Catholic Sentinel/Ed Langlois
A woman is welcomed to the Mother and Child Education Center by Maura White, the executive director. The center aims to respect human life and dignity by seeing all comers as ‘masterpieces of God’s creation.’
Catholic Sentinel/Ed Langlois
A woman is welcomed to the Mother and Child Education Center by Maura White, the executive director. The center aims to respect human life and dignity by seeing all comers as ‘masterpieces of God’s creation.’
In his 2013 apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis investigates the reasons for the recent economic downturn, heading straight for the heart of the matter: “The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”

The church’s deep respect for human life and human dignity covers a lot of ground.

The church opposes abortion and euthanasia, unjust warfare, unfair labor practices, destruction of farmland, economic oppression and pornography, among other affronts. It supports for fair trade, a welcome for immigrants, support for pregnant women, micro-enterprises and countless other projects to enhance human well-being.

In a nutshell: people are more important than things.

The first theme of Catholic social teaching has to do with life and dignity of human person because the other six themes are built on those principles, says Matt Cato, director of the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace.

“It’s more than just ‘human life is sacred.’ That is the sound bite,” says Cato. “The rationale is that Christ is in each one of us. There’s the connection between the two great commandments. If you are not loving your neighbor you are not loving God.”

Catholic social teaching starts with scripture, particularly the prophets and the life and teaching of Jesus. But, Cato says, the church does not stop there. It has taken revelation and applied it to modern life as new situations arise.

In 1891, for example, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Rerum Novarum, standing up for the dignity of the working classes who were suffering amid the industrial revolution. In a document considered the start of modern Catholic social teaching, Pope Leo rejected both communism and unrestricted capitalism in favor of the common good and those who are poor.     

Amid the Cold War in 1963, St. John XXIII wrote Pacem in Terris, addressing conflict, religious freedom and women’s rights. In 1995, during the height of abortion movement and the start of assisted suicide votes, St. John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae took a stand for the unborn, people who are disabled, the sick and death row prisoners.

“We apply our tradition to the world we live in,” says Cato.  

Regular people can embody the first theme of Catholic social teaching in a lot of ways, Cato explains.

People can pray for respect of all life, because that changes hearts, Cato says. Even five minutes a day could work wonders.

The guy in the pew might vow not to use pornography, which Cato says devalues human beings and makes them commodities. Such a man could convince his friends to break the habit and to refuse to seek out prostitutes, who often are entrapped in the life. Everyone could boost sensitivity to how businesses use sex, like having an attractive woman stand next to a car for sale.

At Mass, Catholics can live out the theme by treating people with mental illness with greater dignity, says Cato.

Parishioners can advocate for legislation, like the proposal in Congress to ban abortions after 20 weeks.

Even middle class Oregonians can take a look at where their money is invested and see if that is upholding life and dignity. Mutual funds, where most people keep their retirements, may put money into private prisons or tobacco, for example.

To help immigrants and potential immigrants, everyone can work on ways to make life better in Latin America, so there is not pressure for anyone to leave home. One option is buying fair trade goods.

That helps producers in other countries get a decent price, make a living and even create jobs. Catholic Relief Services offers fair trade coffee and chocolate. Parishes could boost sales tremendously by purchasing fair trade coffee, Cato says.

Cato, Catholic Charities officials and the Mother and Child Education Center in Portland are promoting the 1,000 Day Campaign, which seeks to support children for their first 1,000 days, from conception through age two. That means good nutrition, an unpolluted environment, and a loving home, even if that means adoption. Parishioners will be invited to get involved.

“It’s the right thing to do for these kids. We need to stand in their corner,” says Robin Neal, who for years ran Catholic Charities’ pregnancy support and adoption program. She has been promoted to serve as the agency’s social services director.

“Each individual is sacred,” Neal says. “That seems like just the right place to start.”

Helping agencies have chances all the time to help protect human dignity. Neal says workers try to “wrap as much love as possible” around the troubled people who seek help, having made all kinds of mistakes.

Neal contends that workers and supporters who are humble enough to recognize their own shortcomings find it easier to respect the dignity of others.   

Maura White is executive director of the Mother and Child Education Center, which aids women in crisis pregnancies. She says the mothers, as well as the unborn babies, are seen as precious and dignified. The center not only helps mothers choose life and give birth, but supports them in following years with addiction treatment, food, shelter, diapers, parenting classes and just plain attention.   

“If you are not feeling loved, it’s hard to love a baby,” White says. “Both mother and child are masterpieces of God’s creation.”