“Whatever you do to one of these least ones, you do to me.”
Those familiar words of Christ remain a perennial challenge to our consciences — individually and collectively — as we consider our responsibilities toward one another.
Election years bring into sharp focus the daunting task of structuring a just and functional society. We struggle to order priorities and balance competing claims to both the benefits and responsibilities of life in common. While essential to the good ordering of society, Catholic moral principles cannot be immediately translated into the complexities of law or policy.
Yet, at the heart of all morality is the simple but inexhaustibly profound truth that each person is created as a deliberate exercise of divine love: made in the image of God. Human dignity is not assigned by governments or corporations, not decided upon by political majorities or legislative bodies. It derives directly from God, the Lord and Giver of Life. Dignity may be more or less adequately recognized and protected by our policies, but it can never be eradicated by them.
True, concrete circumstances lead to enormous differences in health, education, material goods, social status and other characteristics in the human community. But these remain secondary to that essential truth: the intrinsic value of each human life is infinite, inviolable and immune from mere human reckoning.
Human dignity does not vary with our stage of development or decline; it remains untouched by incidental factors of age, health, dependency or need.
Creating our personal history
“Whatever you do to the least, you do to me.” These words from the familiar scene of the Last Judgment remind us that our choices are not random, isolated actions but steps in the creation of a personal history that will endure beyond this life. As C.S. Lewis put it, each day we are choosing the kind of people we will be forever.
In this Gospel, it is not those who are suffering who are under judgment. It is those witnessing those sufferings that are judged, based on how they respond or fail to respond to the human dignity that endures beneath affliction, strife or temptation. It is only by presuming the intact dignity of those in need that Christ’s lesson here makes sense at all.
By God’s wisdom, the “least” are not clearly identified. Examples are given in the Gospel, but they are not exhaustive. The sufferings that call forth our concern and help — hunger and thirst, sickness and isolation, loneliness and want — cross the boundaries of race and ethnicity, gender and creed, orientation and status. They are situations any of us may experience at some point.
So those we count “least” can be many different people — not only the unborn, the dying, the poor, the immigrant, but also those who take opposing viewpoints on issues, those we consider inferior, or troublesome or unworthy of our time and effort. They may be those in our neighborhoods and families, or those in places far away.
It is easy to acknowledge the dignity of those we naturally respect. It is the work of grace to do so for all persons, made in God’s image. It was the Christian faith that brought the idea to respect the dignity of all life into social structures and institutions that have changed human history.
Political slogans and partisan priorities might suggest that according respect for human dignity is a zero-sum game, that caring for some necessarily comes at the expense of others. This is a fallacy. Resources may be limited, but love and respect need not be.
Father Tom Knoblach is consultant for health care ethics in the Diocese of St. Cloud and pastor of Holy Spirit, St. Anthony and St. John Cantius parishes in St. Cloud.