Never Just a Number

Note: This post appeared in the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin for Sunday, October 18, 2020.

In case you haven’t notice, election season is in full swing. Pollsters, pundits and politicians are slicing and dicing the American people to predict what is likely to happening on Election Day and afterward. Republicans versus Democrats. Liberals versus conservatives. We are counted and calculated by culture, color and creed—to what end?

My son’s theology teacher recently gave me a copy of a book I’ve meant to read for years now: Society and Sanity by Frank Sheed. I started it last night, and for a book written in the 1950s, its relevance even in the first few pages is staggering. Sheed opens his book by making a simple and eloquent case: In order to create a society in which we humans can live together in peace, happiness and freedom, we must know what it means to be human.

We need a clear understanding of what we are and why we are before we can clearly conceive of our happiness and how to achieve it.

This seems pretty obvious—but we live in a society that has become self-consciously neutral on this fundamental question. In the name of freedom, we refuse to impose any specific view on meaning of human life. As a result, we fail to attribute any specific value to it.

The Catholic Church has no such qualms. The Church teaches that each of us is uniquely made in the image of God, out of love, and that our purpose is to love and serve God and neighbor in this life in order to spend eternity with God in the next. This view of humanity shapes a Catholic view of society. As a unique image of God, each human life is infinitely valuable and is called to holiness. A society rooted in these realities will recognize and affirm the value of each person and support his or her sanctification.

This means that we are never just a number, a gender, a culture, color or creed. We cannot be defined or dismissed by a label—even by ourselves.

When we have a shared understanding about what it means to be human and why it matters, we can step away from us-versus-them divisions, recognizing that what we have in common and our God-given mission to save souls are fundamentally more important. We can begin to recognize that behind the numbers that inform our public policies and private decisions are actual people who, like us, are sinners—who see and understand partially, who sometimes act irrationally, and who believe wholeheartedly they are doing the right thing.

It is not possible to form a sane and just society while remaining neutral on what it means to be human. A society rooted in reality will recognize the God-given value of every human life and support his or her sanctification. As Christians we must lead by example in this regard, affirming the inherent value and dignity even of our so-called enemies, and lifting up in prayer and service the sacred souls represented by the data that is used to divide us.

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