C.S. Lewis once said: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—[destined for] immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
That is a deeply Christian message: there are no ordinary people. Paragraphs 2258-2330 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church treat the sanctity of human life and the absolute prohibition against killing the innocent. The fifth commandment forbids the direct and intentional taking of human life.
This means that everybody, everywhere has a dignity — and, in Christ, a destiny — beyond imagining. Human life is sacred because man is made in God’s image. Everybody is a somebody, with, one way or another, an eternal destiny.
The dignity of every life means killing the innocent is always wrong. This applies to everybody, especially the weak and marginalized, the unborn, the chronically and terminally ill, and the physically and mentally handicapped. Christians say that all of these are beautiful, precious and worthy of our love.
As the Second Vatican Council said, abortion is an unspeakable crime. One who completes a procured abortion or formally cooperates in such an act incurs an excommunication from the church. The church does not mean to restrict God’s mercy (which can be obtained in the Sacrament of Penance according to the prescriptions of Canon Law), but to show the gravity of the crime of abortion. No sin is ever beyond God’s mercy and no one seeks to judge the motivations and grave challenges that lead one to choose abortion. Still, the gravity of this crime cannot be overestimated.
In a similar way euthanasia is an offense against human dignity. God is especially close to the aged and infirm who deserve our love and affection and not denied basic care. Ordinary care — including in principle food and water even administered by artificial means — should be given. Extraordinary measures are of course not required and prudent judgments always keeping in mind the inherent dignity of every life and redemptive value of human suffering must be made.
The sanctity of human life leads the church to strive for peace. War is always a failure for humanity, as John Paul II would say. Unjust and irresponsible wars lead to unnecessary suffering and diminished world stability. The church recognizes certain conditions necessary for legitimate defense. They include: the damage inflicted by an aggressor must be lasting, grave and certain, it must be the last resort with a serious prospect of success, and the use of arms should not produce even greater evil. The judgment about these conditions belongs to those public authorities responsible for the common good.
In this regard, one considers the question of capital punishment. Legitimate defense is a grave responsibility for those with a duty to the common good. The church has always permitted recourse to the death penalty if it is the only way to effectively defend society against an aggressor. Yet, today, the cases in which this is necessary are rare if not practically non-existent.
The decision to wage war or to use the death penalty represents judgments of prudence about which there may be disagreement. As Cardinal Ratzinger explained to the American bishops, “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.” The killing of the innocent in abortion or euthanasia is an act that is intrinsically evil. War and the death penalty are modes of legitimate defense which the church seeks to limit but allows a certain diversity of prudential judgment.
Respect for the dignity of the human person entails a respect for bodily integrity. The 5th commandment therefore forbids bodily mutilation, such as sterilization. Respect for human dignity encompasses so much of the church’s moral teaching. At its depth it isn’t a list of prohibitions but profound Yes to human life and human love.
In a word, there are no ordinary people. Everybody is a somebody — a somebody worthy of our love.
Father Connors serves as associate pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in East Greenwich. This column is part of a yearlong biweekly series on the Year of Faith by Father Connors and Father Joseph Upton.