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Mercy Moments: Life and Dignity of the Human Person

“Human dignity is the same for all human beings: when I trample on the dignity of another, I am trampling on my own.”

– Pope Francis

“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”

– Thomas Merton

I’m pregnant. 

Life and Dignity of the Human Person, icon created by Brother Mickey McGrath, OFSF

For about two and a half years now, I’ve tried writing a reflection that would begin quite differently.  I would write, “I’m currently not pregnant.  But I’d sure like to be.”

But I just couldn’t do it.  It was too scary to admit one of my deepest desires might never come to be.  I felt I could only write that reflection when all hope was lost.  And just a few months ago, I was so close to writing it. So close to admitting it.  I was at a Christmas luncheon when I overheard a conversation in which a woman was asked about her children, and she responded, “Oh. We never had any.”  She continued, “We wanted them, but we just couldn’t have any.”  I was stunned.  It wasn’t so much what she said, but how she said it.  I heard acceptance and a sure amount of contentment even.  She appeared sincere nad I wondered how long it took for that response to flow without the sting of sorrow or jealousy or regret.

I wanted to be her.  And I honestly felt I was well on my way.  Last year a close friend commented with amazement that for all the recent pregnancies of friends and my three sisters that I had witnessed, I really seemed genuinely happy for them despite my struggle.  I quickly responded, “Oh!  That’s because I am happy for them.”  Through it all, I was never jealous.  It really had been an unexpected grace that I had only ever felt joy and awe with each new pregnancy and birth announcement.  But perhaps I wasn’t bitter because I hadn’t given up yet.  Still, I was slowly working my way from always telling people about our dog when asked about our kids, towards the freedom to simply say, “Nope.  No kids.”  Or maybe even eventually someday, “We wanted them, but we just couldn’t have any.”

The very next day after the luncheon, I took an at-home pregnancy test.  It wasn’t because I thought I was pregnant or even that I hoped I was pregnant.  It was that time of the month where I wanted to get hope out of the way.  If I took the test, I wouldn’t need to worry about it for another month.

But this time was different. I was pregnant.

We started to tell family within minutes.  We couldn’t contain our joy.  We didn’t want to contain our joy!

Just a few days later my doctor told me not to tell family until 8 weeks and everyone else until 12 weeks. I quickly told her, “Oh!  No. We’re not doing that.  We’ll share our joy and our grief if it comes to that.”  She smiled and said, “You’re such a doula!”   It’s true, I’m trained as a birth and postpartum doula.  But after my husband’s initial shock demanded I take 3 more tests and we were reasonably sure I really was pregnant; we didn’t review my doula training or delve into a discussion about the benefits and risks of sharing our news at only four weeks.  We just picked up the phone.  It was only later that week after many surprised reactions upon sharing our news at 4 weeks that I reflected on why we had instinctively done so despite the standard practice of waiting until 12 weeks.  Beyond a deep desire to share our joy, we wanted prayers and support from the very beginning.  And even though the primary reason for not making a pregnancy announcement until the end of the first trimester is the high rate of pregnancy loss during the first 12 weeks, we didn’t want to keep our joy a secret based on the chance that we might in turn feel obligated to keep our grief a secret.  We were both confident in and grateful for the gift of community with which we could share both our joys and our struggles.

Are we still nervous? Of course we are. But I imagine with a child of our own, we’ll be nervous for the rest of our lives.  It’s just further evidence that hope is hard, and love is always a risk.

The first theme of Catholic Social Teaching is the“Life and Dignity of the Human Person”.  And while this is the basis for all other themes, it can often be watered down by placing the emphasis on the unborn and perhaps even inadvertently dismissing the dignity of others.

As I am overcome with love for our baby who has yet to be born, I can’t help but think of all the babies that are born into this world without that same kind of love.  The babies whose parents hadn’t experienced that same kind of love in their infancies.  And the countless other babies that were born into a hopeful world only to have life not turn out as expected.

Each of us is created and loved into existence by the One in whom we claim our dignity.  The same dignity.  Human dignity.  Still, many of us rank the dignity of individuals (consciously or unconsciously) every day. 

We judge:

Babies and small children (unless they’re crying at Mass) are innocent and have lots of dignity.  Whereas terrorists, gang members, and abusers in the Church are guilty and therefore they gave up their dignity.  It’s so easy to judge this way, especially if we have been personally and traumatically wounded in any way.

But Catholic Social Teaching judges differently.  It acknowledges that some people are certainly more vulnerable, and yes, even more innocent, and may have even consistently made good decisions.  It also acknowledges that there are others who are guilty of unspeakable acts and have made the worst decisions.  And still, we are all loved by God and worth more than all of those actions and decisions.  It’s hard to comprehend this type of respect for life or as Graham Green wrote, “You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”  But this is why the theme “Life and Dignity of the Human Person” is the basis for all of Catholic Social Teaching.  It doesn’t just promote the protection of young, vulnerable, and innocent life.  It equally defends and values the lives of the most guilty.

We were loved into existence by love itself.  And yes, original sin is real (as is personal and social sin).  But so is original goodness, original beauty, and original wholeness.  It’s easy to see the sacredness of life in innocent babies.  Our challenge is to see that same dignity in the ones who have done unspeakable things, and in everyone else in between. 

Right now, I can only feel love and joy and all good things for the baby in my womb.  But I know this won’t always be the case.  I will eventually feel frustration, disappointment, hurt, and any number of emotions towards my child.  And still, I’m confident my initial and instinctive love will continue to surpass all other feelings.  So it is with Catholic Social Teaching – it doesn’t dismiss our actions as amoral simply because everyone has dignity.  On the contrary, it judges our actions based on how we uphold the dignity of all.  This first theme invites us to be curious rather than judgmental.  To be grateful rather than entitled. To be compassionate rather than self-righteous.  And to draw all of creation closer to the heart of God as we seek to love like we first were loved.


Cover Art: © “Life and Dignity fo the Human Person” by Br. Mickey McGrath OFSF, Courtesy of Trinity Stores, www.trinitystores.com, 800.699.4482