Respect for life is not only a Christian thing. Human reason is sufficient to impose respect for life on the basis of what a human person is and should be. In the popular mind “respect for life” usually connotes the fifth commandment, and barely considers death- dealing behaviours like discrimination, gossip, lies, greed, abuse, and other forms of injustice against individuals and indeed whole groups of people. In this article, respecting life, all of life is viewed from the point of view of the dignity of the human person. This dignity which flows naturally from our being made in the image of God is also a dignity that results from our ability to rise above the world of things.
Two events this year also give shape to this reflection. On October 1, the UN marked the International Day of Older Persons. Similarly, World Health Day earlier this year had as its theme “Good health adds life to years”. We are thus mindful of the older persons in our society. The other event is The Year of Faith which begins on October 11, 2012 and ends on the feast of Christ the King, November 24, 2013. One is a human rights event, the other a Roman Catholic observance; both of global dimensions, both pertinent to our age.
Human dignity and human rights
Sometimes when human rights discourse takes place, emphasis is placed on the secular interpretation, while the sacred is relegated to metaphysical or religious considerations. While this is not the place to debate the merits of either position, it must be noted that one cannot ignore the religious roots of human rights in its main mantra the dignity of the human person. Some writers like Charles Foster insist that these views need not and should not rest on any metaphysical assertion at all (God alone is the highest good) but that they can be derived from some basic anthropological and sociological observations. He adds, “If those observations happen to coincide with the view of the authors of Genesis, the Bhagavad Gita, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, or Das Kapital, it is hard to see why that coincidence reduces their importance”. While this statement emphasises the ubiquitous understanding of the dignity possessed by each human individual, it also implies that the meaning of this important concept is the same in all cultures. Such an implication however, is false. In our Catholic tradition, human dignity is a reality which exists wherever a human person exists and must be respected and recognised. It is more fundamental than any human right, and human rights are the specific claims – the actions, needs and relationships that are imperative of our dignity as human beings. For us, human dignity is intrinsic, natural, inalienable, and an endowment or gift. It is what makes us persons. That is why it is repugnant to the Catholic tradition to place limits on who is human whether that be in terms of race, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, age, or mental capacity.
Loving the “other’
How can the biblical narrative of Luke 10: 25-37 link the two events mentioned earlier, to our theme – Respect for Life? The Good Samaritan parable helps us place God’s dealing with us in a cosmic perspective. Among its themes are, compassionate care of the elderly in our society, the practice of the virtue of charity, and the allocation of scarce resources. These themes are both of human rights and of religion. The man left for dead on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem may represent an aged person in the society ignored by the state welfare apparatus and even by the community in which he lives. How do we respond to the call of our baptism to put our faith into action? For love of God and for love of this “stranger” do we promptly contact the authorities and follow it up? And, do we go even further by finding out more about the work done by the Division of Ageing in the country and get involved perhaps by volunteering at one of their activity centres? Can we initiate a meaningful outreach in our parish for such persons or, if one exists, join it in the coming year? Catholics need to instigate resistance to injustice. The Levite and the priest, concerned as they were with upholding the ritual law and the liturgical duties of their positions remind us of the rampant individualism of modern society. Unlike the Samaritan, a foreigner, a heretic and a stranger, one not bound by the law of love (of God) as the Jews were, the Levite and the priest failed the test of charity. We need to make an extra effort in the coming year not to do likewise. — Athene Aberdeen, Archdiocesan Catechetical Office