Defining Dehumanization Up

Secular liberals and other sympathizers have been able to convince people that what in earlier times was considered not only immoral but insane is now morally good and necessary.

(Image: trac1 |

Famously, after the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II, the world spoke the words, “Never Again.” In the years since, however, you have to wonder how seriously we have taken those words. In large part, they have become empty, a mere slogan without much substance.

Of course we can point to all kinds of terrible violations of human dignity over the past three quarters of a century—everything from Nazi-like medical experimentation to genocide—with history repeating itself on a global scale. But in the past we could all agree, for the most part, at least in the West, that these were in fact violations of the human person’s fundamental right to life, health, and bodily integrity.

But for many people , in particular those on the secular Left, not only is what was once considered evil—e.g., abortion, euthanasia, fetal experimentation—not evil, it is considered a positive good. And so, recently, Planned Parenthood can tweet that “Abortion Is Healthcare” and tweet a video of a beautiful baby girl who is presented as “a choice.” This strategy would have been mostly unthinkable in the earlier decades of mainstream “pro-choice” rhetoric, when the goal of uncoupling abortion (if the word was even used) from the taking of a human life (a so-called “blob of tissue”) was uppermost in the minds of abortion-law liberalizers (for the euphemistic rhetorical strategy of the early pro-abortion movement, see Bernard N. Nathanson, M.D., Aborting America, 1979).

Here in the United States dehumanization often takes the form of a so-called humanization. One does not so much hide behind euphemistic language any more—though that is still a preferred strategy—as much as make the language of dehumanization not simply sound good, but actually be good. Therefore, the actions themselves, which that language identifies and approves, are also good.

I think Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope St. John Paul II, captured the point I am making when, in a 1968 letter to his friend and future cardinal Henri de Lubac, he wrote: “The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person.” Wojtyla was without a doubt right, but now with the one twist indicated above: we have turned pulverization and killing into something good, not something to be ashamed of or horrified by.

In the early 1990s, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Democratic senator from New York,  coined the powerfully alliterative phrase, “defining deviancy down,” he was not far from the truth. But our society over the last two decades or so has, in a sense, defined dehumanization up. We have tried to make dehumanization attractive and not simply redefined deviancy to suit what we feel like doing, as Moynihan meant, although we have certainly done that as well. We have, in other words, not only lowered our moral norms to suit our sins, but, in what I’m arguing without the alliterative force of Moynihan’s phrase, raised our sinful behavior to the level of moral virtue.

This “defining dehumanization up” phenomenon is one of the ways in which secular liberals and other sympathizers have been able to convince people (yes, bullying and social pressure are also involved) that what in earlier times was considered not only immoral, but insane—killing a child in the womb, “identifying” as a woman if you’re biologically a man and vice versa, euthanizing patients who are not-with-it—is morally good. As a consequence, those who disagree are seen as evil and therefore should be silenced for their “hate speech” (often “de-platformed”) and even suffer severe legal repercussions.

Christians must respond to this state of affairs by challenging the language of dehumanization in all its forms. They must show how their own speech is not a form of “hate,” but rather a language rooted in the truth of the nature of the human person and his acts (cf. Gaudium et spes, 41 and 51). Thus, for example, abortion should not—indeed cannot—be called a form of “healthcare” because it radically contradicts the scientific truth that at fertilization we have a new human life in existence with its own unique DNA. As Dr. William Brennan, author of John Paul II: Confronting the Language Empowering the Culture of Death, stated a decade ago in reflecting on how John Paul II addressed dehumanizing language:

A hallmark of John Paul’s campaign against the culture of death consisted of demonstrating the power of reality to overcome a rhetoric that conceals the disconcerting truth about killing defenseless human beings inside and outside the womb. “What is needed,” he insisted, “is the courage to speak the truth clearly, candidly and boldly, but never with hatred or disrespect for persons.” The pope did not level personal attacks against those who were covering up the violence with misleading terminology. Instead, he cut through the rhetoric itself and pointed out the harsh nature of the destructive actions buried beneath the rhetoric, utilizing such phrases as “slaughter of the innocents,” “a war of the powerful against the weak” and “unspeakable crimes.” These and other stark expressions are part and parcel of his overriding message: “We need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception.”

We should also remind our audience that our speech is protected by the First Amendment, as is of course the speech of our opponents. But we need to show, however, how their words and actions actually contradict the good of the human person—whether her life, health, or bodily integrity—or some other aspect of her fulfillment. We must argue the substance of our position, therefore, not merely the fact that we have a right to express it under our Constitution. (And how long will that right last? For example, we see on social media how persons are often presumed guilty rather than innocent by the online mob.)

Finally, I would argue that it is essential to recover the particular language of humanization as we find it expressed in the Bible and in the natural moral law. St. John Paul II’s encyclicals on the moral life, Veritatis splendor (1993) and Evangelium vitae (1995), should be especially employed in this effort. In the first, John Paul II integrates the natural law with Sacred Scripture, while in the latter, on the other hand, he emphasizes the biblical witness regarding the sacredness of human life but always within close range of arguments drawn from natural law.

This recovery effort will give our pro-life criticism a rigor that it would not otherwise have. It will also focus our attention on what should be our chief goal: not merely to win arguments but to convert hearts. But to act on the truth, we must first know it.

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About Dr. Mark Latkovic 2 Articles
Dr. Mark S. Latkovic (b. 1963) is Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI) where he has taught since July 1990. He has published widely in both popular and scholarly publications. He lives in Allen Park, MI with his wife of over 30 years. He has four children and one grandchild.


  1. Imagine the endless amount of comments we’d be seeing in the Catholic blogosphere if Pope Francis publicly gave Holy Communion to a pro-abortion politician in Rome. Well, that’s exactly what happened in 2000 when Pope John Paul II gave Communion to the than infamous baby-killing mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli. See, that’s the problem with the cult of PJPII constantly referring to his writings like the Dubia Cardinals, Card. Vigano and others continue to do. The problem being that many times Pope John Paul II himself disregarded and ignored his very own writings and lectures so how can anyone criticize when cardinals and bishops ignore or disregard them.
    Anyone who doesn’t believe this about PJPII just scroll down to the 19th paragraph in this article you will see this was reported by highly respected journalist Sadra Magistar but still ignored by the PJPII cult as usual so stop complaining about bishops allowing pro abort Democratic politicians like Cuomo to receive Communion when we know that PJPII himself allowed it.

  2. Thank you for calling attention to Dr. Brennan’s groundbreaking work. While the “Nazi” label is flung about with wild irresponsibility these days, it is necessary to remember that there were actual National Socialists, and that Dr. Brennan is among a handful of intrepid scholars who have begun to identify what made them tick. The similarity between their worldview in its historical reality (as opposed to the Hollywood cartoon version) and the anti-life mentality of our own time is striking.

    This is why we must keep watching like hawks as Jorge Bergoglio guts organizations such as the Pontifical Academy for Life, appointing ideologues including Peter Singer’s pal Nigel Biggar. Biggar’s work “Aiming to Kill” is chock full of Culture of Death buzzwords so thinly veiled that anyone familiar with the Brennan corpus at all could not be taken in for a moment.

    Yet how many people actually possess this familiarity?

  3. There is no essential difference between the ideals of Nazi race improvement and contemporary selective choice for improving quality of life. Alfred Rosenberg Nazi philosopher developed the premise of deselection for continued life based on the 1920 classic Authorization to End Life Unworthy of Life Alfred Hoche psychiatrist and Karl Binding legal scholar. Hoche, Binding simply provided legal humanistic rationale for the elimination of presumed genetic undesirables. Essentially similar to famed Am jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr deciding in favor of the prevention of future “morons” via sterilization. It’s educating to watch via YouTube archived Nazi propaganda productions of families ‘burdened’ with a psychologically impaired member beautifully filmed with the soft emotive strains of a string quartet in the background. Ethics committees today provide similar ambiance in effort to convince family to rescind treatment of an otherwise physically stable compromised member. Rosenberg convinced Adolf that future improved death enters must have physicians turn the gas valve to clarify provision of med care. The difference between an inviolable right to life of the innocent and a selectivity to end or choose life based entirely on quality of life of both victim and survivor is Lost. Proof is Gov Andrew Cuomo’s defense against outrage over his unrestricted abortion bill, “Now look here, I was an altar boy!”.

  4. Dr. Latovic identifies “euphemistic language” as the “preferred strategy” of cultural and moral deconstruction. Yours truly recent posted the following “Comment” to another article, but it might bear repeating here:

    “A comparison table, the ‘Third Reich and Contemporary Society,’ connects that Fascist era to our own drift—similar and different—into another kind of culture of death. Here are some side-by-side snapshots with the first years, at least, of the abortion revolution:

    ‘I know of not a single case where anyone came out of the chambers alive’ (Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess on the destructive capacity of Zyklon B gas, 1947) and ‘It never ever results in live births’ (an experienced abortionist on the merits of dissection and extraction, 1981);

    ‘the subjects were forced to undergo death-dealing experiments ‘without receiving anesthetics’’ (Dachau freezing experiments, 1942) and ‘the fetuses are fully alive when we cut their heads off, but anesthetics are definitely unnecessary’ (Fetal researcher Dr. Martti Kekomaki, 1980);

    ‘no criticism was raised’ (conference of German physicians to the Ravenbrueck death camp sulfanilamide experiments, Berlin, May 1943) and ‘no one ever raised an eyebrow’ (meeting of American pediatricians to an experiment involving beheading of aborted babies, San Francisco, 1973); and

    ‘what should we do with this garbage’(Treblinka, 1942) and ‘an aborted baby is just garbage’ (fetal researcher Dr. Martti Kekomaki, 1980).

    In Mein Kampf (1925) Adolf Hitler referred to Jews as ‘a parasite in the body of other peoples’; fifty years later, the year of Roe v. Wade, a radical feminist group branded the unborn as ‘a parasite within the mother’s body’ (an early edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book By and For Women).”

    The referenced comparison table appears in William Brennan, “The Abortion Holocaust: Today’s Final Solution” (St. Louis: Landmark Press, 1983). (The quoted piece—all of the above—is from my recent book: “A Generation Abandoned” [Hamilton Books, 2017], which is covered in a Catholic World Report author interview at:)

  5. Dr. Latkovic, we aren’t going to recover anything Catholic if we refer to the writings of any of the conciliar popes as a guide to knowing the true faith as all of them were, in one way or another, unfaithful to it and it is only through them and because of them, the institutional Church is in severe crisis. All of them served to dismantle, deny, obfuscate, confuse, and tear asunder some aspect of the true faith and therefore are clearly not men to look to for orthodox and faithful support.

  6. Many thoughtful responses here. In the alternative, mine is fairly simple and to a point not in this article.
    I do not, for the life of me, understand how Cuomo (and any of the others who voted for this horrifying new law regarding abortion up to birth) are not going to be excommunicated from the Church? Dolan outright said as much. That he did not believe excommunication should be used as a weapon. From what I understand it’s not a weapon. It’s a heavy admonishment, to shock the offender into penance for their most grievous offense against the Church. That it should not be wielded against politicians. What difference does one’s occupation make? Does one abandon one’s sense of decency depending on their occupation? Or perhaps Dolan is concerned some donations to the Church would dissipate?
    If this offense is not appropriate, I fear the Church has become part of the problem, instead of a solution.

  7. The reason he’s not going to be excommunicated is that Canon Law does not offer that as a penalty for what Cuomo did. See Ed Peters’ explanation.

  8. Dr Latkovic identifies moral awareness with John Paul II’s combination of natural law and revelation [the Bible]. The latter confirms the former or visa versa. What then separates the Christian ‘believer’ with inherent knowledge of natural law, that is Aquinas’ doctrine of Natural Law Within, knowledge common to all who advocates abortion from one with similar knowledge who opposes? Man does possess that inherent capacity to apprehend truth however fleeting. The key is Christ who defines our humanness and gifts us with the grace not simply to apprehend truth, a capacity we own, rather to accentuate and hold fast to it. All are conscientiously aware of that truth the sacred value of human life and consequently morally responsible as to our decision. Reason will wander from what the intellect apprehends as true to other more indulgent options when the will [here liberium arbitrium] freely decides to resist the Holy Spirit. It really comes down to our willingness to Assent to the prompting of the Spirit of Truth who alone clarifies and enhances our humanness.

    • Thank you. I did read that. But I’m still not settled. It seems to me that Mr. Peters’ interpretation draws a distinction between a woman who gets an abortion vs. the abortionist who makes a living performing them. So to take this out another step, what about the politician who votes to allow the abortionist to perform them?

  9. The Catholic Church still hasn’t got the story right. Is the gynecologist who performs an abortion on a pregnant woman whose life is in danger classified “an abortionist”? I say NO! What does the church say? If my neighbor came to me and revealed that she was raped, which she did, and she sought our help, are we classified abortionists or “Pro-choice”? I say NO!

    I reject blanket labels such as Pro-life and Pro-choice and the frivolous use of the word “murderer”. The church uses these terms and the word evil indiscriminately. We have enough polarizing being done by the current administration so much that the words used by the Catholic Church should be more uniting for many who observe the sacraments.

    • “The Catholic Church still hasn’t got the story right.”

      Says the guy who has yet to demonstrate he understands anything about Church teaching…

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