The Gospel of God’s love for man and the dignity of the human person

By Father Angel Perez-Lopez

As we celebrate the anniversary of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (EV), we must acknowledge the many challenges present in our culture that undermine the dignity of the human person: infants are still murdered in the womb; assisted suicide is considered legal in some places; sick people are not valued as they should be, etc. In these difficult times, we make John Paul II’s principle our own – “the Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel” (EV, 2).

God is the center of the universe. We are not. Every creature that exists has been created to manifest God’s goodness. This is the correct angle from which we need to understand the dignity of the human person. Such dignity is never absolute. It is always relative to the Lord.

In fact, our natural dignity consists in our unique way of participating in God as the source of our being and goodness. Unlike any other creature of the material world, we are created in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen. 1:27). We resemble Him because of our rational nature. Therefore, our natural dignity concerns who we are. It is not about what we do or what we possess (cf. EV, 19). It cannot be lost (cf. EV, 9). It accompanies all of us for the rest of our lives, not only here on earth, but also in the afterlife.

Those who defend abortion or euthanasia, for instance, tend to mistake the natural dignity of the human person with the actual exercise of one of our personal capacities, such as reasoning, verbal communication, or free choice. To be sure, the actual exercise of these capacities is a manifestation of our natural dignity. Yet, they are not the root of it. Our dignity is found beyond the level of activity. It belongs to our being, to our rational nature, and the level to which such nature participates in God’s own being.

Of course, we must distinguish our natural dignity from the dignity that we acquire when we grow in God’s image and likeness. Indeed, saints resemble God more than sinners. Mother Teresa of Calcutta looks more like God than Adolf Hitler. In this sense, although both have the same natural and inalienable dignity, saints have a greater acquired or moral dignity. The latter can be lost through mortal sin during our earthly pilgrimage. However, once we are in heaven, that acquired dignity will be ours for all eternity. Ware created for this fullness of being and we should not settle for less.

The Gospel of God’s love for the human person is also present and at work in our day and age. Indeed, nothing escapes God’s power, not even a pandemic. Because of our personal dignity, we are called to freely cooperate with Him. Good things are positively willed by the Lord in view of His glory and our own good. Evil things are allowed by God, also in view of His glory and our good. For this reason, Saint Paul declares that, “in all things God is at work for the good of those who love Him” (Rom 8:28).

Nowadays, we need to remember that because of our dignity, we are created for heaven. There is a hierarchy of goods. To be sure, our life is a good that needs to be treasured, but the health of our soul is far more important. We can also sacrifice the health of our own body for the good of the souls of others.

As Christ said, no one has greater love than the one who lays down his life for his friends (cf. Jn. 15:13). These challenging times are also a call from God to treat others as God’s friends. If necessary, we are also to lay down our lives for them, following the example of Jesus. This is also why, as St. John Paul II reminds us, “the Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel” (EV, 2).

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.