Listening to Patrick Madrid’s condemnation of waterboarding reminded me of an argument that I often hear when I talk to my conservative friends about the Consistent Life Ethic, specifically when I mention that being anti-abortion is not necessarily enough to make one pro-life in a truly Catholic and catholic sense. In response, I am often told that other affronts to human dignity such as torture and capital punishment are somehow less evil than abortion because “unborn babies are innocent, but criminals are not.” At a superficial level this argument seems valid, but a closer look shows it to be essentially incompatible with the foundations of Catholic social teaching.
It is important to remember that Catholic teaching on the dignity of man is not contingent on the degree of innocence or guilt with which a soul is burdened. In a literal sense, none of us is “innocent”; even the unborn carry the stain of original sin that must be washed away by the waters of Baptism, and obviously the rest of us have to answer for a multitude of personal sins. Every human being, the unborn child as much as the mass murderer as much as you or I, is in need of redemption.
My point in saying this is not that abortion, torture, capital punishment, and the like are justifiable by virtue of the guilt that we all share (nor is it my intention, obviously, to pass any kind of judgment on the fate of the souls of unbaptized aborted children, a question that is best left to God in His mercy). My point is exactly the opposite: the Church teaches, based on the example of the life of Christ, that human dignity is not earned, either by good deeds that we have committed or evil deeds that we have not committed (i.e. crimes that have been committed by prisoners but not by unborn children). Nor does an individual forfeit his or her human dignity by the commission of evil acts. Rather, such dignity is intrinsic to every human being and shared equally by all individuals, because every individual is created by the Father, redeemed (or has the potential to be redeemed) by the Son, and sanctified (or has the potential to be sanctified) by the Holy Spirit.