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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