What Catholics Believe - Chapter Twenty-Nine

The Fifth Commandment: Promote the Culture of Life

In this issue of Harvest, we resume our chapter by chapter reflections of the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults.

The U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCA) presents and interprets the Fifth Commandment – Thou shall not kill – in light of the New Covenant, in Christ, through whom all life was created, saved, and sanctified.  The Fifth Commandment is expanded by the USCCA to include the exhortation to “Promote the Culture of Life” (387).

Promoting a culture of life entails both an intellectual exercise and an exercise of the heart, moved by the Spirit, to follow up one’s understanding with action. The intellectual piece is to understand the human person as one who is in relationship to God and neighbor. That knowledge then opens the way for the Holy Spirit to imbue our hearts with a call to act, following Jesus’ examples in the Gospel. Through his healing and restorative actions, He shows us that the unborn, the sick, the frail elderly, and all vulnerable human beings must be loved as our neighbors and integrated into our communities.

It is in the light of Christ’s example that the Church, through Scripture and tradition, continues to reflect and develop her knowledge and understanding of a theological anthropology, that is, the nature of the human person created in the image and likeness of God. Such an anthropology establishes that every human life, from nascent life in the womb (or the lab) to the end of natural life, enjoys the dignity of being in relationship with God, Creator of all life. Being in relationship with God is the common denominator for all human beings and, therefore, provides a foundation for understanding the importance of human solidarity and human community. Each person is bestowed with an inviolable dignity from the moment of conception, and it is incumbent upon all of us, as neighbor to one another, to respect and honor that dignity.

Let us consider, for example, the life of the elderly woman suffering from multiple infirmities who feels she is a burden to her family and society. She may eventually feel coerced into requesting assistance from a physician to end her life. What about a socially climbing married couple feeling pressured by medical professionals to end a pregnancy because the child will be born with a disability? How might you approach these situations in light of a Catholic understanding of the dignity of the human person?  In each case, we find an element of marginalization of a human being – that is that, at some level, each falls outside of what society considers to be a life worth living.

American popular culture promotes a vision of society that seeks to eliminate suffering, dependence, and the “burden” of caring for the very young, the disabled, and the very old.  Buying into such a concept of the “good life” is not usually done in a consciously self-centered way. Rather, we tend to be influenced throughout our lives by expectations and norms that compete with a Christian notion of solidarity and social justice. In response, the USCCA challenges us to move beyond the prohibitive aspect of the Fifth Commandment -- beyond what we shouldn’t do – to what we should do: Promote a culture of life.

Let us reflect with Pope Francis upon those whom we are called to act with, and on behalf of, in the pursuit of protecting and promoting all human life: “We are called to reach out to those who find themselves in the existential peripheries of our societies and to show particular solidarity with the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters: the poor, the disabled, the unborn and the sick, migrants and refugees, the elderly and the young who lack employment.” - 10th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Oct. 4, 2013

Pope Francis urges us to “reach out” to vulnerable human life. Reflecting on what this means for each one of us is a good place to begin. As members of the Church, we are called to continual conversion of heart in order that we may be increasingly aware of the dignity of others. May we respond, in love and in our own unique way, by promoting a culture of life in our homes, parishes, workplaces, and communities.