As Western culture moves farther away from the Judeo-Christian beliefs that established it and made it a distinctive civilization in the history of humanity, there is a swift return to darker worldviews. In the Bible readings from Mass this Sunday, we are reminded that the message of God is to be “a light to the nations.” As this light is accepted, there is human flourishing. Where it is hidden or smothered, darkness ensues.
This movement to darkness can be seen in many places, but none of them are as clearly observable and apparent as the treatment and eventual attack and dissolution of vulnerable people.
Historically, the West was marked by its humane sense of the dignity of each person. It accepted the self-evident truth that dignity was given by our Creator. As such, dignity is not given to us by our parents, or by a legislative body, or by a Supreme Court, or by insurance companies. Our dignity is not even given to us by ourselves, or by our health, utility, or a supposed quality of life. Our dignity is given to us by our Creator and so nothing, or no one, can diminish or steal it from us.
Such a core belief allowed the West to see vulnerable, sick, and weakened people as blessings. It was the basis behind the call and commission to protect, serve, and care for those in need. And so, the orphan and the widow found shelter and food. The sick and suffering were given assistance and affection. Those with special needs were accompanied and defended. The terminally ill were beloved and esteemed. The vulnerable and weak were valued as treasures of society.
In each of these situations, the lives of those in distress or in need were understood to be opportunities for families and society to grow in virtue and selfless service.
Such goodwill, even if not always lived up to, was understood as the norm and the expectation in Western civilization, marked as it was by its reverence and esteem for human dignity.
But what happens when the foundation is cracked, and such a core belief is dismantled? Can a humane society continue with a robust sense of human dignity?
Speaking to U.S. bishops in 1998, Pope Saint John Paul II taught: “As Pastors responsible for the life of the Church, we need to meditate deeply on the signs of a new spiritual crisis, whose dangers are apparent not only at the personal level but regarding civilization itself. If this crisis deepens, utilitarianism will increasingly reduce human beings to objects for manipulation.”
The pontiff warned us that if the moral truth revealed in the dignity of the human person is lost, then “a new era of barbarism, rather than a new springtime of hope, may well follow” the twentieth century, which was a “century of tears.”
In light of such comments, we need to ask: Are we entering a new age of barbarism?
As the Western, holistic view of dignity fades, so do the vulnerable and weak. They are no longer seen as blessings, but as burdens. They are approached as threats and parasites. They inconvenience the healthy and make the strong feel uncomfortable. In reaction, the healthy look the other way and the strong seek the destruction of the weak. And so the attack begins.
In the West, it is a regrettable, but regular, feature on news reports to hear about someone being refused care, denied food, and rejected from treatment. No longer is the attack solely on the vulnerable at the beginning of life, now the battle has been taken to the end of life.
If someone cannot keep up, serve a utility, fulfill some pleasure, or defend themselves, then they are now open game. The belief in human dignity is sporadic and fading.
The idea of being sick or in the dying process, the concern over losing one’s sense of autonomy, makes an unhindered society profoundly restless and agitated. Many people are afraid of the unknown, worried about feeding tubes, and fearful about not being in charge of their own lives. The knowledge of our Creator, the consolation of eternity, the call to virtuous suffering, and the assurance of being loved and cared for in sickness are disappearing. And Western civilization is disappearing with them.
What are we to do?
The Judeo-Christian beliefs that built Western civilization are the same beliefs that can rebuild and restore it. If we want to see the creativity, beauty, and excellence of Western civilization again, then we must allow light to shine and so return to an unconditional and robust belief in human dignity. We need to reclaim and live again our core belief in the untouchable dignity of every human life, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.
If we return to our senses, and protect and care for the vulnerable and weak, then our civilization will once again flourish since the very humanity that we defend is the very humanity that will ignite and renew us as a civilization.
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