Kathleen Parker

Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the U.S. has afforded the American media and others an opportunity to remind us that the Catholic Church is "out of step" with modern times.

That is both a criticism and compliment -- praising with faint damnation.

What exactly about modern times would compel a pope to change his institutional mind about the fundamental belief in, say, the dignity of all human life?

The central life issue is, of course, abortion, about which even a majority of American Catholics (58 percent) differ from the church's view. Other related concerns include embryo-destructive research, cloning and assisted suicide.

The Catholic Church persists in opposing all of the above, insisting that life begins at conception, all life has value, no human being has the right to terminate the life of another. Case closed.

And, really, who would insist otherwise? In the abstract, few. In practice, millions.

Though we know that life biologically begins at conception, we've decided to disagree about when that life becomes "human."

And, though we sort of believe that all life has value, our actions suggest that we think imperfect life has less value. Increasingly, Down syndrome babies today are terminated, for instance.

If we quantify human life only according to productivity, then imperfect life inarguably is less valuable. But is it less human? Nazi eugenicists thought so. But measuring productivity requires a detached calculation -- and, inevitably, bureaucratic enforcement -- that defines inhuman.

This is not, by the way, a judgment of people who have made difficult choices. None of us really knows which path we would take until presented with the intersection that forces such contemplations.

Finally, all agree that no human being has the right to take another's life except in self-defense. Since most abortions are for reasons other than the mother's health, our current practices are possible only if the unborn are considered "not human."

Keeping that definition alive is the trick. Human or not? Who decides?

A majority of Americans are comfortable with the view that a woman, her doctor and her God should decide. But what if there were irrefutable proof that a fetus at conception is fully human? Would we then feel that government has a role in protecting unborn life?

These questions are especially tricky for Catholics. For those who side with the pope, the answer is clear: If life is a gift of the creator, then only the creator can be the ultimate arbiter of conception (though the church does allow for limiting and spacing babies on the basis of informed conscience, just not through artificial means).

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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