense, that the right to life is the most basic right. So Pope John Paul II has said that all other rights are meaningless if the right to life is not protected and defended. A prudential judgment for abortion makes about as much sense as a prudential judgment to starve your children.
Now things that are always wrong, things in which there is no room for prudential judgment, have a higher moral priority, and a greater moral weight, than things that do. Again, this is just common sense. A murderer cannot excuse himself by saying "I know I killed someone, but hey, I always gave generously to the United Way". But these pro-choice politicians try to do precisely that. Some pro-choice Catholics in Congress released a document in the spring claiming that their support of things like relief to needy families or raising the minimum wage balances out or even outweighs the fact that they support abortion-on-demand. I find it particularly ironic that these same politicians also mention their support of increased funding for Head Start programs for poor students as one of the things in their "plus" column. Apparently they see no contradiction between funding programs to help poor children, while at the same time assuring that many of those poor children will never be born at all on account of their support for abortion.
Of course, such claims by these politicians are just smoke and mirrors. Even the trump card issue they bring out, opposition to the death penalty, is smoke and mirrors. Why? Because here there is also a clear difference between an issue of prudential judgment, and one in which there isn't. As I said before, abortion is always and absolutely wrong. There is never a legitimate choice in favor of it. But the Church's teaching against the death penalty is not so absolute. The Church teaches that the death penalty is usually not warranted, and indeed is to be used only as a last resort when there is no other way to defend society from a criminal. But the Church acknowledges (you can read it in the Catechism, numbers 2266, 2267) that the State has the right, in limited circumstances, to enact the death penalty. And that decision, about whether any particular instance is one of those rare occurences warranting the death penalty, is a prudential judgment. So in comparing abortion to the death penalty, you have on the one hand something that is always wrong, something that can never rightly be chosen, something in which there is no room for prudential judgment. And against that you have something which, albeit rarely, can nonetheless be legitimately chosen, and in which there is room for prudential judgment. The difference between abortion and capital punishment is so great as to be not a difference of degree, but a difference of kind. They are apples and oranges.
That is why the Holy Father and the bishops of the United States have said that abortion is the foremost issue confronting us today. In fact, last year the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome said that whether you are a politician or a private citizen, one's position on other issues, such as helping the poor, the minimum wage, or funding social security, no matter how "right", they may be, "can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life."
Our Lord makes it clear that there are no loopholes in acknowledging and caring for our neighbor. The foundation of any just and moral society is safeguarding the lives of the most innocent and vulnerable. We must hold ourselves to this moral standard, and hold our political leaders accountable to it, especially those who claim to share our faith. In the words of Moses from our first reading, "this command... is not too mysterious and remote" for us. "It is something very near...already in [our] hearts". We have only to carry it out.