Respecting Life: A Wider View
By Jo Rotunno, RCL Benziger Publisher Emeritus
Each year, the Catholic Church assigns Respect for Life as the focus of our reflection and action during the month of October. Respect for human life in all its forms is at the core of Catholic Social Teaching. Dignity for the human person is the foundational principle of that teaching and all its other principles are related to it. God created humans to live in community with one another and to reflect the communion of persons that is the Holy Trinity. As Pope Francis has articulated it, we are called in a particular way to solidarity "with the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters: the poor, the disabled, the unborn and the sick, migrants and refugees, the elderly, and the young who lack employment" (Message to the 10'th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches, October 4, 2013).
In my own life, I have often observed how easy it is to feel compassion for those less fortunate than myself, for those who lack the power to attain the proper rights and privileges due to them as beloved children of God. And yet, at other times, I realize that those who upset my own comfort zone, those who are not properly grateful for my generosity, and those who have made poor choices in their lives and contributed to their own unfortunate situations are much harder to love. What of the worker who toils in the hot Texas sun to trim the lawns in my community but who is undocumented? What of the lazy person who refuses to work? What of the hardened criminal who ruthlessly takes the life of another? Surely I am not called to be as generous and compassionate to the rule breakers of my community? Or am I?
We cannot escape the message of the Gospel, of Jesus our Teacher, who dined with prostitutes, tax collectors, with poor and wealthy alike, and who forgave the hardened criminal who hung next to him on the cross. This is the message that prison ministers take to the incarcerated every day. I have had the privilege of hearing Sr. Helen Prejean speak on several occasions and I am always struck with her wholehearted passion for her ministry to these children of God who are the least attractive to many of us. Our Church has a very clear record in recent years on its opposition to the death penalty in almost every case (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2266-67). Pope Francis reiterated this position in his address to the World Congress Against the Death Penalty held in Madrid in 2013. He said that opposition to the death penalty is part of the Church's defense of human dignity, and is "a courageous reaffirmation of the conviction that humanity can successfully confront criminality" without resorting to the taking of the prisoner's life.
However, none of this is to take away from our obligation to support the rights of the unborn who are denied an opportunity to experience the joys of long life, of the elderly, often cast aside by our society, or of children who are neglected or abused in any way. In our own catechesis, we can help children and their families grow in their understanding of their responsibilities as disciples living in a community of faith. The call of the Gospel compels us to work to create the conditions that will make these sins against human dignity as obnoxious to their perpetrators as they are to us. It is a lifelong task, but it is our work as Christians.
Jo Rotunno serves as Publisher Emeritus for RCL Benziger.