‘Be not afraid’ to proclaim human dignity
Every October, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities issues a new theme for its Respect Life Program. The purpose of the Respect Life Program is to "help Catholics understand, value and become engaged with supporting the God-given dignity of every person – which naturally leads to protecting the gift of every person’s life." The 2017-18 program theme is "Be Not Afraid."
My October (Respect Life Month) columns will be dedicated to various Respect Life topics. This column will discuss the indispensable fact of our God-given human dignity, the importance of getting human dignity right and the critical need to fearlessly proclaim the truth of our human dignity.
Indispensable fact of our God-given dignity
I recently gave retreat talks about human dignity to high school students. I began by asking the students to consider the meaning of human dignity.
While not the most rigorous definition, I proposed that human dignity pertains to the value of human life and how (by who or by what) we measure the value of our human lives or the lives of others. I also discussed two differing ways of understanding human dignity: the ways of the world and the way of Jesus Christ.
For the world, our human dignity is reduced to finite measurements, such as money, fame, sex and power. When human dignity is measured by money, the value of life tends to be determined by material considerations such as financial earning power, future inheritance, various forms of property, etc.
When human dignity is determined by power, the value of life depends upon a person’s ability to control the course of life, dominate a relationship, dispose of that which is deemed useless, etc.
But these worldly measures never satisfy the fundamental yearning of the human heart for infinite value. In other words, when human dignity is measured by the ways of the world (money, fame, sex, power), the truth of Ecclesiastes is realized: "I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity" (2:1).
Through Jesus Christ, our human dignity and its infinite value is revealed. Christ alone answers the question of the human heart that we find in Psalm 8: "What is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you care for him?"
Christ looks upon our fallen humanity, in all its sinfulness, and restores us to our original greatness. Christ uncovers the image and likeness of the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – living within each one of us. By this light, we come to see ourselves as worthy of receiving unconditional love, and capable of returning unconditional love.
Getting human dignity right
When we misunderstand human dignity, we distort reality. The way we understand human dignity directs every subsequent action of our lives, whether that act is religious, cultural or political.
For example, if human life has no inherent worth, but is valuable only to the extent it has monetary value, any number of political consequences follow. The poor are seen as unproductive participants in the economy and are not given proper assistance (for example, toward housing, food and employment).
The unborn are discarded as a burden to future career and financial gain, and not protected in their absolute vulnerability. The sick and the elderly are viewed as substantial health care costs and subjected to immoral medical care and lack of attention.
Fearlessly proclaiming human dignity
As St. Pope John Paul II reminds us in "Evangelium Vitae" ("The Gospel of Life"): "To be truly a people at the service of life, we must propose these truths constantly and courageously from the very first proclamation of the Gospel, and thereafter in catechesis, in the various forms of preaching, in personal dialogue and in all educational activity" (no. 82).
By doing so, "we can also help everyone discover in the light of reason and of personal experience how the Christian message fully reveals what man is and the meaning of his being and existence" (no. 82). This brings about "the consequences of the Gospel" which stand in radical opposition to the dreadful consequences of the ways of the world.
Never fear in proclaiming the Gospel of Life, for Christ is with us until the end of time!
Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.