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Life and dignity first principles of Catholic social teaching

The following story appeared in the June 24 Idaho Catholic Register.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of columns on Catholic social teaching.

The first theme of Catholic social teaching is “Life and Dignity of the Human Person.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops state, “The measure of every institution is whether it

threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.”

While the secular world continually redefines life and dignity in order to alleviate consciences and justify sin, the Church asks us to apply objective truth as we consider who or what is actively ending or devaluing human life. Once we understand where injustices reside, our role is two-fold: to pray and to act.

Regarding how we act, Catholics are often criticized for their strident and some may say disproportionate stance against abortion. Some claim that the Church is not concerned enough about the travesties that affect human life after children are born. While this may be true for some individuals, it is not true for the Church as a whole, which is the world’s oldest and largest charitable and humanitarian institution.

Given today’s culture, it is vitally important that we make sure we understand the Church’s teaching regarding the sanctity of all human life. Then, through self-introspection, personal discernment, and wise counsel, we can determine a course of action.

St. John Paul II wrote in The Gospel of Life (Evangelium vitae): “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.”

What are the leading threats to human dignity in today’s world? Among them are abortion, euthanasia, cloning, embryonic stem cell research, the death penalty, and war. (Some would also include climate change, which will be treated in a future column regarding the seventh theme of Catholic social teaching: care for God’s creation.)

Abortion and euthanasia both end life prematurely.

In both, human beings are often viewed as inconveniences who are interrupting the normal course of life for others. Though there may be difficult, even tragic, circumstances accompanying the birth of a child or the health of an elderly person, decisions to arbitrarily end a life inject our will into something only God can determine. Even when personal suffering seems unbearable and threatens to change our perspective, the dignity of each human person – and his or her days – remains fixed (Job 14:5).

The catechism, paragraph 2271, states that since the first century, the Church has affirmed the mere evil of every procured abortion. “This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable,” the catechism declares. The Church teaches that life begins at conception. Modern medical research has only buttressed the Church’s teaching. Ultrasound technology, developed long after the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, shows that as early as eight weeks after conception, babies are kicking and swimming in their environment. All their organs are in place. The baby has eyelids and toes, and fingerprints are beginning to form. Two weeks later, all the baby’s organs are functioning. If the call to Christianity is a call to protect the most vulnerable, then certainly none is more so than a defenseless child in his or her mother’s womb.

Cloning and embryonic stem cell research treat human beings as experiments. God is supplanted by human action. Those who engage in such activity become the authors (and, in some cases, destroyers) of life, often under the guise of “the advancement of society” or “the sake of science and research.”

Scientists will point to the difference between cloning for reproductive purposes and cloning for therapeutic purposes (creating embryos for scientific research or to create stem cells). However, in both cases, an embryo is created and then, in nearly all cases, destroyed. Once the mass-production of human embryos for research purposes is authorized, there is no doubt that reproductive cloning will follow, denying children the opportunity to a secure and recognized relationship with parents and the ability to discover their identity and heritage.

Similar points can be made about embryonic stem cell research. The Church does not oppose stem cell research generally. Many types of adult stem cell research are morally acceptable as are some types of embryonic research such as when stem cells are derived from miscarriages. However, when stem cells are harvested from living embryos, it ultimately results in the destruction of a young human being.

The death penalty and war, like abortion and euthanasia, end human life prematurely.

Recent popes have solidified the Church’s general opposition to the death penalty. In 2018, Pope Francis in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, said the death penalty is “inadmissible” and that Catholics should work for its abolition. This is largely because society has found ways to imprison for life those who commit heinous crimes, sparing the state the decision to end a life that can still be redeemed (and, in some cases, later found to be innocent) by a God who forgives even the most heinous of sins.

Paragraphs 2302-2316 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church provide a clear explanation of the Church’s teaching regarding the safeguarding of peace and the avoidance of war. The Church ac-knowledges that war is sometimes warranted, as a last resort. Paragraph 2309 outlines the Church’s “Just War” principles as: 1) the damage inflicted by the aggressor must be “lasting, grave and certain”; 2) all other means of putting an end to the aggression must be shown to be impractical or ineffective; 3) there must be serious prospect for success; and 4) the use of arms should not be greater than the evil perpetrated by the aggressor.

War is not as simple as the obvious response to “bad people who are a threat to society.” In the broadest sense – as interconnected as we are – we can fathom how a lack of peace on a small scale leads to or perpetuates a lack of peace on a large scale. This reminds me of venial sin: if left unchecked, it will surely lead to mortal sin.

The space here is not adequate to fairly treat all these issues. Paragraphs 2258-2330 of the catechism are a good starting point to acquaint oneself with the thorough teaching of the Church on these critical questions, developed over centuries. The footnotes to these paragraphs will take you into an even deeper dive of the Church’s teachings, pointing the reader to scripture and the writings of Church fathers and theologians. Faithful Catholics should research these matters and be willing to do frequent examinations of conscience, having our presuppositions challenged.

In his book, “Living the Good Life: A Beginner’s Thomistic Ethics,” Steven J. Jensen writes, “The good life … demands that we should inform our-selves, that we should seek the truth about what is good and what is evil. It is not enough that we should do what we think is right; we must also think rightly. We must know the good, for only then can we do it.”

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it, please consider buying a subscription to the Idaho Catholic Register. Your $20 yearly subscription also supports the work of the Diocese of Boise Communications Department, which includes not only the newspaper, but this website, social media posts and videos. You can subscribe here, or through your parish, or send a check to 1501 S. Federal Way, Boise, ID, 83705: or call 208-350-7554 to leave a credit card payment. Thank you, and God bless you.

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