This past weekend, the Montana Catholic Conference hosted a two-day “Affirming the Culture of Life Conference.” In light of Jana Bennett’s recent post on the death penalty and abortion, this conference was a wonderful reminder that being “pro-life” includes so much more than simply standing against abortion. This conference is part of an annual series of conferences “that will serve as forums to raise awareness of some of the most eminent threats to life in this state, as well as to provide a basis to educate Catholics and others on these issues” (Bishop George Leo Thomas). The first of these conferences, held last year, featured Immaculee Ilibagiza, a Rwandan author and survivor of the 1994 genocide who speaks on the power of prayer and forgiveness. The 2010 conference also hosted John Carr, director for the Department of Social Development and World Peace at the US Conference of Catholic bishops, spoke on Catholic Social Teaching and the new federal healthcare legislation.

This year, the conference hosted an ensemble of speakers, each highlighting a different dimension of what it means to be pro-life. Shawn Carney, founder of 40 Days for Life, spoke on Friday night. On Saturday, Wesley Smith, senior fellow in Human Rights and Bioethics and the Discovery Institute, spoke on physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, an especially pertinent issues to many Montanans, since our Supreme Court recently determined that state law protects doctors in Montana from prosecution for assisting in the suicide of patients. Sometime soon, Montana citizens will get to vote on whether we want to legalize PAS in the same way Oregon and Washington have done. Sr. Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, followed with a moving talk on how the pro-life concern must extend to the poor, the imprisoned, and the guilty. Finally, Abby Johnson, former Planned Parenthood director, spoke on abortion.

This was not a conference with a narrow focus. It recognized that attacks on life come in all sorts of different forms. Nevertheless, being “pro-life” means never saying that this particular life has any less dignity than any other life–whether that life looks like a couple of cells in the womb, or a dying cancer patient, or even a hardened unrepentant killer behind bars. All life has dignity. All life deserves protection.

Sister Helen Prejean perhaps put it most clearly. “A culture of death,” she said, “tells us that we have to choose.” He have to choose between the victim and perpetrator, or the woman and her unborn baby, or even whether it is best for ourselves to continue living or to choose death. “A culture of life,” continued Sister Helen, “is both/and. A culture of life says you don’t have to choose. You can, in fact, love both.”

Hundreds of Montanans (and a few out-of-staters) showed up for this conference. This was a beautiful testimony to people like us at who grow frustrated at the “cafeteria-style selectiveness” on life issues we find among many of our Catholic peers. The conference also provided another “chink” in the story, as Jana mentioned in her post, that affirming different life issue is about being “liberal” or “conservative.” It was encouraging to see that the applause for Sister Helen was just as loud and just as frequent as it was for Abby Johnson. It was also encouraging to see two bishops–Bishop Michael Warfel and Bishop George Leo Thomas–stand up and promote a consistent ethic of life, and demand that the Catholic faithful under their guidance do the same. Montana may be a distant rural state to many, but it is a great beacon of hope to Catholics and to the world that affirming and working for a consistent ethic of life is indeed possible–and necessary.