The headlines this past year repeatedly reminded us that life issues are constantly being confronted by individuals and families, doctors and researchers and our elected officials at every level of government. The death of Terry Schiavo called each of us to examine what we think about care at the end of life and whether we have completed health-care proxies in accordance with our consciences formed in faith and love. Research using human embryos and cloning techniques is being debated in the halls of Congress and our state Legislature. The skyrocketing cost of health care is forcing many families to question how they will afford medical care and health insurance. Never has it been more important to acquaint ourselves with the insights our Catholic faith provides us about the issues of life and death.
Let’s start at the beginning. Our faith teaches us, and science confirms, that in animals and humans alike life has a definitive beginning. Life begins the moment a unique, genetically identifiable individual begins to progress through the developmental stages of zygote, blastocyst, embryo, fetus, neonate, infant, baby, child, adolescent, adult, geriatric adult. Our faith also teaches us that unlike animals, human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. The spiritual dimension of our being is God’s great gift to us. Therefore, we are compelled to treat every person with the dignity and respect, care and concern that is due a child of God, regardless of whether that person is recently conceived, not yet born, intellectually disabled, emotionally unstable, physically handicapped, or frail and elderly. Though none of us knows definitively when our lives will end, we are consoled by God’s promise of a share in eternal life.
These beliefs encourage us to imitate the Good Samaritan. Resources and lives are devoted to the care of others through careers in medicine, the establishment of hospitals and the provision of care for our disabled and elderly. The call to care when cure is not possible is what motivates those involved in the hospice system to provide tender care and loving support to those who are dying, alleviating suffering to the fullest extent possible, but never intentionally hastening death. Respecting the dignity of all makes us insist that our developmentally disabled brothers and sisters live in life-giving and humane environments. The realization that all members of the human family, including ourselves, may encounter problems of illness and age helps us to agree to systems such as health-care insurance, disability programs, pensions and Social Security. The belief that every human being, regardless of his or her stage of development, is entitled to life is the reason we reject abortion and call for the right to life of the unborn and reject research on human embryos.
The embrace of these values by individual citizens and our insistence that the institutions of society work in ways consistent with these values keeps us from degenerating into a culture where the powerful are given every comfort and the weak are ignored or used only for the benefit of the powerful. Our understanding of the value of every human life prevents us from electing to dispose of those who cannot justify their existence based on their contributions to society. Our belief that human life is a gift from God prevents us from pursuing scientific interventions such as human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research that destroys human life. This same belief prevents us from ending our own or another’s life prematurely. We must do all that we can to ensure that our culture reflects what we know to be true through our faith.
Educational opportunities to explore life issues more fully are available through many parishes, diocesan programs and offerings through St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. I urge everyone to take advantage of opportunities to deepen their understanding of these important issues. Opportunities to voice your opinion about these subjects are available through the public-policy activities of your parish social-ministry committees, and I urge you to become involved. And I thank each of you for all that you do to care for one another and to protect human life.
Armantrout is diocesan life-issues coordinator.