Jesus criticized the Pharisees for straining out the gnat but swallowing the camel(Matthew 23:24) : that is, arguing over particular religious or moral issues but losing sight of the bigger picture. Such is the case, it seems, with the Roman Catholic Church's attempt to promote a consistent pro-life stance: the so-called "seamless garment" ethic first articulated by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Although church teaching is clear, we have failed to convince fellow Catholics, much less others, of the sanctity of all life, from conception to natural death and all stages in between.
For example, the church's unequivocal opposition to abortion is well known; yet Catholic women get abortions nearly as much as other women do. Likewise, many Catholics disagree with the church's condemnation of capital punishment. Otherwise loyal Catholics support the war in Iraq even though the pope warned that it would be a defeat for humanity. Personal inconsistencies tear the seamless garment even more. Some Catholics who oppose abortion support capital punishment, while many who oppose war are in favor of legalized abortion.
The seamless garment can only be repaired with threads of compassion. It isn't enough to encourage women to carry their babies to term; mothers need pre- and postnatal care. Without adequate daycare, some women cannot work to feed and clothe their children. Children also have a right to be educated and kept safe. Fighting for workers' rights and affordable housing are also pro-life positions. The challenge is to be consistently pro-life in a society steeped in a "culture of death."
Is it a contradiction for Catholic chaplains to accompany soldiers into battle? Or is this rather a compassionate response to an unfortunate situation? If so, why not be equally compassionate to women who have made the unfortunate choice to terminate their pregnancies? To be consistent, our concern for the well-being of fellow humans cannot stop : even when they make choices that are not in keeping with our own values and beliefs.
Perhaps Catholics can learn something from followers of the Jain religion, who are really pro-life. Jains actually do take care to strain a gnat from their water : not to avoid ritual impurity but to avoid destroying life. For them, even taking the life of vegetable to eat is regrettable albeit necessary. Thus they eat with reverence, conscious of the life lost so that they may live.
Although this may seem extreme to us, the lesson is clear: respect for life begins with the smallest and most vulnerable; but it is not complete or consistent unless it includes respect for all living things : even the lives of our enemies. In this regard, we in the West have far to go and many camels to swallow.