Foretelling a Nation’s Future:
History shows us that the life of a nation can be summed up, and even illustrated, in the life of its citizens. The fate of the Roman Empire, for instance, was told through the lives of two of its highest ranking members in the first century: Seneca and Petronius. These men were not only confidants of the notorious Emperor Nero, but they were products of their own culture.
It just so happen that Roman society in their day had sanctioned the taking of innocent life for the purposes of entertainment and convenience. To varying degrees, Seneca and Petronius bought into the culture of death. Yet, the same reckless abandon they had for human life would claim their own lives.
To be sure, the lives of Seneca and Petronius are highly symbolic, not only for an empire that was destined to fall, but for America whose destiny has yet to be determined. Indeed, their lives tell a story…a story about the mortality of nations.
First Century Rome:
Take for instance Seneca the Roman philosopher. In the year was 60 A.D. he decided to go to the show; not a play in the theatre but a show of a real life and death drama. He didn’t know what he was getting into. He had heard about the gladiator shows at the Coliseum, but he wanted to see for himself what the hype was all about. Thinking that he was going to be entertained and distracted from the burdens of everyday life, he instead witnessed something he would never forget. He discovered that his beloved Rome – the home of the most “civilized” empire yet to date – gave no thought to human dignity during its state-sponsored entertainment. In his own words:
“I come home more greedy, more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a midday exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation…But it was quite the contrary…These noon fighters are sent out with no armor of any kind; they are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain…In the morning they throw men to the lions; at noon they throw them to the spectators.”
Another prominent figure during that time was Petronius, a contemporary of Seneca, and a fellow advisor of the Emperor Nero, who had a different opinion of these shows. With a feverish anticipation, he wrote to a friend reminding him not to forget about the gladiator show; after all, there was a new shipment of fresh blood. He could barely contain his joy as he writes:
“Don't forget, there's a big gladiator show coming up the day after tomorrow. Not the same old fighters either. They've got a fresh shipment in. There's not a slave in that batch. Just wait. There'll be cold steel for the crowd, no quarter and the amphitheatre will end up looking like a slaughterhouse. There's even a girl who fights from a chariot.”
Petronius was a product of his culture. But Seneca was too. Although he was horrified at the sight of gladiators killing each other to entertain the mob, he nevertheless bought into the culture of death. In fact, Seneca endorsed infanticide without the slightest hesitation. He once said, “We drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal. Yet it is not anger, but reason that separates the harmful from the sound.” As for Petronius, he was an unabashed sponsor of human cruelty through and through. He had no scruples about the moral decadence that surrounded him.
These two men failed to realize, as did most at the time, that when even one person’s human dignity is violated or ignored – whether it be a gladiator or an infant – then it is a loss for humanity…a loss for them. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the culture of death caught up with both of these men. Indeed, Seneca and Petronius were forced to commit suicide by their boss, Emperor Nero; an emperor whom they faithfully served.
Twenty-first Century America:
Seneca and Petronius are illustrations of how a people can endorse the killing of human life when it suits their purposes. But when the moral evil of taking innocent life is let out of the cage, it inevitably consumes those who set it loose.
Germany learned this painful lesson in 1945 when it was virtually destroyed by Allied Forces at the end of World War II. In the 1930s, the medical community in Germany endorsed the widespread practice of euthanasia. Soon thereafter, the government ordered the killing and deportation of the Jews. Indeed, the culture of death was alive and well in Germany in the 1930s and the early part of the 1940s. Yet, it eventually consumed the German people through the brutality of war. Their country was reduced to ruble.
What happened in pagan Rome and Nazi Germany is happening to America. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court made abortion legal in all fifty states. The pre-born child was no longer considered a person vested with human dignity. But the erosion of human rights was hastened when the U.S. Supreme Court expelled God from our schools with the banning of prayer and reading the bible in 1962-63.
What the American people – including Christians – failed to appreciate at the time is that the suppression of Christian religion is but the prelude to human rights violations. The greatest guarantor of human dignity that the world has ever known is a well established belief that every human person is created by God, for God and in the likeness of God. As such, the person is – for all intents and purposes – the property of God with inalienable rights. And when this divine principle is enshrined into law, even the State is bound to respect it.
This is why leaving God out of public debate on abortion, as some Catholics propose, is a big mistake. Denying one group of people the right to live is tantamount to denying God his rights. God has his rights and they should be defended as such. Indeed, the State that legalizes abortion, the doctor who performs the abortion and the parent who opts for aborting his or her own child, all play the part of God. And when people play God in deciding who lives and who dies, the act of taking innocent life becomes a Pandora’s Box.
The culture of death, like the brutality of war, will not make the distinction between the guilty and the innocent or between the powerful and the weak. Like Seneca and Petronius who supported the culture of death when it suited their purposes, the mercilessness of that same culture will consume even its most zealous advocates. Under this dark shadow, no one individual or nation is safe; not even America.
But if America is to be spared from the fate of pagan Rome and Nazi Germany, the rights of God will have to be reintroduced into public discourse on life issues. Without him at the center of it, the protection of human rights doesn’t stand a chance. Indeed, no abstract natural law argument – by itself – will save us from the culture of death.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.