Saturday, December 13, 2008

Human Dignity

It is probably no coincidence that the Vatican has released a long treatise on the dignity of the human person (“Dignitas Personae”) in the same week that we celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The two in many ways go hand in hand, and it is no surprise that I am involved with the selection panel for an award to Christian doctors and other health workers involved in the response to HIV & AIDS known as the Dignity & Right to Health Awards. Health and human dignity hold together - especially when we understand health as wholeness of being (health and wholeness and holiness all share the same Anglo-Saxon root - and parallel the Hebrew word "shalom" meaning a state of right relationships and well being).

The aim of the Vatican's three-part instruction 'is to provide responses from the Church to new bioethical questions that didn’t exist when the Church released her last biomedical document in 1987. According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) the document is the result of six years of study and deliberation on the most recent developments in the field of bio-technology. The document seeks “both to contribute ‘to the formation of conscience’ and to encourage biomedical research respectful of the dignity of every human being and of procreation.”' Catholic News Agency

And there is no doubt that the rapid acceleration of modern medical technology is out pacing our ethical thinking. At both ends of life and (increasingly) in the middle, we are seeing the boundaries shifted - from regenerative medicine based around stem cells, to pushing back the boundaries on pre-term survival of infants. This is increasingly complex moral and clinical territory. An intelligent input in to the debates from a Christian perspective is to be welcomed, and Dignitas Personae gives that input eloquently.

I have become increasingly challenged and fascinated by the Catholic approach to a 'consistent ethic of life', as it holds together the traditional, conservative Christian concerns over abortion, euthanasia and experimentation on human embryos, with the traditional liberal concerns for social justice, care for the poor, and opposition to war and militarism. Holding together these two areas, usually associated respectively with the conservative right and liberal left is, I believe, deeply Biblical, and represents a continuum rather than a clash of interests.

Justice for the child in poverty, exploited as a child soldier, trafficked into the sex industry, or left to die of cholera or AIDS holds hand with a concern for the unborn and an opposition to abortion on demand. A concern to prevent legalised killing of the very ill or disabled goes hand in hand with true compassion and care for the sick, disabled and dying. Not that there are always clear cut answers to these questions - but our responses to them must be couched in compassion rather than judgementalism, in seeking understanding and dialogue rather than pushing our own views as the only way.

Nevertheless, this strong sense of human dignity and the right to life and health is why the early church used to scandalise Roman society by going out in the streets to bring in the poor, the homeless, the sick and the dying, including babies left outside the city gates ("exposed") because they were unwanted or deemed 'imperfect'. One wonders if in a 100 years time our societies' increasing acquiescence to abortion on demand and euthanasia, as well as our fondness for war as a tool of diplomacy and our general inertia in ending the scandal of extreme poverty in the developing world, will be seen as barbaric as the Roman practice of exposing unwanted infants or casting out the disabled and elderly?

But at the heart of all of this is not these emotive issues themselves, but something more basic and more wonderful. Human life has something essentially of value and dignity - so much so that we should declare human rights a global priority, and that we should stress, in the face of advances in medical technology, or the spread of tyranny and human trafficking, the importance and value of each and every human life. For me, the central reason for that dignity is simple - not only are we made in God's image, but also that God took on human flesh, that he grew in the womb as we do, that he was born as we are - vulnerable, naked, dependant on human parents. That he grew and lived, and ultimately died as we live and die, and in so doing lifted our ordinary human existence to the divine. This message is deeply resonant, especially as we approach Christmas.

Once you see all humanity in that light, then everyone you meet, tweet or otherwise interact with is worthy of the utmost value and respect, because there is something of the image of God in them. It impels us to care for the vulnerable and fight for justice for the poor, and not for the sake of a quiet life acquiesce to a culture of comfort that turns a blind eye to the suffering of others

That, perhaps, is one of the greatest messages of Christmas.

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