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Peter Singer vs. St. John Paul II on Human Dignity

July 26, 2023

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Peter Singer is probably a familiar name to many. For almost twenty-five years, he has been the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His provocative statements around animal rights and killing babies have often gained media attention and caused a cultural ruckus. When he was appointed to his chair at Princeton, a headline in The Guardian called him “the most dangerous man in the world.” 

Singer supports infanticide and euthanasia, and in his advocacy for “animal liberation,” he states that there is no real difference between the life of an animal and that of a human. In the second edition of his book Practical Ethics, he wrote that parents who have a child with Down syndrome should be able to dispose of the infant so they have a chance of having “another pregnancy, which has a good chance of being normal.” Some have called him “the most influential ethicist alive.”

Singer restricts his definition of a person to one who is “capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future.” That, of course, would exclude, or at least bring into question, the personhood and human dignity of individuals with significant cognitive impairments.

As Roman Catholics, our faith teaches us to affirm the inviolable human dignity of every person—period. While that sounds straightforward—and it is—defending human dignity in the culture becomes complicated when we’re challenged to consider specifically human pursuits like the desire for knowledge and virtue, and other specifically human characteristics that contribute to human flourishing.

Some may ask us how one who is cognitively impaired can pursue virtue and the perfection of their abilities. How can they apply reason to resolve problems and conflicts? Don’t we often say that what distinguishes us from animals is our capacity for reason? What of the person whose ability to reason is impaired? We must beware of using rationalistic terms to define the nature of a human person. If we’re not careful, we may come very close to tacitly endorsing Singer’s definition of “person” quoted above.

A society that made room only for its fully functional, completely autonomous and independent members, would be unworthy of the human being.

Perhaps this is a reason many individuals with disabilities have a difficult time finding acceptance in the Church. For most of us, it is easy to accept those who are like us “normal folks” for whom reason, thought, conversation, and expression come easily—we who can control our bodily movements and vocalizations and meet social expectations of behavior and reverence.

Our brothers and sisters in the faith who are living with intellectual and developmental disabilities present a challenge to us. What does it really mean to be human? How do we do as Jesus asks and welcome the poor and the marginalized? Do we acknowledge the Body of Christ in all of its members—even those we perceive as different, those who may be impaired or disfigured, may make us uncomfortable, or may annoy us at Mass with behaviors beyond their control?

St. John Paul II, in his wisdom and clarity, helps us understand what is to be gained by welcoming these brothers and sisters of ours in his message to participants attending a symposium on the Dignity and Rights of the Mentally Disabled Person:

The starting point for every reflection on disability is rooted in the fundamental convictions of Christian anthropology: even when disabled persons are mentally impaired or when their sensory or intellectual capacity is damaged, they are fully human beings and possess the sacred and inalienable rights that belong to every human creature. Indeed, human beings, independently of the conditions in which they live or of what they are able to express, have a unique dignity and a special value from the very beginning of their life until the moment of natural death. The disabled person, with all the limitations and suffering that scar him or her, forces us to question ourselves, with respect and wisdom, on the mystery of man. In fact, the more we move about in the dark and unknown areas of human reality, the better we understand that it is in the more difficult and disturbing situations that the dignity and grandeur of the human being emerges. The wounded humanity of the disabled challenges us to recognize, accept and promote in each one of these brothers and sisters of ours the incomparable value of the human being created by God to be a son in the Son (emphasis added).

What are the consequences of not welcoming these persons into our communities? John Paul II tells us that “a society that made room only for its fully functional, completely autonomous and independent members, would be unworthy of the human being.”

That is a statement worth several minutes of reflection.

I use the word “welcoming” rather than “including” intentionally here. Inclusion is a word we typically use when we discuss bringing individuals living with disabilities into our communities. It’s a good word, but if we use it carelessly, we can give the impression that parishes are like a club with a membership committee who decides who can be included and who can’t. The Church is Jesus’ Body, and that decision is not ours.

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Obviously, St. John Paul II and Peter Singer have very different views of the human person. Singer’s atheism blinds him to the beauty of humanity. I am sorry for him. We aren’t just another animal prowling the earth.

As the late Holy Father taught us in his first encyclical letter, Redemptor Hominis:

Human nature, by the very fact that it was assumed, not absorbed, in [Christ], has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare. For, by his Incarnation, he, the son of God, in a certain way united himself with each man. (RH 8)

There is no exclusion in the penultimate word “each.” Each is not every. Each is specific to the individual, regardless of ability or disability, wealth or poverty, fame or obscurity. Each has “incomparable value [as a] human being created by God to be a son in the Son.”

So many individuals living with disabilities don’t feel welcome in our parishes. I have referenced the statistics before. But we can change that. A smile, a word of welcome, an offer to assist, an embrace, joy and not signs of discomfort or disapproval if an autistic parishioner praise God by flapping their arms or vocalizing. These are signs of a welcoming Church.