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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Sep 9, 2009)
The following is part 12 of a 14-part series to help inspire parish cenacle and study groups who are looking for ways to make a difference in this troubled world. We invite you to view the entire series.

As we think and pray about the call that Jesus is making to each one of us to be His true disciples, we also need to be sure to listen to His voice speaking to us loud and clear through the Magisterium — the teaching authority of the Body of Christ on earth, the Catholic Church (see Eph 4:1-16). Remember, the Church is in communion with Peter (see Mt 16:17-19, Jn 21:15-19). It's "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (see 1 Tim 3:15).

Over the last century, the Church has repeatedly called her members to gain a deeper appreciation of the God-given dignity of every human person. In short, there are no "throw-away" human beings. People are not reducible to "things," merely "useful" or "useless" to our relatives, to the economy, to the government, or even to ourselves. Rather, we are children of God. Each one of us is a unique creation of our heavenly Father. Fashioned by Him in His "image" as self-conscious and self-determining beings, with the help of His grace, we are capable of growing in His "likeness" in love and wisdom, throughout this earthly life, in preparation for the life to come.

This is our Lord's plan for us. This is His deepest desire. For this He took flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus Christ, and for this He bought us with His own blood on the Cross — that He might merit for us His sanctifying grace, and pour it into our hearts more and more, until we are fully prepared by grace for eternal life with Him in heaven.

The 17th century Christian poet George Herbert summed up the created dignity and eternal worth of every human heart in a poem entitled "Mattens," which included these stanzas:

My God, what is a heart?
Silver, or gold, or precious stone,
Or star, or rainbow, or a part
Of all these things, or all of them in one?

My God, what is a heart,
That thou shoulds't it so eye and woo,
Pouring upon it all thy art,
As if thou hadst nothing else to do? ...

Teach me thy love to know;
That this new light, which now I see,
May both the work and workman show;
Then by a sunbeam I will climb to thee.

According to the Vatican's Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine (2005), a truly just society is one that respects, protects, and nurtures this God-given worth and dignity of every human being. Of course, individuals who misuse their own freedom and violate the legitimate freedom and dignity of others (e.g., criminals) are to be restrained with the minimum force necessary for the protection of the innocent. Meanwhile, innocent human life is to be guarded and sustained as the fundamental "human right," and it is the first responsibility of every society, every social institution, and every government, to protect and defend that right.

This Church teaching should not sound strange to the ears of Americans. Our Declaration of Independence (1776) established that all human beings are "endowed by their Creator" with certain "inalienable rights" (in other words, rights that should never be violated), and that chief among these are the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" — in that order. First of all, without a secure right to "life," all other human rights are in jeopardy (after all, dead people cannot live in "liberty" or "pursue happiness"). Liberty, too, is a fundamental human right, but not at the expense of the lives of others, or the legitimate exercise of liberty by others. "Happiness" (meaning not just physical pleasure, but human wellbeing in every respect) ought to be pursued by everyone, but not in such a way that deprives others of their life, or the legitimate exercise of their liberty in pursuit of such "happiness."

This hierarchy of fundamental human rights is precisely what made the institution of slavery so deplorable. It was a blatant contradiction both of the Catholic faith and of the founding principles of the United States. Slavery in the United States involved the attempt by some people to pursue their happiness by depriving others of their legitimate human "liberty." This clearly violated the dignity of human persons. As far back as 1537, therefore, slavery was condemned by Pope Paul III in his papal bull Sublimis Deus, declared a moral crime worthy of excommunication, and the Roman Pontiffs never ceased to repeat and extend that teaching in the centuries that followed.

In our own time, the Church has repeatedly spoken out against threats to the dignity of the human person, including:

1. Poverty and Deprivation. The right to life of destitute people is continually threatened by hunger and disease, and such persons can hardly exercise much "liberty" in the pursuit of their well-being if they cannot find adequate food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and employment opportunities. For example, lack of universal access to adequate medical care is still a problem in the United States.

2. Tyranny and Totalitarianism. When sovereign states abuse their power and authority, they often treat human beings as mere "pawns" on the political and economic chessboard; people end up being treated as mere statistics, mere "things" to be used or abused as their rulers see fit in order to preserve and extend their own power and privileges. Many nations throughout the world still suffer under tyrannical regimes, such as China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Syria.

3. Terrorism. The terrorist also treats innocent human beings as mere "things," with no human rights; innocent members of the general public are continually threatened, and often murdered, in order to promote the particular political or religious agenda of the terrorists. Terrorism has become the "weapon of choice" of radical Islam in our time.

As Catholics, we are certainly called by the Holy Spirit to use our voice and our votes to help keep these social ills from rising and spreading in our world. Threats such as these to the dignity of human life are obvious and widely condemned in the western world at this time of writing, even if more progress needs to be made to combat them.

However, a more subtle and in that sense more insidious threat to human dignity is now pervasive both in Europe and in North America: the stripping away of the fundamental right to life of those at the very beginning and very end of the human journey, namely unborn children and the terminally ill, through the legalization and social acceptance of abortion and euthanasia. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, out of His infinite love and compassion for every human being, is calling out to us today through His Body the Church to become faithful and fervent defenders of the gift of life.

The right to life, according to the Church, extends from conception to its natural end. As Jesus said, it extends even "to the least of my brethren" (Mt 25:40), whether these helpless ones are unborn children in the womb or the terminally ill nearing their journey's end.

In some countries, and in some states in the U.S. it is now legal to stop providing food and water to a patient who is terminally ill or in a seemingly irreversible comatose or vegetative state. This is a serious moral evil that the Church has repeatedly condemned. It is one thing to cease painful or expensive medical treatment that has little chance of significantly improving a patient's condition. The Church has always recognized there is a point at which such medical intervention becomes pointless and burdensome, and that in such cases a person can and should be permitted to die a dignified death, with the assistance of appropriate pain-reducing medications, and the prayers and loving support of family members, friends, and church communities. Food and water, however, do not constitute medical "treatment." They are part of basic human care that all of us need at every stage of our life. A person's life journey certainly has not reached its natural end, its natural time to die, in God's providence, if that person can still survive with the basic care of adequate food and water. Catholics must be aware of this distinction between the "medical treatment" and the "basic care" of those seriously ill, and how important it is that we not seek to hasten the process of dying through a deliberate failure to provide that care.

Even more alarming is the spread of support for physician-assisted suicide: the right of a physician actively to take a patient's life when that person judges (or, if that person is mentally incapacitated, when his or her relatives judge) that life is "no longer worth living." Jesus teaches us through His Church that there is a profound moral distinction between killing an innocent human being in such a situation (sometimes wrongly termed "mercy killing") and letting someone die with a degree of comfort and dignity when that person's natural life is clearly drawing to a close.

In other words, mercy killing is not merciful! It is the deliberate taking of an innocent human life and a violation of the dignity and inalienable rights of those who are gravely ill. Even if it is done with the patient's own consent, it is still morally wrong. Just because something "belongs" to you does not mean you have the moral right to destroy it. For example, a man may be a private art collector and own Renoirs and Picassos. Does that mean he has the moral right to destroy them when he no longer feels they bring him happiness? Of course not. Those works of art are of special value to humanity, no matter what the art collector may now think of them. In the same way, the earthly life of each one of us is precious to the One whose "artwork" we are, and who entrusted that earthly life to us, namely our merciful Father and Creator, and He has a plan for each one of us as to when it is best to leave it.

Jesus taught us to be "merciful as He is merciful" (Lk 6:36). To be merciful in such a situation is not to take the power of life and death away from Him and into our own hands, nor to presume to judge when a person's life is no longer worth living. (Who are we to say what kind of struggle for salvation and surrender to the Holy Spirit is going on in the depths of a human soul when they are in a comatose or persistent vegetative state? Who are we to decide to short-circuit that process?). We are not to give in to the feelings of depression that sometimes overwhelm the terminally ill, nor are we to give in to our own feelings of grief and sorrow when we see our loved ones afflicted by terminal illness. Feelings are not always a fully accurate gauge of the truth. The truth is that even the terminally ill are children of God, infinitely loved by Jesus our Savior who "bought" them with "the price of His own blood" (1 Cor 6:20, 7:23), and worthy of every legitimate form of comfort, care, prayer, and encouragement that we can provide for them. That is the true call of mercy at the end of life's journey.

When we follow Christ's path of mercy we make room for Him to bring hidden blessings out of the sufferings and trials of terminal illness. For example, on Oct. 19, 2007, Fr. Mark Garrow, MIC, the Provincial Superior of the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, died at the age of 52 from cancer. Yet his decline and passing was so surrounded by divine grace that it brought spiritual strength to all those who knew him. One of his brethren in the Congregation wrote after his death: "How many things did Mark have to contend with losing this year? His health, his ability to speak clearly, to swallow, to taste, his freedom, his time, his energy, among other things. What became central for him was what he could do — pray his breviary, pray the Rosary, concelebrate Holy Mass, to read and meditate, to witness his faith to the other cancer patients, to his nurses, his doctors, his caretakers, and his visitors. Mark had to die to his own will many time before October 19. He loved His life and tried to live it to the full, but he was also willing to surrender his life to the Lord, in order to inherit eternal life. ... [Fr. Mark's] acceptance of his sufferings has already borne great fruit. ... I think we have yet to see the fruit that is to come."

Discussion Questions
1. What threats can you name to the dignity of human life, and why do they qualify as significant ways that human life is often degraded and demeaned in our time?

2. The terminal illness of a loved one can not only cause us deep emotional distress, but also disruption and even destruction of our family's temporal hopes and dreams. Are there also hidden blessings in this "way of the cross" that families often must tread? Are there ways that families can actually grow in virtue in the midst of such sorrow and loss?

3. Look up the Scripture passages in the first paragraph of story. How do we know that the Church's teaching voice is actually the voice of Jesus our merciful Savior? Where can we turn for guidance with the tough ethical decisions that we must sometimes make on our life journey?

A Prayer for Reverence for Life

Almighty God, we thank You for the precious gift of human life,
For Life in the womb, coming from Your creative power,
For the life of children, making us glad with their freshness and promise,
For the life of young people, hoping for a better world,
For the life of the disabled, teaching us that every life has value,
For the life of the elderly, witnessing to the ageless values of patience and wisdom.

Like blessed Mary may we always say "yes" to Your gift,
May we defend it and promote it from conception to its natural end,
And bring us at last, O Father, to the fullness of eternal life,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A Hymn
I, the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard my people cry.
All who dwell in dark and sin,
My hand will save.

I, who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

I, the Lord of snow and rain,
I have borne my people's pain.
I have wept for love of them.
They turn away.

I will break their hearts of stone,
Give them hearts for love alone.
I will speak my words to them.
Whom shall I send?

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

I, the Lord of wind and flame,
I will send the poor and lame.
I will set a feast for them.
My hand will save.

Finest bread I will provide,
'Til their hearts be satisfied.
I will give my life to them.
Whom shall I send?

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. He wishes to extend special thanks to Kathleen Ervin and the Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society of Oakland, Calif., for help in producing this series. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).

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N - Feb 24, 2009

"WOW!" May this article reach out for all to read and our actions take hold and spread with Gods healing love throughout our lives and those that we touch. May people not fear to stand out and alone if need to be, as our Glorious Jesus did for the sake of LOVE.