This article was adapted from Bishop Barron’s homily for the 2024 Respect Life Sunday.
Tom Holland’s magnificent book Dominion develops in detail what amounts to a very simple proposition—namely, that Christianity is responsible for many of the central values that we take for granted and that we assume to be universal. In point of fact, he avers, our insistence upon the dignity of the individual, fundamental human rights, the principle of equality, and perhaps above all that the poor, the marginalized, and the victimized ought to be specially cherished, flows from basic Christian convictions.
What prompted Holland to investigate this claim initially was his extensive work in the history of ancient Rome. The longer and more deeply he looked at Roman society, the stranger it seemed, the less like our own time. And the more he studied the great heroes of Rome, the more alien and morally problematic they appeared. To give just one example among many, he urges us to consider perhaps the most impressive of ancient Roman personalities, Julius Caesar. Eager to enhance his political reputation, Caesar embarked on a military campaign in Gaul (present-day France). His remarkable success in subduing this land and making it a Roman province served to cover him in glory and became the subject of his book The Gallic Wars, which is read to this day. But what is rarely remarked upon is the staggering fact that in the course of this conquest, Caesar killed, by conservative estimate, one million people and enslaved another million or so more. Now, Caesar had a boatload of enemies in Rome who suspected him of lusting after kingly power. But what Holland finds fascinating is that none of his opponents were scandalized by his murderous rampage through Gaul. In fact, all of Rome praised him for it. So the question arises: Why would we today consider someone who killed and enslaved on such a massive scale a scoundrel while even the best and brightest in ancient Roman society considered Caesar a hero? The answer, in a word, is Christianity.
What the early Christians brought to Roman culture was the belief in the one God who made every human being in his image and likeness and who thereby endowed them with rights, freedom, and dignity. Moreover, the Christians taught, the Creator God became human and went willingly to the very limits of suffering and degradation, in St. Paul’s words, “accepting even death, death on a cross.” They proclaimed a savior who was a victim of Roman tyranny and whom God raised from the dead. And by this proclamation, they brought all the tyrannized, all of the victimized, all of the weak and forgotten from the margins to the center. These beliefs were, of course, initially regarded as absurd, and the early Christians were brutally persecuted for them. But over time, and through the witness and practice of courageous people, these beliefs soaked into the fabric of Western society. So deeply did they penetrate our consciousness that we came, as Holland has argued, to take them for granted and to mistake them for general humanistic values.
Now, why is all this important to us today? We live in a time when the Christian faith is rather regularly denigrated by those in the upper echelons of elite society, in the universities, and in the media. Moreover, armies of people, especially the young, are disaffiliating from the churches and ceasing to engage in religious ritual and practice. Harmless enough, you might think, or even to the advantage of a society reaching maturity through secularization? Think again. As Christian faith and praxis evanesce, the values that Christianity has inculcated in our culture evanesce as well. Cut flowers may bloom for a time once they’ve been ripped from the soil and placed in water, but they will fade soon enough. We delude ourselves if we think that the values instilled in us by Christianity will long survive the demise of Christianity itself.
Signs of the emergence of a neo-paganism in fact abound. In many states in our country, as well as in Canada and many European countries, a regime of euthanasia holds sway. When elderly or sick people become inconvenient, they can and should be eliminated. And, of course, in most countries in the West, when a child in the womb is judged to be a problem, he or she can be aborted at any point in pregnancy, up to the moment of birth. In my home state of Minnesota, a proposal has been made to enshrine this “right” to the murder of the unborn in the constitution. How like this is, by the way, to the ancient Roman practice of exposing unwanted newborns to the elements and the animals. And how fascinating, in light of Tom Holland’s analysis, that the early Christians got the attention of the environing Roman culture precisely by their willingness to rescue and take in these abandoned babies.
So, what is the needful thing? Christians must raise their voices in protest against the culture of death. And they must do so by claiming and publicly proclaiming the values that come from their faith. For too long, believers have been cowed into silence by the insinuation that religion is a “private” matter. Nonsense. Christian values have informed our society from the beginning and have provided the coherent moral framework that most of us still take for granted. Now is not the time for quietude. It is time for us to shout our convictions from the rooftops.