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When a cute picture, heart-wrenching story, or urgent cry for help gains momentum, those who pass it along to their network can feel like they are part of a mini-movement helping to make something obscure into something important. When a story spreads to a huge audience overnight, it has “gone viral” (think of an epidemic flu virus). It’s almost the definition of an important story in the media these days: the more a story is followed, the more significant it is. When an important event occurs quietly and is overlooked, however, then its value can seem questionable to us as consumers of the media.But what if that media consumer mentality spills over into how we think about the significance of human beings? Does our worth depend on outside factors like how popular we are? Is our value really determined by our influence on others? These are things outside our control – extrinsic to who we are. As persons created in the image and likeness of God, our dignity is a gift. It is not extrinsic, but intrinsic. Nothing that others do to us can add to or subtract from our built-in value. Human persons have inherent worth and are deserving of respect from womb to tomb regardless of how we are treated by family members, friends, and strangers alike.
News of a positive pregnancy test is, sadly, not always met with joy, but this does not mean that the child growing in her mother’s womb possesses less value than others in utero whose parents and communities welcome their conception. It is precisely because the vulnerable child has built-in, intrinsic worth that it’s offensive to objectify her, label her “unwanted,” and ultimately undermine her right to life. To honor the unborn child’s dignity, we should walk alongside her mother with emotional and practical support as she plans for a healthy pregnancy and her child’s upbringing.We find a similar dynamic especially at the end of life. Neglect of our elders is an offense against their intrinsic dignity as persons made in God’s image. Too many of those who are elderly, sick, or dying may find that they are alone or abandoned in their final days. Sadly, many would treat that extrinsic circumstance as reason to think that their dignity has diminished. If one believes that lie, it becomes more tempting for the patient to give up on life, or even resort to assisted suicide. Truth is, the patient’s value is, like that of the unborn child, intrinsic. His dignity is immeasurable. Attitudes that measure worth in terms of external factors (like productivity or attention from others) violate human dignity. To honor their God-given dignity, we should offer psychiatric and palliative care when needed to alleviate mental and physical pain.
Through prayer and the sacramental life, we can resist the worldly view that lets the less influential ones recede from view. Throughout the life span, let us honor the intrinsic dignity of those entrusted to us.
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