This article I wrote was originally posted on the Catholic Culture website. Due to the length of it, I only posted a small section of it below.
Bridging the Gap: Why the effective communication of the Gospel is vital for the preservation of human dignity.
A World without Christ: Will the 1st century repeat itself?
The year was 60 A.D. Seneca, a Roman philosopher, decided to go to the show; not a play in the theatre but a show of a real life and death drama. He didn’t know what he was getting into. He had heard about the gladiator shows at the Coliseum, but he wanted to see for himself what the hype was all about. Thinking that he was going to be entertained and distracted from the burdens of everyday life, he instead witnessed something he would never forget. He discovered that his beloved Rome— the home of the most “civilized” empire yet to date —gave no thought to human dignity during its state-sponsored entertainment. In his own words:
“I come home more greedy, more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a midday exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation…But it was quite the contrary…These noon fighters are sent out with no armor of any kind; they are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain…In the morning they throw men to the lions; at noon they throw them to the spectators.”1
Another prominent figure during that time was Petronius, a contemporary of Seneca, and a fellow advisor of the Emperor Nero, who had a different opinion of these shows. With a feverish anticipation, he wrote to a friend reminding him not to forget about the gladiator show; after all, there was a new shipment of fresh blood. He could barely contain his joy as he writes:
"Don't forget, there's a big gladiator show coming up the day after tomorrow. Not the same old fighters either. They've got a fresh shipment in. There's not a slave in that batch. Just wait. There'll be cold steel for the crowd, no quarter and the amphitheatre will end up looking like a slaughterhouse. There's even a girl who fights from a chariot."2
Seneca and Petronius were both products of their culture. Seneca was a refined gentleman who seemed to rise above the times, yet even he endorsed infanticide without the slightest hesitation. He once said, “We drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal. Yet it is not anger, but reason that separates the harmful from the sound.”3 As for Petronius, he was an unabashed sponsor of human cruelty through and through. He had no scruples about the moral decadence that surrounded him.
These two men failed to realize, as did most at the time, that when even one person’s human dignity is violated or ignored, then it is a loss for humanity; a loss that eventually finds its way to the indifferent. It should not be surprising then that the culture of death caught up with both of these men. Indeed, Seneca and Petronius were forced to commit suicide by their beloved Emperor Nero; an emperor whom they faithfully served.
This was the world without Christ; a place where cruelty was the rule, not the exception; a world where human dignity was but a dream.
Why We Must Bridge the Gap
Bridging the gap between Faith and Human Dignity is a mission of great urgency for the Catholic Church today. The wider this gap, the more human dignity will be a dream of days gone-by rather than an everyday ethic of life. In the world of Seneca and Petronius the Gospel of Life was in its infancy and the culture of death and cruelty had yet to be contested. As we had just seen from firsthand witnesses, human dignity does not fare well in an unbaptized world. For that reason alone, it is a world worth avoiding.
The key to the preservation of human dignity is the same today as it was in the first-century: The Gospel of Jesus Christ. To the extent the Gospel fades from the public square, human dignity becomes unclear and more difficult to define. The only definition of human dignity that has withstood the test of time is the one that Christ gives through the Catholic Church. It is based on where we came from, who we are, and where we are going. This definition not only comes from the Author of our human existence but it fully corresponds to the truth of who we are. As James Cardinal Gibbons said, Instructed by His example, the Church deals with men as they really are.
As history has shown, in order for human dignity to be universal, permanent, and practical, the following truths of the Gospel need to be acknowledged:
•That every human being was created by God;
•That every human being was created like God;
•That every human being was created for God.
It is also true that we were created for own sake and for no other person. Although every unborn person is utterly dependent on his or her mother, that baby does not exist for the mother. Second to God, the person— unborn or otherwise —exist for himself. The life that was given to him was a life he was meant to enjoy. Not even parents own their children. They are custodians, not owners. Ownership, properly speaking, belongs to our Creator. And because we belong to God and ourselves we can rightly complain if we are being used by others. From the beginning, human beings were meant to be loved for their own sake. This is why slavery or modern day human trafficking is such a travesty.
With regard to a person’s body, it is God who has the exclusive right to say, “Mine!” People talk about “my” body or “my” life as if they themselves created it. They forget that it was given to them by Someone else. We did not will ourselves into existence; it follows that we do not have the right to will ourselves out of existence. This is why abortion, murder, and even suicide are grave sins in the eyes of God. We are custodians of our body like a tenant who rents property. We have the responsibility to use it properly, but we do not have the right to do with it as we please.
If human rights are not founded on God’s rights, then there is no rational basis for respecting human life from conception to natural death. Humanistic or even humanitarian incentives are not enough. If God’s authority is not in the equation, or the definition, then someone else’s authority will be; the authority to decide who lives and who dies. When this kind of power is usurped from God by the State or by the medical community, then the value of human life is subject to revision. Let there be no doubt, the beneficiaries of this revision are far fewer than God would have it.
Therefore, in order for each person to benefit from his or her human dignity, the Christian definition of human dignity itself needs to be publicly recognized and accepted. Christ came to restore our human dignity on this side of eternity with the same force he used to save our souls for the other side. We sometimes forget that what our soul profited for eternity, our body benefited in time. That is, because of the example Christ left us, his Church became the benefactor of those in physical need. This is why Thomas Woods, author of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, could write: "It would take many large volumes to record the complete history of Catholic charitable work carried on by individuals, parishes, dioceses, monasteries, missionaries, friars, nuns, and lay organization. Suffice it to say that Catholic charity has had no peer in the amount and variety of good work it has done and the human suffering and misery it has alleviated."