Pope Benedict XVI, commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights stated in his Angelus message, “[L]et us remember that the first of all human rights is the right to life.”1 The defense of human life from the moment of conception to natural death is at the heart of Catholic social teaching. In an ever expanding culture of moral relativism an “individual conscience is finding it more and more difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life”;2 therefore, it is all the more urgent to proclaim the sanctity and dignity of human life in the formation of conscience.
Words traditionally employed for a culture of life are now empowering the culture of death. In this culture, vocabulary such as “death, annihilate, kill, destroy, and exterminate” are conveniently avoided. Abortion is now labeled as termination of a pregnancy; abortion rights are now identified as women’s health-care rights; euthanasia is considered to be an act of compassion; the killing of human embryos is replaced with disease prevention; the vulnerable and weak lose their status and rights as human beings because they interfere with a “fully productive and perfect society.” The expression “quality of life” has lost its meaning as living fully as a human being before God and others. It is now defined as happiness, even if that “happiness” is preserved through the deliberate killing of an unborn child, the physically/mentally handicapped, and the elderly.3 If someone speaks out on the unique character and value of human life, he/she is considered to be a racist. Human life and the biological life of animals, etc. are on equal footing. The systematic substitution of words such as “compassion” and “health care” for “death” and “destruction” can cause an idea that dismisses the dignity and worth of a human being to become more attractive and even persuasive. The usage of language reserved for the good and welfare of human development has been redefined into language which condones and attempts to justify evil.4
Catholic Social Teaching from the outset fundamentally rests upon the life, dignity and worth of each human being created in the image and likeness of God. This is the heart of the Gospel message. Jesus embraced all of humanity as brothers and sisters. We are all sons and daughters of God, united in a civilization of love. It was Jesus who reached out to the marginalized, the vulnerable, the sick, and to those who were denied their rights and liberties as human beings.
Respect for the dignity and worth of all human beings from the moment of conception to natural death is a challenging task for our human community. The right to life is the first of all human rights. All other human rights follow from this essential truth. When we believe this, we will then be able to form consciences according to the will of Christ and act accordingly. In this way (as noted in another article) the human community may be a community of life and for life.
Throughout this year, let us be united in prayer that we may have the courage to stand up for life and be witnesses of God’s compassionate love, especially for those who are most vulnerable. God bless.
Br. Warren Perrotto, MSC
- December 11, 2011, Angelus
- Kevin E. McKena, A Concise Guide to Catholic Social Teaching, Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2002, p. 26.
- Cf. Brennan, William, Confronting the Language Empowering the Culture of Death, Miami: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2008, p. 91.
- United States Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, Washington: USCCB, 1998, no. 10.