Social Teaching and the Respect for Life

"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.' "

Matthew 25:35-36

Many people see issues regarding abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty as separate issues from Social Justice.  They are wrong.  Social Justice and pro-life issues are about respect for the dignity of life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.  It is not just a matter of life and death.  It includes how we treat life.  Do we kill it?  Do we allow it to suffer due to poverty?  Do we ignore life because it isn't our problem?

It seems that the most common argument today for abortion is the right of the woman to choose what to do with her body.  I agree that the woman has the right to choose what to do with her body but not the body of the innocent children within her womb.  Except in cases of rape, the woman made the choice to engage in sexual activity knowing it could result in a pregnancy.  Now, she must respect the life that has been created by the joint action of her and her sexual partner.  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2270-2275, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 155).  For those who have had an abortion and now feel the sorrow of that please check out this site on Hope After Abortion.

The most important thing to recognize here is the distinction between active and passive euthanasia.  Passive euthanasia involves the termination of extraordinary means of maintaining life.  An example of this is the termination of a respirator when there is no hope of life without the respirator.  Passive euthanasia is not treated as "suicide" or "murder" in the eyes of the Church but rather handing the life of the PERSON over to God, trusting them into His care.  Active euthanasia goes beyond passive euthanasia by taking action to cause the death of the PERSON such as the use of a lethal drug.  (For more on Euthanasia check out this paper I wrote.)  If you are interested in the Church teaching regarding the withdrawal of nutrition and hydration check out Pope John Paul's Address from March 20, 2004 on life sustaining treatments.

Death Penalty
People who support the death penalty often cite the Bible to support their position.  They cite the well-known "eye for an eye" and a "tooth for a tooth" passages from Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:19-20.  It is good to see people using the Bible in moral choices but they need to look at the New Testament and passages such as Matthew 5:38-42, which teach us retaliation is not good.  If we are to condemn a murderer as a criminal for not respecting life, don't we need to respect life in our own actions?  We have no right to ask others to respect life as precious if we are not first willing to do so.  (Catechism of the Catholic Church,  2266-2267, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 405).  For my personal thoughts following the execution of Saddam Hussein and the Death Penalty, click here.

The right to life is not just a matter of life and death. It is a question of the right to enjoy life. To do so we most have our basic needs of food, drink, shelter, clothing, and even health care. These are known as the Corporal Works of Mercy. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says in the end we will be judged by how we treat others.

The respect for life includes life at all stages. Read on to see some particular issues.

Stem Cell Research and Cloning
The use of embryonic stem cells for scientific research has been a major issue. In the last one to two years scientists have developed ways to obtain the desired stem cells from other cells, in particular skin cells. The Church does not object to stem cell research in general, only when embryos are destroyed. The Church encourages medical research when done ethically, respecting life. The destruction of embryos for research fails to respect life.   At conception, the embryo becomes a living human being and deserves to be treated as such. Some people wish to justify the use of embryos because of the potential to save many more lives. Respect for life is not a question of the number of lives. Every life is precious. It is not a question of the number of lives saved outnumbering the number of embryos destroyed. Again, every life is precious. For more information check out the following:

Cloning is also becoming a big issue.  Again, in the name of medical research some people are advocating cloning to create "material" for research.  There is a great potential for organ transplant/replacement but again many cross a line that fails to respect the dignity of life and the creation of life.  I do not believe we should even consider cloning people.  A person is not solely the sum of their genetic makeup.  Each of us has a soul and a physical body.  We are shaped by the world in which we live.  To clone a person will not give us the exact same "individual" for the cloned one will be raised under circumstances not identical to the original individual and may develop different beliefs and priorities.

For Further Reading

  • For my final in Biomedical Ethics, I answered four questions concerning the dignity of life, In Vitro Fertilization, Cloning, and Cooperation in Evil.  Click here to read my answers.
  • Here is a series of four webinars offered by Fr. Jeff on Catholic Pro-Life teaching - Treating Life with Dignity and Love

Updated 4/15/21