Catholic Classroom: Respect for Life
Question: What does the Church teach about respecting life?
October is Respect Life Month, during which we take a special look at what it means to be pro-life and how we can promote those ethics in our society. The USCCB states, “As a gift from God, every human life is sacred from conception to natural death.” Therefore, we as Catholics must work to defend the dignity of every human being, made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26–27), regardless of age, ability, background, or any other distinction. The Catholic teaching of respect for life comes to the forefront in a number of issues, since “the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This belief is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching” (“Life and Dignity of the Human Person”). Some of these issues are highlighted below.
The Church’s teaching on abortion is clear, and has been the same for centuries. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, abortion is “gravely contrary to the moral law.” Children in the womb are particularly vulnerable and are completely defenseless. The Church teaches that it is a great evil to kill these children, whose lives begin at conception. With current medical technology, children can be diagnosed with some diseases and disabilities before birth. The Church is strictly against ending the lives of children diagnosed with any such condition, recognizing that all lives are equally valuable, even when a person will suffer due to disease. The Church also recognizes that some pregnancies are the result of other acts of moral evil, but this does not negate the inherent value of the fetus’s life. There are resources available to women and families in these situations to care for their child.
The end of one’s life can be a time of great physical and emotional suffering. The Church teaches that it is immoral to intentionally end the life of a person who is handicapped, sick, or dying, even if the intention is to prevent further suffering. As Christians, we are invited to unite our suffering to Jesus’s suffering on the cross. No amount of good intention to ease pain is greater than the value of a suffering person’s life. The Church supports palliative care for those who are sick and dying. A dying person may forego treatment that is considered over-zealous, as this decision does not cause death, but allows it to happen naturally.
3. Death Penalty
The pro-life position argues that, since all lives are valuable, the death penalty is inadmissible. Pope St. John Paul II said that the dignity of human beings “does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are.” Even if a person has committed a moral evil, that person has still been created in the image and likeness of God. Additionally, we believe, as Christians, that all people are capable of conversion and accepting salvation. Church teaching currently says that the death penalty is only permissible when it is the only means of defending innocent human lives. Pope Francis recently requested that the Catechism of the Catholic Church be updated, saying that the death penalty “is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel.”
Suicide is a violation of the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill.” A person who commits suicide takes away his or her own right to life from conception to a natural death and disrespects his or her duty to respect the gift of life from God. However, we should not assume that people who commit suicide have forfeited eternal salvation. Extreme circumstances, such as mental illness or torture, can diminish culpability. While suicide is something that everyone should work to prevent, only God can judge those who have ended their own lives.
As part of our belief in the dignity of every human life, Catholics are called to welcome and care for refugees. By definition, a refugee is a person who leaves his or her homeland in order to find safety. Those of us who live in safe places have the duty to open up our own homelands to those who seek to preserve the right to life for themselves and their families. To do otherwise is to ignore the inherent dignity of human life.
The issue of racism can also fall under the category of life issues. Racism, along with any other practice or belief system that treats a person or group of people as less valuable than another, violates the dignity of the human person. Racism is one of the many forms that hatred can take. If we are truly to be pro-life, then we must defend all lives. In particular, we must work to defend the dignity of those who are most vulnerable, including victims of systemic hatred.