The Dignity of the Human Person
The Church sees in men and women, in every person, the living image of God. God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
The Church, therefore, recognises that every human being is unique because he or she was willed by God as an unrepeatable person, created out of love, and redeemed with even greater love. The dignity of each and every human being is central to the social doctrine of the Church and we are called to treat all people with the greatest respect, knowing that they are an individual created and loved by God.
The Catholic Church believes that society must respect the freedom and dignity of the human person. The social order exists for the sake of human beings and must be guided by what a human being needs for a dignified life. It is not the other way round. This principle cannot be overstated. Human beings should not be used as a means of reaching or achieving certain goals. He is, rather, an end in himself.
The Social Nature of Human Beings
The human person is essentially a social being and because of this human beings form communities, take responsibility for them, and leave their distinctive mark on them. Human beings rely on all sorts of relationships, recognising the necessity of collaboration.
Unfortunately, however, the social nature of human beings does not always lead to harmonious communion among persons. Through pride and selfishness man discovers in himself the seeds of asocial behaviour, impulses leading him to close himself within his own individuality and to dominate his neighbour.
It is out of love for one’s own good for and for that of others that people come together in stable groups with the purpose of attaining a common good.
What are Human Rights?
It is important to understand that human rights are not an invention of the State. Rather, they are inherent in our nature and we can understand them, first and foremost, by reason. The ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere will of human beings, in the reality of the State, in public powers, but in man himself and in God his Creator. They are universal, inviolable, and inalienable.
- Universal because they are present in all human beings, without exception of time, place or subject.
- Inviolable insofar as they are inherent in the human person and in human dignity and because it would be vain to proclaim rights, if at the same time everything were not done to ensure the duty of respecting them by all people, everywhere, and for all people.
- Inalienable insofar as no-one can legitimately deprive another person, whoever they may be, of these rights, since this would do violence to their nature.
We, as Christians, have a duty to speak up when human rights violations become known or when certain rights are not recognised.
The fundamental human right is the right to life. Other important human rights include the right to freedom of opinion, the right to earn a living for himself and for his family; the right to marry and start a family, and to raise them personally; and the right to choose and practice a religion freely.
Pope John Paul II in the Encyclical Centesimus Annus:
“…the right to life, an integral part of which is the right of the child to develop in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception; the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child’s personality; the right to develop ones intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth; the right to share in the work which makes wise use of the earth’s material resources, and to derive from that work the means to support oneself and ones dependents; and the right to freely establish a family, to have and to rear children through the responsible exercise of ones sexuality. In a certain sense, the source and synthesis of these rights is religious freedom, understood as the right to live in the truth of ones faith and in conformity with ones transcendent dignity as a person.”
The Right to Life
The Church says that human life begins at conception; specifically it begins with the fusion of the ovum and a sperm cell. This is in accord with both science and common sense. The embryo is a complete human being and is therefore entitled to the same dignity that belongs to every human person.
The Church rejects abortion because the killing of an embryo is always morally objectionable, regardless of the circumstances in which the child was conceived, the stage of development of the human being, or the health problems with which the child will come into the world. Pope Paul VI, in Humanae Vitae, referred to abortion as “a horrendous crime which constitutes a particularly serious moral disorder, far from being a right, it is a sad phenomenon that contributes seriously to spreading a mentality against life, representing a dangerous threat to a just and democratic social coexistence.”
An embryo does not develop into a human being; rather, he or she develops as a human being.
In the case of rape we need to distinguish between two sets of facts. First and foremost, a terrible crime has been committed against a woman. The crime must be prosecuted and viewed as morally reprehensible. Secondly, the human being that resulted from the rape is a child willed and loved by God. The child may become a source of consolation and new hope for the mother, or it may be adopted. Is it fair that a child should be punished by death for the crimes of its father?
The Church acknowledges that women in such situations need appropriate care and support to ensure that she feels safe and accepted. Pope John Paul II, in the Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, spoke very openly and honestly about this when he wrote: “I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.”
The direct killing of a human being, even if they were terminally ill, is always against the Fifth Commandment (“You shall not kill”). Only God is the master of life and death.
It is, of course, permissible to support a dying person and supply them with all medical and human care so as to alleviate suffering. This is a work of mercy and is in accordance with the command to love thy neighbour.
We must remember that we help the dying person. We don’t help the person to die.
It may be acceptable to discontinue medical procedures or treatment that offer no hope of improvement and also to use palliative means, even if it might shorten the patient’s life. Any decisions in this regard must always take into consideration the wishes of the patient, or of the patient’s authorised representative if they are unable to state their wishes. But any such decision must always be in accordance with the moral law.
In Evangelium Vitae Pope John Paul II said “We see a tragic expression of all this in the spread of euthanasia, disguised and surreptitious, or practised openly and even legally. As well as for reasons of a misguided pity at the sight of the patient’s suffering, euthanasia is sometimes justified by the utilitarian motive of avoiding costs which bring no return and which weigh heavily on society. Thus it is proposed to eliminate malformed babies, the severely handicapped, the disabled, the elderly, especially when they are not self-sufficient, and the terminally ill. Nor can we remain silent in the face of other more furtive, but no less serious and real forms of euthanasia. These could occur for example when, in order to increase the availability of organs for transplants, organs are removed without respecting objective and adequate criteria which verify the death of the donor.
To claim the right to abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, and to recognise that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others.”
Do I have the right to determine the moment of my death?
No, our life is not our personal property to do whatever we want. God gives us life and we have no absolute freedom in dealing with this gift that is entrusted to us.
The Church accepts that people are afraid of serious pain or of becoming incapacitated. But we are well placed to address such fears today with advances in palliative care and support for the dying. In the final phase of life we must give the dying the opportunity to approach their own death with the loving care of other people.
As Christians we know that we are in the hand of a loving God and have hope that death is not the end, but a transition to eternal life. In the suffering and dying person, Christ is especially close to us.
Pope Benedict said: “Respect for the right to life at every stage firmly establishes a principle of decisive importance: life is a gift which is not completely at the disposal of the subject.” (Message for the World Day of Peace 2007)