Friday, July 20, 2018 - Updated: 9:22 am
One of the bedrock principles of Catholic social teaching is the transcendent and sacrosanct dignity of the human person. Each and every human being, regardless of age, race, sex or ability, is valued and worthwhile, a child of God.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states it this way: “The whole of the church’s social doctrine develops from the principle that affirms the inviolable dignity of the human person. In her manifold expressions of this knowledge, the church has striven above all to defend human dignity in the face of every attempt to redirect or distort its image; moreover she has often denounced the many violations of human dignity.”
This principle is invoked when the church supports marriage and the family, justice in political and economic society, the value of work and workers, concern for the poor and the pursuit of peace, and when the church opposes abortion, euthanasia, slavery, racism, sexism, human trafficking, terrorism and war.
These are big, important subjects. But they can seem so far from our daily experience.
Recently I relearned the principle of the dignity of the human person in a very personal way, through my nakedness and vulnerability. Let me explain.
After a month-long illness in February, doctors discovered that I had infectious bacteria on my aortic valve. The only way to resolve it was open-heart surgery to replace this valve. Thus began a very unexpected four-month journey through the medical world: a serious operation, a week in intensive care, another week in the hospital, three weeks in a rehab facility, continued rest and recuperation in the priests’ retirement residence and now slowly easing into full-time ministry.
Until my operation March 8, hospitals were places where I briefly visited parishioners and friends — not where I stayed. They were where I quietly snickered at the flimsy revealing gowns patients wore — not wore myself.
In the hospital I realized that my body was not my own. Anyone with a stethoscope around his/her neck could, and did, take a look at my scars or listen to my heart. I was poked for intravenous lines and pinched for blood tests. (I quit counting after 125 of them.) Basic bodily functions I had taken for granted I now had little control over. I had to rely on nurses to give me the correct medicine and aides to get me in and out of bed and to the bathroom.
This is familiar territory for anyone who has been hospitalized recently. When I’ve told this story to women who have given birth, they laugh at my naiveté. One chuckled and said, “Once you’ve had a baby, you lose all shame at being naked.” But it was new and unsettling to me.
Until this hospital stay, I presumed upon my ability to take care of myself in all the activities of daily living. In the hospital I was vulnerable and near helpless, tiring at the least exertion.
Before this illness I would have equated vulnerability and nakedness with a loss of my identity as a human being. Weakness meant lack of worth and a lessening of my humanity.
Yet throughout this process I was treated with respect by every health care worker, without exception. No one made fun of my frailty. There were no jokes about the shape of my birthday suit. Accidents on the way to the bathroom were dealt with in a professional manner. My dignity as a human being was honored by all.
I am profoundly grateful for the compassion, competence and dedication of all the health care workers who cared for me. From them I relearned that the dignity of a human person is not undermined by weakness or infirmity.
I’ve seen this same respect in parishioners who lovingly care for their elderly parents or relatives at home. I’ve seen it in nursing homes where aides deal with patients who complain or scream incessantly, and in hospices where people are accompanied with gentleness and prayer in their last hours before death. But to receive it myself made it all the more real.
Our experiences often bring new life to familiar Scripture passages. My sojourn from sickness to health has made me appreciate all the more St. Paul’s words: “I will boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. ... When I am weak, then I am strong.”
I take to heart in a new way the message the Lord gave to St. Paul. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
May we appreciate that we uphold the dignity of every person both in the public policy battles of government, law and society, as well as in the most personal interactions of how we treat the weak among us.
Father Almade is pastor of Mary, Mother of Hope, St. Joseph the Worker, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Vitus parishes in New Castle.