By Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.
It is clear from the first chapters of the book of Genesis that God is the author of human life: he created Adam and his wife Eve and commanded them to increase and multiply. “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being (Gen. 2:7)”. God not only gives life; he also protects it through his Commandment: “You shall not kill.” There are many aspects to this Commandment. One of them is man’s positive duty to preserve his life to the best of his ability and according to the dictates of reason.
The profound difference in outlook between Catholics and all types of atheists and materialists stands out sharply in the matter of respect for human life. For the pragmatic atheist/ materialist human life is basically a natural resource like fresh water or crude oil; it is to be used for the betterment of the state or human society. For them, when human life becomes “useless,” in the sense that it does not contribute to the G.N.P. in some way, it is to be eliminated the same way one disposes of garbage. This mentality explains the attitude of atheistic materialists in questions of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. Since for them man is the only absolute, it is up to man alone to decide who shall live and who shall die.
The Catholic view of human life is worlds apart from that of the atheistic secular humanists. For the Catholic, human life is sacred, it is inviolable, because it was given by God almighty. And not only did God bestow on us human life, but he also, by an absolutely free act of love, raised man to the supernatural level and so destined him for eternal life in the beatific, face-to-face vision of God. Because men have a supernatural destiny as the adopted adopted children of God and heirs of heaven, they have a dignity that is innate and that surpasses any honor that can be conferred by this world. In the concrete, this means that no one may “use” human life for his own selfish purposes, whether it be for the good of the state or for the progress of science.
Since life is a gift from God, we are not absolute masters of our own lives. It is more accurate to say that we are “stewards” or “caretakers” of our lives and that God will demand from us an accounting of our stewardship. We did not cause ourselves or bring ourselves into existence.
Why did God give life to man? He gave man life so that he might grow in the knowledge and love of God, practice virtue, and merit eternal life with the help of God’s grace. God in his providence allots a certain amount of time to each one of us in order to accomplish the purpose for which he created us. In order to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” we need first of all to live so that we can respond to God’s loving Word. This being the case, as a good steward man must take care of his life, using all the ordinary means put at his disposal by God. It is contrary to the will of God, and therefore sinful, to unreasonably injure one’s body or to shorten one’s life.