Catholic Social Teaching and the Protection of Human Life

What does the Church say about the protection of human life as a social justice issue?

While the commandments “Do not kill” (Exodus 20:13) and “… do not slay the innocent and righteous” (Exodus 23:7) clearly prohibit direct actions which lead to the loss of human life, the Catechism of the Catholic Church also states that these commandments forbids doing anything with the intention of indirectly bringing about a person’s death, exposing someone to mortal danger without grave reason, and refusing to give assistance to someone in danger (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2269).

The Catechism continues to note how social injustices lead to the loss of human life in a number of ways: “The acceptance by human society of murderous famines, without efforts to remedy them, is a scandalous injustice and grave offense. Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2269).

The Second Vatican Council affirmed this teaching in it’s core document Gaudium et Spes, which says “Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonour to the Creator.”

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception … Gaudium et Spes, 51

The Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation (Donum Vitae) stated “From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognised as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.” .

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (#118) notes the gravity of violations both to one’s life and bodily integrity: “Social too is every sin against the rights of the human person, starting with the right to life, including that of life in the womb, and every sin against the physical integrity of the individual; every sin against the freedom of others…and every sin against the dignity and honour of one’s neighbour.”

Both Saint Theresa of Calcutta and Pope Saint John Paul II, two of the greatest saints in recent times, were strong advocates for social justice issues and for the protection of human life:

But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts.” Saint Theresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa)

“The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights-for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination. …The Church has never yielded in the face of all the violations that the right to life of every human being has received, and continues to receive, both from individuals and from those in authority. The human being is entitled to such rights, in every phase of development, from conception until natural death; and in every condition, whether healthy or sick, whole or handicapped, rich or poor.” Pope John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, 38

Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have also confirmed the importance of working towards protecting human life and remedying social injustices in our world today: 

The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that “a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized. (Evangelium Vitae 93)” – Caritas in Veritate, 15.

“A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings. It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted.” – Laudato Si’, 91. 

Issues relating to life are intrinsically connected to social questions. When we defend the right to life, we do so in order that each life – from conception to its natural end – may be a dignified life, one free from the scourge of hunger and poverty, of violence and persecution. –  Pope Francis