The astonishing teaching of the Catholic faith is that human beings are, alone in all creation, the only creatures God has made for their own sake. All the rest of creation, good and sacred and holy as it is, does not exist for its own sake. It is, properly speaking, for our use—just so long as we understand what “use” means.
“Use” does not mean “mindless exploitation”. It means that we are intended to be the stewards of creation, to tend and care for the garden of the earth. The Hebrew word used in Genesis to describe the work Adam did in the Garden is the same word used to describe the work of the Levitical priests in the Tabernacle. In short, Adam and Eve (and we) are called to be priestly royalty, not robber barons. The creation entrusted into our care is neither mother nor strumpet, but sister, for she shares the same Creator we do.
Some people are uncomfortable with the idea that there is a real distinction between us and the rest of creation. But one of the quickest ways to see it is so is to note that a very good working definition of sin is this: Sin consists of treating persons like things and things like persons.
Examples of sins which treat persons like things include:
- Pride (the essence of which is to thrust all other persons, including the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, back toward “thinghood,” and into nothingness. “You? You’re nothing! I am the Great Mark P. Shea!”
- Lust (as C.S. Lewis observes, the lustful man on the prowl does not “want a woman”. He wants an experience for which a woman happens to be the necessary apparatus–that is, a thing.)
- Slavery (persons become property)
- Murder (which radically reduces persons to things called corpses)
And so on.
Similarly, examples of sins which treat things like persons include.
- Idolatry (treating things such as golden calves, stock certificates, sexuality, money, time, or comfort like the Blessed Persons of the Godhead)
- Greed (exalting possessions above persons)
- Gluttony (exalting pleasure above persons)
- Avarice (exalting status and power above persons)
Because we are fallen creatures, the temptation to treat persons like things is everywhere in our culture. And, of course, it always presents itself to us as the very model of practical common sense. A recent survey, for instance, showed that a large number of Catholics (more than the national average Americans in general) believe that torture should be employed in the War on Terror.
The Church, however, teaches that human beings cannot be subjected to torture for any reason. It teaches, both in Veritatis Splendor and in the documents of Vatican II that torture is intrinsically immoral. That’s because humans are not things to be used, but persons retaining a fundamental dignity no matter how bad they might be. Enthusiastic supporters of the Bush/Cheney policies of prisoner abuse and torture are forbidden this kind of ends-justifies-the means thinking by the Church.
Unfortunately, exactly the same thinking undergirds those of an allegedly more “progressive” bent who also reject the Church’s teaching that humans are not things to be used no matter how small they might be. The argument boils down to the same thing as the torture supporter: “Think how much good we could do if we could just treat the embryonic person as a thing.”
To all such thinking, the Church says: People are not for using. They are for treating with the respect due the image and likeness of God.