In Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II identified a sinister paradox in contemporary culture. “Precisely in an age when the inviolable rights of the person are solemnly proclaimed and the value of life is publicly affirmed,” he lamented, “the very right to life is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death.”
This “strange contradiction,” he warned, means that in practice a great deal of the lofty talk about human rights spoken in legislatures, courts and conference rooms around the world amounts to little more than a “futile exercise of rhetoric.” In this blistering passage, the pope singles out one instance of the hypocrisy of many ostensibly liberal modern democratic states: i.e. their insistence that international “aid” sent to impoverished countries be contingent upon “arbitrary prohibitions against procreation” – in other words, “soft” coercive population control.
“Should we not question the very economic models often adopted by States which, also as a result of international pressures and forms of conditioning, cause and aggravate situations of injustice and violence in which the life of whole peoples is degraded and trampled upon?” he queried.
Attack on Human Dignity – the Root of the Culture of Death
Over the past several weeks, we have been exploring Blessed Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae, published just over 50 years ago. To a large number of people (including – alas – many Catholics) Humanae Vitae’s reaffirmation of age-old Christian teaching against artificial contraception is outdated, oppressive, and tangential to any of the “real” problems that our society is facing. Why, when we are facing grave issues like human trafficking, mass migration, political polarization, and gun violence is the Catholic Church still wasting its breath on questioning what consenting adults are doing in the privacy of their own bedrooms?
Liberal thinkers frequently make the same accusation against the Church’s condemnations of abortion. Why, when there are children starving and suffering other grave indignities does the Church continue to waste its time and energies on trying to prevent women from exercising their “right” to “control their own bodies”? Why is the Church so concerned with undeveloped fetuses when there are born children whose rights and dignity are being daily violated?
A clear and compelling answer is found in both Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae. As we have seen, Blessed Pope Paul VI prophetically predicted that the moral effects of artificial contraception would not remain hermetically sealed in the bedrooms of the nation, but would seep out into the most public realms, including, in the most terrifying cases, in decisions by governments to coercively enforce population control using the new methods of contraception. He also saw the connection between contraception and abortion, warning in Humanae Vitae that abortion is “to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.” Thus, a practice that seemed to the sexual revolutionaries of the 60s to be transparently benign – artificial birth control – turned out to erode crucial structures and strictures that protected the dignity of the weakest among us.
In Evangelium Vitae St. Pope John Paul II is even more explicit in explaining how direct attacks on human life, above all via abortion and euthanasia, undermine every effort to protect human dignity:
A society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized. Only respect for life can be the foundation and guarantee of the most precious and essential goods of society, such as democracy and peace. There can be no true democracy without a recognition of every person’s dignity and without respect for his or her rights. Nor can there be true peace unless life is defended and promoted.
Human Dignity in the Scriptures
To understand why radical respect for the dignity of every human being from the moment of conception is the precondition of all human rights, it is helpful to turn to the Scriptures. It is there that we find the theological and anthropological basis for St. Pope John Paul II’s assertion above. Indeed, much of the Scriptures amount to a protracted argument that human beings are vested with such a dignity that the value of a single human exceeds that of the entire physical universe.
That argument begins in the very first book of Genesis, where the Scriptural author asserts that God created man “in his own image” (Gen. 1:27). Due to overfamiliarity, I suspect we often lose sight of the seismic significance of this declaration. If humans are made in “God’s image” then we are, truly, in some meaningful sense “God-like.” What, precisely, does this mean? In brief: Unlike the rest of material creation, human beings are self-conscious, thinking beings invested with the capacity for free choice, and possessing immortal, spiritual souls capable of union with God through the direct contemplation of His essence in eternal beatitude in Heaven. Already created with a spark of the divine, human beings are truly capable of being “divinized” by receiving God’s life through grace.
As the psalmist puts it, “[Y]ou have made [man] a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field” (Psalm 8:5-7). In one of the most explicitly “pro-life” passages of Scripture, Jeremiah recounts God telling him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.” The psalmist too echoes this message, speaking of the intimate, personal solicitude with which God created him: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). Job too marvels at God’s completely personal interest in his life and well-being: “You clothed me with skin and flesh and knit me together with bones and sinews. You have granted me life and steadfast love; and your care has preserved my spirit” (Job 10:8-12).
After Christ, this message of the innate dignity shared by every human being is elevated even further by a new awareness of just how great God’s personal love for every human being is, and how lofty is the human destiny. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” marvels John the Evangelist. St. Paul exhorts his readers: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you” (1 Cor. 3:16). John echoes this same message in one of his letters: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1-2).
Abortion and Human Dignity
What is so historically astonishing is these Scriptural passages do not admit of any exceptions. Every human being is created in “God’s image.” Every human being was “knit together” in his or her mother’s womb by a God intimately interested in their individual welfare. Every human being has the potential to become a “child of God.” Christ sacrificed himself for the salvation of every human being.
It is no accident that the very concept of universal “human rights” was hammered out and flourished in a culture deeply imbued with the principles of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. For if there is anything history teaches us, it is that the equal dignity of all human beings is by no means self-evident to most peoples and cultures. Sadly, even in countries that have ostensibly had Christian roots, we have seen the horrific fruits of an abandonment of the Scriptural truth about universal human dignity: slavery and genocide.
Indeed, there seems to be an inexorable logic to the denial of universal human rights: once the pendulum starts swinging in that direction, the criteria for qualifying for human rights become progressively stricter and more arbitrary. In the long run, any country or civilization that deliberately and systematically undermines the fundamental rights of a particular class of human beings falls prey to the arbitrary whims of a powerful few. “To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize 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,” says St. Pope John Paul II. “This is the death of true freedom.”
This is why the Church insists upon the prioritization of the fight against direct, deliberate and grave attacks on the dignity – above all the right to life – of human beings. This does not mean that She does not consider other issues to be of importance: on the contrary, She consistently draws attention to all attacks on human dignity and praises every effort of whatever kind to raise the downtrodden to their rightful dignity.
Nevertheless, St. Pope John Paul II was crystal clear that direct attacks on human dignity are especially pernicious, to the point that he insisted that laws legitimizing such attacks are no laws at all, and that they even preclude a society’s capacity to achieve the common good in any meaningful sense.
Laws which authorize and promote abortion and euthanasia are radically opposed not only to the good of the individual but also to the common good; as such they are completely lacking in authentic juridical validity. Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good. Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law.
But, even this scathing passage does not fully capture the great pope’s scorn for laws that enshrine attacks on human life. Any time such laws are passed, he said, “the ‘right’ ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is made subject to the will of the stronger part.” In such cases, even so-called “democracies” are in fact declining into “a form of totalitarianism.” The State “is transformed into a tyrant State,” he said, “which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenceless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part.”
This applies even – or perhaps especially – in cases where abortion and euthanasia have been legalized by popular ballot. Such a vote may give the impression of being strictly legal and democratic. But, he said, “Really, what we have here is only the tragic caricature of legality; the democratic ideal, which is only truly such when it acknowledges and safeguards the dignity of every human person, is betrayed in its very foundations.”
The Weakness of the ‘Seamless Garment’
These are strong words.
They also help explain why pro-lifers have always rejected the common misuse of the so-called “seamless garment” theory. If the person using this term only means that all moral issues are connected – i.e. that all goodness is ultimately One and all individual goods are mutually reinforcing, and that all evils are equally interconnected and mutually reinforcing – then there is nothing necessarily wrong with it. Sin begets sin, and virtue begets virtue. True enough.
But in practice the theory is frequently used to level all moral evils to equal status, or, even worse, to raise certain lesser evils, or even prudential matters above those that involve grave, intrinsic evils, such as attacks on human life. The image itself facilitates this fallacy: for it seems that every thread of a seamless garment is just as important as any other. A much better image is the image used by St. Pope John Paul II in a passage quoted above: of a building and its foundation. Every brick of a building is crucial for the structural integrity of the building, but some are more important than others. Those that form the foundation are the most important of all. As grandiose as the structures built on such a foundation may be, they are all the more shaky for that.
Of course, nothing that I have said suggests that Catholics should only be involved in fighting for certain issues or causes. Every Christian is gifted with their calling, their own particular charism. We need Catholics to bring solid Christian principles based upon a true understanding of human dignity to every conceivable social and political issue: immigration, healthcare, housing, education, hunger, gun violence, penal justice, work conditions, legal reform, etc. However, what it does mean is that Christians must be wary of self-declared “human rights” campaigns or initiatives that are built on shifting sand: i.e. on a selective application of human dignity. We see this, for instance, in cases where ostensible “charities” attack the culture and dignity of peoples in impoverished countries by exploiting the offer of legitimate charity such as healthcare to introduce grave intrinsic evils like abortion. No matter how enticing the gift in one hand, the dagger held in the other undermines whatever good the gift might have done.
“The theory of human rights is based precisely on the affirmation that the human person, unlike animals and things, cannot be subjected to domination by others,” stated St. Pope John Paul II. As long as we live in a society that systematically and deliberately dominates the weakest among us, stripping them of their basic rights, we must always be aware that every attempt we make to protect human rights risks collapsing due to an infirm foundation. All true charity is at least implicitly built upon a commitment to defend the dignity of every human being: and any charity that lacks this commitment risks devolving – whether intentionally or not – into exploitation, all the more sinister for arriving in the guise of a “gift.”