For the Catholic Church in the United States, October is Respect Life Month. There is little confusion in the world when it comes to the Catholic Church’s stance on what we collectively refer to as “Life Issues”. Most people know that the Church is pro-life, and that whenever the life of a person is compromised we stand in opposition. Perhaps the most prominent life issue that is profiled in the United States is that of the protection/taking of the life of the unborn. The abortion debate has been greatly politicized in many countries, but across nations and continents, the Catholic Church is known as a bulwark in defence of the unborn. A quick perusal of any church website concerned with life issues reveals the breadth of our concerns.
The principle of upholding the life and dignity of the human person is not unique to our faith. In the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and his colleagues incorporated the principle with the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” According to our nation's founding documents, upon this principle are built the rights and obligations of every person.
What many people may be unaware of, however, is that this foundational principle underpins the worldview of our faith. The Catholic understanding of the person, our understanding of the nature of our relationships and of our rights and responsibilities, the whole of Catholic morality is grounded on the foundational principle that human life is sacred. The human person is created in God’s own image and likeness, and as such all human life is to be respected and valued. While Jefferson, Adams and their contemporaries may have understood this principle to be “self-evident”, we hold that our understanding of human dignity is attested to in the creation narratives of Genesis: “Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth. God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:26-27)
Pope St. John Paul II, in his Encyclical letter “Evangelium vitae” (The Gospel of Life), observed “Every individual, precisely by reason of the mystery of the Word of God who was made flesh (cf. John 1:14), is entrusted to the maternal care of the Church. Therefore every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart; it cannot but affect her at the core of her faith in the Redemptive Incarnation of the Son of God, and engage her in her mission of proclaiming the Gospel of life in all the world and to every creature (cf. Mark 16:15).” He went on to note: “Today this proclamation is especially pressing because of the extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples, especially where life is weak and defenceless. In addition to the ancient scourges of poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence and war, new threats are emerging on an alarmingly vast scale.” (n3)
Twenty years later, in 2015, Pope Francis addressed these words to the meeting in Rome of participants in the Science and Life Association: “When we speak of mankind, we must never forget the various attacks on the sacredness of human life. The plague of abortion is an attack on life. Allowing our brothers and sisters to die on boats in the Strait of Sicily is an attack on life. Dying on the job because the minimum safety standards are not respected is an attack on life. Death from malnutrition is an attack on life. Terrorism, war, violence; so is euthanasia. Loving life means always taking care of the other, wanting the best for him, cultivating and respecting her transcendent dignity.”
This might help us to understand a little more why the Church gets involved in the many debates about so many issues confronting us in our society today. Everything that compromises the life and dignity of the human person calls for a steadfast reminder of the challenges the gospel of Jesus Christ presents to any culture in which the dignity of the person is offended, or the life of the person is oppressed. Political platforms, parties and systems have values by which they measure life issues. It’s not uncommon, then, to see inconsistencies in how human life is valued and respected. The Church speaks with a different set of values, grounded not in the exigencies of the political moment or with an interest in partisan politics, but rather with a commitment to uphold and advocate always for the foundational value of the life and dignity of every human person.