Am writing this on National Heroes’ Day, which is also the penultimate day of the month, and I cannot help considering that, for reasons unclear to me, some of my businessmen-friends consider August as a “ghost month”.
Many of my generation probably associate “ghost” with death (as I do)—as in “giving up the ghost” (a less formal expression than “the separation of the soul from the body”)—and so this comes with the saddening realization that so many people I know died this month (not a few of them from Covid-19). To name them all here would somehow trivialize their deaths—the effect of being “merely” one among many (whereas each individual surely deserves at least a book-length eulogy). I pray for their eternal happiness. But thinking of Death also calls to mind its opposite, Life, human life, which, most of us know, as a truth of faith, is “holy” (i.e., belonging to God from its beginning to its end). This “sanctity” of human life translates (in more secular terms) into “the dignity of the human person”—one of the most fundamental principles of social life (as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church actually treats it).
Mainstream political discourse does give due respect to this “human dignity”; which is, in fact, the basis of the entire Bill of Rights (Article III of our 1987 Constitution)—a “listing” of basic rights that cannot be taken away or trampled on by state power, and which constitute “limitations” on government. But even the other “half” of constitutional law (on structure of government) can be seen as permeated by the notion of human dignity (at least in our democratic system): Government is or must be, as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address famously phrased it, “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Indeed, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, “the beginning, the subject and the goal of all social institutions is and must be the human person” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 25).
The advertence to Catholic social teaching is deliberate, to highlight the indispensable connection between human dignity and religious faith: From a purely human perspective, there seems to be no compelling reason for the proposition that human life is more precious than animal life. While it can be said that some animals are more “sophisticated” or have a higher degree of “consciousness” than others, we don’t really know if some form of animal life exists somewhere in the universe that could exceed mankind in intelligence and other qualities. Even among the known species of animals, there is really no way of comparing their capacity—to understand and to love (our greatest powers), if any, for instance—with our own. This explains, perhaps, the position of advocates of “animal rights” or of treating animals in a “humane” manner.
Of course, to put animals (or any species of creature) above or equal to man can be easily seen as contrary to the interest of mankind—a kind of unreasonable self-flagellation—which would explain why its proponents will often be in the minority. But the idea must have been around since ancient times, as in the “sacred cow” associated with Hinduism and the “white elephant” of Burma and Thailand, in the interplay of practical considerations and religious belief: Apparently, the cow was “sacred”—and therefore, should not be slaughtered—because it produced milk; while the white elephant, being rare and, being an elephant (costly to feed), became a symbol of a monarch’s power and affluence. Understandably, sacred cow and white elephant have entered the English language as idioms that precisely ridicule the original superstitions. “Sacred cow” now refers to someone or something unreasonably protected or held immune from criticism; and “white elephant” is property that cannot be disposed of, even while having unreasonably high maintenance costs.
Still, it seems that only the Judeo-Christian religious tradition has a clear teaching on man as the apex of creation. Thus, we know with certainty that “God created mankind in his image,” and bid man to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:27-28). The Psalms also sing of human dignity in similar terms, e.g., “O Lord, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth!/…What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him?/ You have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor./ You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things at his feet” (Ps 8:2-7).
The proximity or thought of death should also serve to remind us of the value and sanctity of human life, and so to live it rightly and as well as we should.
The words of Saint Pope John Paul II strike a poignant tune:
“The Gospel of Life is at the heart of Jesus’ message….Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God…life on earth is not an ‘ultimate’ but a ‘penultimate’ reality; even so, it remains a sacred reality entrusted to us to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters…. ‘By his incarnation the Son of God has united himself in some fashion with every human being’ (GS, No. 22). This saving event reveals to humanity not only the boundless love of God who ‘so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ (Jn 3:16), but also the incomparable value of every human person” (Evangelium Vitae, Nos. 1-2).
I end with the prayer that, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our Mother, we may all grow in the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ. (30.VIII.2021)