The dignity of every person

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress as Vice President Joe Biden (left) and Speaker of the House John Boehner look on in the House of Representatives Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Sept. 24. (CNS photo/James Lawler Duggan, Reuters)

Pope Francis in his address to Congress instructed lawmakers to “defend life at every stage of development.” I could be mistaken, but I believe the Catholic Church is the only institution that values the life and worth of every person at every stage of life – unborn, disabled, imprisoned and terminally ill – and from every background. I cannot recall a political party, another religion or secular institution which publically upholds the dignity of every individual in every circumstance. That’s a bold claim, and one I am proud of as a Catholic.

Too many people put qualifications on the value of unborn babies. Is the baby wanted, healthy, past a certain gestational period? They put limitations of the worth of people with illnesses. Is the person severely disabled, facing a terminal illness, too old to be useful? They do not extend basic human rights to people from a different background, including immigrants or individuals from a different race. In all of these cases, individuals claim that other people are not fully human and do not deserve rights inherently due every person. 

One of hardest teachings to accept is that even if a person commits the most heinous crime, he deserves to live as long as he is no longer a threat to society. Beyond this condemnation of the death penalty, Catholics are called to visit the imprisoned, love them, and lead them to Christ. It is a radical and difficult message. No one, not even the worst criminals, is exulted from God’s love and mercy. 

Critics of the church might point out that Catholics does not value gay, lesbian or transgender individuals. It is sad that the following has to be restated, but the church commands us to love and accept every person with same-sex attraction. It makes no distinctions. The church does condemn behaviors but never persons. With regard to transgender individuals, church teaching fits nicely with the mantra “born that way” (I believe it is a Catholic saying). Every person is born in a beautiful fashion, and you never have to alter your body to be accepted. The Catholic response is that you are good, beautiful, fully human and worthy of dignity as you were created by God.

I can say without hesitation that the Church teaches us to value every person. Catholics do not always accept this teaching, nor do they always live it out in action. There have also been low points in the history of the Catholic Church, when the principles laid out by Jesus were ignored. As a historian, I never want to whitewash the history of the church, but many more forgotten moments exist when the church stood up for people neglected by society.

Roman Paterfamilias and Domestic Proselytization

When Catholicism first appeared, the western world was dominated by the Roman Empire. The central unit was the family (more like a household) where the paterfamilias, the male head of the household, had complete control over the lives of members of the household, even the right of life and death. Rome was a slave state, especially in Italian peninsula where 40 percent of the population was slaves. The paterfamilias could kill slaves or women of the household without retribution.

Christianity was a religion for outcasts. After all, Christians believe God come to earth and was an outsider. He had infinite power and had a plan in place since the beginning of time. Yet, when Jesus came to earth, He was killed and only had a few supporters in the end. He was not successful in worldly terms, and thus, the new religion appealed to social outcasts.

Take a second and recall the stories of early Christians. I am surprised by how frequently a conversion was initiated by a mother or wife. Most famously, St. Augustine was drawn to Christianity by his mother St. Monica, and St. Helena influenced her son Constantine to become a Christian. The pattern even continues with the rise of the Germanic kingdoms. The first Catholic, German state was founded by the Franks in present day France, and Clovis, king of the Franks, was baptized because his wife St. Clotilde insisted upon it.

Historians even developed a term to describe this phenomenon: domestic proselytization. It describes the common occurrence when women converted to Christianity, then convinced their husbands or sons to become Christians. Historians speculate the majority of early Christians were women, drawn to the church by its message of relieving suffering through faith and promising eternal salvation to all.

The church has a poor reputation for its treatment of women, but if Christianity was repressive for women, how do you explain women secretly joining Christianity, often against the will of males in lives? Why were women insisting that their husbands become Christian? We can debate all day whether Christianity was good or bad for women, but I think it is important to see how actual women voted with their feet. Christianity offered women more dignity than the religion and culture of Rome, and they flocked to it.

Healthcare in Medieval Europe

When the Roman Empire fell apart, urbanization, the economy, and trade all went into decline. While I would argue that the medieval period was not the backwards era it is often made out to be, the economic situation undeniably deteriorated, which increased the number of poor and destitute. In this period, the Catholic Church was the single provider of welfare services for those individuals.

An explosion of monasteries occurred in the Early Middle Ages, flowing from the inspiration of St. Benedict. The Benedictines, following the rule of St. Benedict, made caring for the sick a top priority, and they established hospitals to care for the sick as part of their monasteries. Charlemagne in the early ninth centurydecreed that a hospital should be attached to every cathedral and monastery, further establishing the role of the church as a caregiver. Again in ninth century, the secular government ordered that a hospital should be attached every collegiate church run by diocesan or secular clergy, thus providing healthcare in urban areas.

In the High Middle Ages, religious orders were founded specifically to serve in hospitals, most famously the Holy Ghost Fathers. They were approved by Pope Innocent III and quickly founded a hospital in 1216 in Rome, called Santo Spirito. Every major city soon had a Holy Ghost hospital, and by the end of the medieval period, the order had close to 1,000 hospitals. Their houses provided a universal healthcare system based on charity and free services and laid the foundation of medical studies and professional physicians in Europe.

With the Reformation and secularization of the Early Modern period, many of the religious institutions were seized by the government. That said, the tradition of Catholic healthcare continues today, with the church being the largest private provider of healthcare in the world. It operates currently 5,500 hospitals, and a quarter of the world’s healthcare facilities. Oddly, even with this unparalleled effort, the church is still seen as anti-healthcare.  

Spanish Dominicans in America

The treatment of Native Americans by the Spanish is considered as one of the worst atrocities in human history, and this analysis is largely correct. It should be noted that disease killed far more indigenous people than the Spanish, and the Aztec regime was so violent that many tribes allied with the Spanish against them. Still, their actions are inexcusable.

How do know about the Spanish victims? Why was there so much documentation about their crimes? Our knowledge comes from the priests, mainly Dominicans, sent to minister among the Spanish, who largely protested the violence and developed a philosophy for universal rights in response to mistreatment of the natives, laying the groundwork for international law.

In 1511, the Dominican Antonio de Montesinos preached to the leadership of the Island of Hispaniola: “I who am a voice of Christ crying in the wilderness of this island… you are in mortal sin, that you live and die in it, for the cruelty and tyranny you use in dealing with these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged a detestable war against these people?”

The sermon created a stir in the universities of Spain as the rights of Native Americans were debated. One of leading thinkers was Francisco de Vitoria, another Dominican, and he is considered the father of international law. He argued that all men are equally free and have a right to life, freedom, and property. He argued that all humans by virtue of being humans had these rights, and the sinfulness of the persons, did not limit them. It was not less sinful to kill a pagan as opposed to kill a Christian. In practical terms, he considered the native princes to be legitimate rulers, who had the right to their land. Furthermore, he argued that their cultural and religious differences or limited civilization did not constitute grounds for a just war, and he reasoned that the native population had to be treated as equals.

Vitoria was the intellectual leader of the movement, but Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas worked tirelessly for fifty years to put these ideas into practice, earning the title of “Protector of the Indians.” He documented extensively the mistreatment of the indigenous population. Unfortunately, the ideas of the sixteenth-century Dominicans were only partially enacted by the Spanish authorities. The silver lining of the atrocities is that for the first time theorists looked at the whole human race, and argued for a universal sense of equality and human rights. Contrary to the narrative you learned in high school history, it was not secular Enlightenment thinkers, but Spanish Dominicans inspired by St. Thomas Aquinas and the natural law, who first postulated these ideas.

I am proud to be a Catholic, and I unabashedly proclaim the beauty of the Catholic position on the complete dignity of human life. Certainly, Catholics have acted against other groups in the past. I do not deny it, but we also have to remember individuals like St. Monica, the Holy Ghost Fathers and Las Casas as well.

Dr. H. P. Bianchi will be speaking on the history of the Catholic Church on October 21, 7:00PM at The Grill at the Harryman House. For more information see the Facebook event.


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