Are all attacks on human dignity the same?

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Church teaching helps us in our discernment between good and evil

Q: I attended Mass recently and the priest was preaching about the dignity of the human person. He mentioned offenses in our culture against that dignity, saying something about a “hierarchy” of life issues, that some take precedence over others. I’m confused. Aren’t all attacks against the dignity of the human person really the same? Please shed some light on this issue for me.

A: Let me begin by saying that in a certain sense, you are absolutely correct. All attacks against the dignity of the human person, from the purposeful targeting of innocent civilians during a war to human trafficking, are morally offensive and gravely demean the human person.

However, the priest who delivered that homily was correct in saying that there is a hierarchy of life issues; they are not all created equal. Let me explain.

Not all attacks on the dignity of the human person have the same moral weight. Certain offenses are always considered objectively evil, while others do not share this moral absolute.

There are three elements in judging whether any act is good or evil: object, intention and circumstances. By object, we mean the moral object or action, not a physical object. There are certain actions that are always evil and can never be condoned. Two examples (both of which are legal in our state) are abortion and euthanasia.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.” (CCC 2271) Basically, there would never be a case in which an abortion could be seen as morally justifiable.

The same holds for euthanasia: “Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.” (CCC 2277)

Abortion and euthanasia are always morally wrong because they attack the most innocent and vulnerable forms of human life, which require extra protection and vigilance; people at either of these stages cannot protect themselves.

Other offenses against the dignity of the human person do not carry the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia and are not considered always morally evil, because the moral object is not evil in itself. Capital punishment and war are examples.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote before becoming pope, “While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinions even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty.”

With regard to capital punishment, the catechism teaches: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

“If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

“Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’” (CCC 2267)

While St. John Paul II, Pope Francis and many others within our church have spoken out forcefully against capital punishment, questioning its existence especially in the first world, it is not necessarily morally evil in all cases. Because of this and other similar issues, the church teaches that there is a “hierarchy” of moral gravity in attacks against the dignity of the human person, some ranking higher on the scale than others.

May God’s blessings be with you today and always!

Northwest Catholic - Dec. 2014

Father Cal Christiansen

Father Cal Christiansen is pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Mountlake Terrace. Send your questions for “Ask Father” to editor@seattlearch.org.

Website: www.nwcatholic.org/spirituality/ask-father