In his remarks before the United Nations, Pope Francis said, “The common home of all men and women must continue to rise on the foundations of a right understanding of universal fraternity and respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned—those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic.”
That word “disposable” caught my eye. So many human lives seem to be very disposable these days. For the Catholic Church this is Respect Life Sunday; and this year more than ever this observance seems out of sync with the world in which we live. It is hard to imagine a time when God’s gift of life has been respected less or disposed of more readily. We can start, of course, with the 56 million babies who have been aborted in the United States over the last 42 years. The decision to have an abortion can be an excruciating for a mother, and every family story and every situation is different. Some decisions are made in fear or panic or because alternatives to abortion do not seem realistic at the time. Some couples come to regret this decision, and others do not. Still, the bottom line is that these unborn infants are deemed disposable, and the abortion culture helps desensitize us to the value of human life. When a Pro-Life group secretly recorded conversations with Planned Parenthood about the sale of body parts from aborted infants, people were shocked. Congress is holding hearings. Yet what do we expect? Planned Parenthood Clinics perform 300,000 abortions a year. Would we prefer to see videos of aborted babies thrown into a landfill or incinerated? Would that show greater sensitivity or respect for life?
As a result of the Syrian Civil War, 200,000 people have been killed, 4 million are refugees in another country, and a total of 10 million people (that is 45% of the population) have been displaced. Do these lives matter? As ISIS advances further in the Middle East, those who hold to a different understanding of Islam or who have done no wrong beyond being born a Jew or a Christian are being mowed down. These gaping wounds of intolerance fuel the notion that anyone who disagrees with me is disposable. Our own city has seen 365 homicides this year, some of them small children—collateral damage in gang wars. Do these lives matter?
In our own country, about 2.2 million of our citizens are incarcerated, one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Many who sit in jails are mentally ill and need treatment. Many remain in jail simply because there is no one to put up bail money. 3,000 prisoners are on Death Row in various states across our country. We are all under a death sentence, of course; but only a small number of us are told in a courtroom that the world would be better off without us. Some of Pope Francis’ strongest words to Congress and to the United Nations concerned the global abolition of the death penalty. Do any of these people matter?
Many of our frail elders languish in nursing homes, where they gradually lose their individual identity. The average stay in a nursing home is less than a year. While some convalescent homes provide fine, individual care (especially for those who can afford it), many other facilities that serve mainly Medicaid patients provide only minimal care. I remember when I was registering my mother for a nursing home, the admissions officer asked a lot of questions about when she liked to rise in the morning, when she liked to go to bed, what she liked to do, what she liked to eat, etc. None of those answers mattered. Everything happened whenever it was most convenient to the institution. Many of our elders who still have their intellectual faculties get the message their life has no more value . . . and they die. It is no wonder that physician assisted suicide has become a popular cause.
Sometimes I wonder if all the ways we treat people as disposable is a reflection of what we actually think of ourselves. Part of what fires the rage of violence and the numbness to human suffering must be that we do not really see any value in our own life, that we see ourselves as disposable. If so, then how moving is the Christ story. Our God chose to be born into a restless and violent world and to offer his life, not for people who were worthy and grateful, but for people who were unworthy and ungrateful—just because their lives still have infinite value to God; and that value is not tarnished by our cruelty, our neglect, our indifference, our selfishness, or our ingratitude. Talk about being foolish in love: that’s God!