January 20, 2023

Christ the Cornerstone

Two special days mark the principle that all human life is sacred

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

On Monday, Jan. 16, we observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday that pays tribute to a man who gave his life for justice and equality in the struggle to overcome the sin of racism.

As a nation, we celebrate this day out of gratitude for what has been accomplished because of Dr. King’s efforts, but more importantly as a reminder that much more needs to be done to realize his dream of justice and equality for all races and peoples.

On Monday, Jan. 23, Catholics will observe “a particular day of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life and of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion.” This is also an occasion for gratitude, especially for the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this day of prayer and penance needs to be more than a remembrance. It must be an urgent call to protect the most vulnerable members of our society.

What these two days have in common is the fundamental principle that human life is sacred, and that all persons regardless of age, race, sex, religion, economic or cultural status have an absolute right to life, liberty and the exercise of their God-given rights and responsibilities as a free people.

This is the first principle of Catholic social teaching—respect for the dignity of each and every human person—regardless of who they are or what they believe—because we are all created in the image and likeness of God. As I wrote in my 2018 pastoral letter “We Are One in Christ: A Pastoral Letter on Fundamentals of Christian Anthropology”:

We Catholics believe that all are equal in dignity. No one is “better” than anyone else. All deserve respect. All share basic human rights. No one is exempt from the responsibility to support and assist fellow human beings—whether they are from the same family/community, or they are strangers who are foreign to us in some way. Every human person, as created in the image of God, is a member of God’s family. For Christians, this also means that we are sisters and brothers of Christ and each other.

We also believe that all sins against the dignity of persons, including the taking of a human life, sexual abuse and sexual harassment, rape, racism, sexism, nativism and homophobia, are violations of this fundamental principle. We can (and sometimes must) disapprove of the behavior of others, but we may never belittle, disrespect or abuse others simply because of our differences, no matter how serious.

This fundamental principle—the sanctity of all human life—extends beyond what are sometimes called “life issues” to the dignity of the whole of God’s creation. Everything created by God has dignity and is deserving of reverence and respect. To abuse the environment, the world that God has given us, is to fail in our most basic responsibility as stewards of all God’s gifts. We are called to be guardians or caretakers of the mysteries of the universe both great and small.

In his magnificent encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis makes the inseparable connection between care for the environment and respect for the dignity of human life at all stages. As the Holy Father writes:

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the word “creation” has a broader meaning than “nature,” for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance. Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion (#76).

God’s loving plan is for all life to thrive, to develop its full potential, and so to give glory to God. When we human beings intervene thoughtlessly, in an attempt to show our mastery over nature, we are guilty of abusing the generous gifts we have received from the God who has entrusted them to our care.

Protection of human life is our first responsibility as stewards of creation. This includes guaranteeing the right to human life in our laws and our religious, social and cultural practices. It also means guaranteeing that all women and men are treated with equal dignity and respect regardless of race, sex, nationality, economic or social status, educational background, political affiliation or sexual orientation.

During this time of national remembrance, let’s pray for the courage to act in accordance with our most fundamental principles. Let’s safeguard human life and let’s respect the rights and dignity of all our sisters and brothers everywhere. †

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