A Person’s Value

December 23 2015 | by

ISSUED ON May 14, 2015, Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ startled the world because of its focus on environmental issues. Media hype overlooked the encyclical’s core, namely that the earth suffers because humanity lacks love. The encyclical’s name comes from the Canticle of the Creatures, a song of praise written by Saint Francis.

Laudato si’, mi’ Signore…” (Praise be to you, my Lord…) are the opening words of this beautiful canticle in which Saint Francis reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs” (Laudato Si’, Section 1).


Groans in travail


This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters (Laudato Si’, 2).

Envisioning ourselves as “lords and masters” instead of servants and ministers, we trigger exploitation. Jesus personalized this exploitation: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us” (Luke 16: 19-26).

St. Anthony reflects on this state of affairs: “Earthly love ties a man to this world’s glory… This well applies to There was a certain rich man. Alas! With what riches that man abounded and desired to abound! The whole world would not have been enough for him. So many possessions, such great riches – not enough for the little body of one man! When the wretched fellow came out of his mother’s womb, he was not covered in purple and fine linen, just the bloody and sticky waters of birth! At the end of his life he goes naked and destitute into the earth” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals; II, pp 14-15).


Human dignity


Everyone begins and ends in the same way. No person has more dignity than another. Pope Francis writes, “The Bible teaches that every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26). This shows us the immense dignity of each person, ‘who is not just something, but someone’… Saint John Paul II stated that the special love of the Creator for each human being ‘confers upon him or her an infinite dignity’… the Creator can say to each one of us, ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you (Jer 1:5). We were conceived in the heart of God… ‘each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary” (Laudato Si’, Section 65).


The rupture


The Pope’s encyclical continues, “The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain… profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality… human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself… these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to ‘have dominion’ over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to ‘till it and keep it’ (Gen 2:15)… the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19)… sin is manifest… in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature. We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us” (Laudato Si’, Sections 66 and 67).

Anthony agrees, because exploitation of the earth begins with exploitation of others, “Desiring to be filled with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table and no one did give him. Crumbs are the smallest particles of bread. The really poor person is satisfied with such a little, asks for such a little. Even a little, together with God’s great grace, satisfies and refreshes him. But whoever will not give him even a crumb of bread will not deserve to receive even a drop of water” (Sermons II, p. 12).

Pope Francis develops the same theme: “Together with our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly, we are called to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes” (Section 69). In response to a philosophy that a person is valuable only if useful, the Pope writes, “The German bishops have taught that, where other creatures are concerned, ‘we can speak of the priority of being over that of being useful’… Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection… each of the various creatures… reflects… a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things” (Section 69).


Core sin


The Gospel’s rich man dismissed a person’s value. In the Pope’s encyclical, this is a core sin, and this concept is reflected in Anthony’s writings, “God is charity (1 Jn 4.8)… we love God and our neighbor with the same love, the love which is the Holy Spirit, since God is charity… the manner in which we should love God is implied in these words: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart (understanding) and with all thy soul (will) and with all thy mind (memory). Our understanding, will and memory should be devoted to him from whom these powers come. There is no part of our life which is exempt. Whatever comes into our mind should be directed by love towards its final goal” (Sermons II, pp. 12-13).


Updated on October 04 2016