Respect for Human Life
“Respect Life.” We see it all around us, often as a kind of slogan. The phrase appears on bumper stickers, billboards, march signs, and the like. If one peruses Article 5 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which focuses on the Fifth Commandment “Thou shall not kill,” he or she will encounter an incredible range of topics: dignity of every human person, questions about self-defense, validity/invalidity of the death penalty, homicide (intentional and unintentional), abortion, euthanasia, suicide, war, peace, and the list goes on.
Very often, discussions along these lines tend to split the one issue into many. We can frequently make the mistake of treating “life issues” as unrelated or, at best, loosely affiliated. I submit to you that while not all life issues carry the same gravity (ex. Abortion and the death penalty), human life and its sanctity is fundamentally one issue.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church opens its treatment of respect for all human life with these words in paragraph 2258, taken from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Donum Vitae:
Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.
God made us for himself. We were meant to be the capstone of his wonderful act of creation, creatures with rational souls, with divinely-crafted intellects and wills that would enable us to live out a vocation to be the stewards of all things God had made. Our first parents’ freely chosen rejection of this authentic humanity distorted human nature itself, and what they then pass on to us through generation after generation is a warped shell of what we were meant to inherit.
And so, as a result of sin, we actually need to learn and to struggle in order to respect the dignity of human life. I tend to think this should have been a given. I think God’s original intention was for us to operate from a baseline of nothing but love and respect for him and for others. The fact that we even have to study, discuss, argue and convince God’s children that they are God’s children who always deserve love, respect, and protection of their life and dignity is a direct result of sin’s handiwork!
With so many violations of the dignity of human life to consider, I’ll just use euthanasia an example. Euthanasia comes from two Greek words, eu (“good”) and thanatos (“death”). “Good death.” Who could argue with that, right? The Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t mince words though when it comes to presenting the Catholic Church’s take on euthanasia. Affirming that it is never under any circumstances morally permissible, paragraph 2277 states:
Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to this living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.
That last part is very important, because if one thoroughly investigates specific cases of euthanasia, such “good faith” justifications are innumerable. Let me be very clear here so as to avoid any misunderstandings. I am in no way downplaying the gravity of suffering, especially when we’re talking about loved ones who have a terminal illness or some kind of traumatic injury that brings with it unimaginable suffering. My own family has encountered such suffering on several occasions, and I know that sometimes the pain doesn’t even go away after your loved one has passed away.
So what’s the problem here? What if I want to end my own life early, on my own terms when I get that terrible diagnosis? It will be so much better, won’t it? I won’t have to deal with all the pain. My family won’t have to spend God knows how much money on my medical care. They’ll be spared the burden of seeing me going through such torment. It’s the best way to go, isn’t it? Put simply, no. It isn’t. It’s a terrible, radically misguided and destructive path to go down. How could you say that, Mike?! How could the Church be so rigid and so cold on this?
There’s something we absolutely must come to grips with that is oftentimes completely overlooked or dismissed here. It’s not about you. It’s also not about me. It’s about the treatment we deserve as a recognition of who and what we are! We never have the right to directly kill an innocent human being, ourselves included, as a means or as an end, even if the intentions promoting such a course of action are sincerely innocent and well-meaning. Something I have experienced firsthand and that I am sad to say doesn’t seem to enter into this discussion enough is the other kinds of healing that can, and very often do, come about precisely through human trauma. Death has a way of reshuffling the deck. When we face our own mortality, things can get real really quickly. That grudge I’ve held for twenty years doesn’t seem so important anymore. My angry and resentful rejection of my dad when I was younger is suddenly something I can bring myself to ask forgiveness from him for when he is dying. Things we could never quite say are now sayable. All of these incredibly important, oftentimes utterly transformative and even live-saving opportunities are erased forever when we pursue the evil of euthanasia. As usual, our sinful selfishness routinely creeps in to blind us to such things. As horrendous as my own pain might be, it is simply not more important than faithfully trusting that God can bring some unimaginable light out of the most unimaginable darkness (if we let him!)
I think it’s essential then for us, when considering the subject of the dignity and sanctity of every human life, to take a good hard look at suffering. Suffering never seems to really end, does it? No matter what we do, no matter how good we try to be, there is still cancer. There is still Alzheimer’s. There is still ALS and diabetes and SIDS and cystic fibrosis and multiple sclerosis. There are still accidents and injuries and abuse and terrorism and war. What are we to do when we reach this realization? How are we to process the reality of suffering? How can we make sense of suffering and develop a healthy and holy faith in God and authentic love for our fellow human beings made in God’s image and likeness?
Look to Christ. Christ, the Second Vatican Council reminds us in Gaudium et Spes 22, “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” Jesus Christ is the incarnate blueprint for the human person. Imagine that you’re an artist and you sketch the perfect illustration for your masterpiece sculpture. But now, imagine that this perfect sketch, this perfect blueprint, actually became the sculpture directly. The sculpture is actually the flawless embodiment of the perfect idea you had in your mind when you started. All analogies fall short, but this might be helpful. God the Father dreamed up this creature called “the Human Being.” He made them from scratch. But then they rejected him and twisted their very nature into a horrific mess of selfishness, rage, jealousy, greed, lust, and misery. God then makes himself into the perfect man. The Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, takes on real flesh, bone, sinew, blood. He has eyes and ears and teeth and muscles. He has hands and feet and a human heart. Above all, he perfectly fulfills the purpose of man from the beginning: to love and serve God and others through a lifelong gift of self. Christ shows that we were meant to give, not to take. Love solves everything, as Pope Saint John Paul II writes in his first encyclical letter Redemptor Hominis (10):
Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This, as has already been said, is why Christ the Redeemer "fully reveals man to himself".
We focus on the distorted, mangled human nature far more than the true humanity shown to us in the person of Christ. We look around the world and we see pain, suffering, deceit, the betrayal of those we trusted, the ease with which even the best of us can sometimes fall into the worst of behavior. Seeing these things so frequently, it is not surprising how easy it is to ask, “Why should I respect human life? What’s so special about human beings, anyway?” The answer, though frequently difficult for us to see (impossible, in fact, to see adequately but through the eyes of faith) is this: MAN IS MADE IN THE IMAGE OF GOD. Remember that. In point of fact, the way we perceive and treat each other says a lot about the way we perceive and treat the God who made and sustains all creation!