The current emphasis our culture places on physical health says a great deal about what we value. Something we can possess, like good health, is given enormous importance, and a multi-billion dollar industry of fitness clubs, dietary supplements and health food stores has sprung up to meet consumer demand.
Health consciousness is not a bad thing, but when considered in the context of other contemporary trends the fixation on physical health reveals cultural values that have strayed from God’s simple, straightforward vision for life. A disproportionate significance is placed on health, physical appearance, wealth, careers and talents. Making idols of what we have diminishes the importance of what we are.
This shift in values is contrary to Catholic social teaching. The principle that forms the foundation of our social doctrine is the dignity of the human person. From this perspective, the unborn, the elderly, those who are sick, poor, jobless and people with disabilities are valued no less than those who are young, healthy, rich, successful and physically able.
Overvaluing things we can possess and undervaluing the worth of the human person have become justifications for embryonic stem cell research and assisted suicide. As a consequence, human embryos and those diagnosed with terminal illnesses are considered disposable.
In the same way, the elevation of sexual relations above the persons involved obscures their true identity and dignity as children made in God’s image. In our modern culture this distortion of human sexuality has made abortion, abuse, sexually transmitted disease and pornography common place.
Respect for life places a higher value on what we are than the things we can possess. We see this most clearly in the life and mission of Jesus, who sought out those who were sick, poor or marginalized. They were a priority in his ministry. He affirmed their intrinsic worth and established the preeminence of persons over possessions.
A vision for life
In his ministry to the blind, the deaf, lepers and all those judged unclean by the values of his culture, Jesus laid the foundation for our teaching on respect for life.
October is Respect Life month and for Catholics, Respect Life Sunday on Oct. 4 inaugurates an annual reminder that the right to life precedes all other rights. As we pray and act to restore respect for life this month, we imitate Jesus by affirming the dignity of all human persons.
Although our culture makes idols of sex and possessions, our efforts as disciples of Christ restore his clear, unambiguous vision in which every life is a gift and every person has dignity.
Each of us is created in God’s image out of our creator’s infinite love. In return, God asks only that we share that love with others, especially those who are vulnerable and despised. Beginning with the most basic right, the right to life, our efforts to protect human rights and restore human dignity must be centered on God’s love.
Occasions like Respect Life Sunday and Respect Life Month give us an opportunity to embrace our own dignity as children of God and to reflect on how we can become effective advocates for life. First and foremost our advocacy must begin with prayer. We pray for the born and the unborn, for those considering abortion and those who reject our values with regard to abortion. In this way, our advocacy becomes a reverent response to the creator’s love that rejects a selective vision of human dignity.
The legalization of abortion established a legal precedent that set off a chain reaction in our culture. As a consequence, many now approve of embryonic stem cell research and ignore the conscience rights of health care professionals. Here in Washington state, a significant majority even voted to approve assisted suicide.
Prayer and advocacy
Just as Roe v. Wade preceded this devolution of cultural respect for life, our witness to God’s love and compassion for all is the necessary precursor to restoring a culture of life.
Giving priority to the unborn is our first line of defense against every attack on human dignity and establishes a clear vision for a culture of life. It affirms a consistent and universal concern for life that provides the firm foundation we need to advocate forcefully for all who are poor, vulnerable and marginalized.
During Respect Life Month this year, the national debate on health care reform presents us with a timely opportunity to affirm human dignity through Catholic advocacy. We can take a major step toward restoring a culture of life by insisting that reform efforts provide access to decent health care for all while excluding public funding of abortion and maintaining existing laws that protect conscience rights in health care.
We have a responsibility to advocate for public policies that respect life. Promoting the dignity of human life is an essential duty for disciples of Christ, and our prayers and advocacy must defend the life of human beings across life’s spectrum.
Let us pray during this month and throughout the year that we will have the courage to defend human dignity in accord with God’s clear and unambiguous vision for life.