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Compassion Leads to the Gas Chamber? | Mary Beth Bonacci | IgnatiusInsight.com

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This article originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on RealLove.net on October 10, 2007.

"In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness. And tenderness leads to the gas chamber."

Flannery O'Connor, the great novelist, wrote these words years ago. I suspect that if she were writing them today, she would use the word "compassion" instead of "tenderness."

I want to explore this idea a little more. "Compassion leads to the gas chamber." It's jarring, isn't it? After all, compassion is supposed to represent the mentality opposite the gas chamber. It's compassion that's supposed to keep up out of the gas chamber.

But does it?

Think about the greatest crimes against human life today. Aren't they cloaked in the language of compassion? "Every child has a right to be loved." "A woman has a right to control her own body." "The terminally ill should be able to die with dignity." And yet, where does all of this compassion lead? To an unborn child being ripped limb from limb in a suction machine. To a disabled baby being neglected and left to die. To an elderly, depressed person who feels obligated to die before medical expenses eat through the family inheritance.

There's compassion for you.

How could our compassion go so far wrong? After all, we pride ourselves on being compassionate. We see it as an essential part of our Christian identity. And indeed it is. But only if it's grounded in Christ.

Christian compassion is based on what another 20th century novelist, Walker Percy, called the "scandal" of the value of each individual human life. We believe that every single human life is a gift from God, and carries the dignity of being created in his image and likeness. Thus, human life is sacred. Innocent life--all innocent human life--is sacred and must be protected.

Why is that a "scandal"? Because, in our society, it's much more convenient to make some lives more valuable than others. A mother's life is more important than her child's life. A "wanted" child's life is more important than that of an "unwanted" child. A disabled infant is less important than the parents who would have to care for her. An embryonic human life isn't as important as the fully grown people who suffer from incurable diseases.

As Christians, it's sometimes hard not be influenced by these arguments. After all, whose heart doesn't go out to a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy, or a couple facing the life-changing reality of a disabled child, or the suffering of the victims of diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's? We want to help them. We want to relieve their suffering.

But the question is, how are we going to do that? In a world that fails to root itself in Christ, it's often all too tempting to relieve the suffering of one group at the expense of the lives of another group. After all, we see the mother, but we don't see her unborn child. We see the suffering person, but we don't see the tiny unborn life whose cells we plan to harvest. Out of sight, out of mind.

Without Christ, without the "scandal" of the value of each individual human life, what would stop us from this kind of misplaced compassion? Nothing, really. As Pope John Paul II pointed out in Evangelium Vitae, unless human freedom is grounded in the truth about the human person, it becomes simply a matter of balancing competing claims. And then everything is up for grabs.

In these cases, the strong tend to prevail over the weak. The lives of the most vulnerable are at the greatest risk. They are unable to fight for their rights, to "negotiate" in the marketplace of ideas that lead to actions that lead to the culture of death. Who is more innocent and more vulnerable than an unborn child? A recently born but "imperfect" child? The elderly and infirm?

Why is the world's "compassion" so likely to veer toward the "gas chamber?" Because, simply, this world sees no purpose in suffering. And why would we? After all, if this life is all we have, then the only goal worth pursuing is to maximize our pleasure and minimize our pain. In that context, suffering makes no sense. It needs to be eradicated in any way possible--even if that means ending the life that is suffering, or the life that is causing someone else's suffering.

As Christians, we don't like suffering. Its existence is to some extent a mystery to us. We know it exists, know that is in some way a result of the fall, and that God did not spare His only Son from it. We know that we're called, as Christ did, to strive to relieve the suffering of others. But we can never, ever attempt to relieve that suffering at the expense of another human life.

Church teaching has always been clear. It is always gravely immoral to directly take the life of an innocent human person. That decision belongs to God, always and in every case. It's true in the case of an unborn child, no matter how small. It's true in the case of a suffering, depressed, terminally ill person. It's true in the case of the handicapped.

So please, be a compassionate Christian. Strive to relieve suffering wherever you can. But always, always keep your compassion grounded in Christ. And never forget the "scandal" of the value of every human person.

Because a person's a person, no matter how small. Or innocent. Or vulnerable.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:

Be Nice To Me. I'm Dying | Mary Beth Bonacci
Was Pope John Paul II Anti-Woman? | Mary Beth Bonacci
Some Atrocities are Worse than Others | Mary Beth Bonacci
• The Question of Suffering, the Response of the Cross | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Cross and The Holocaust | Regis Martin
Three Approaches to Abortion | Peter Kreeft
The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond L. Dennehy
Why Do We Exist? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
From Defeat to Victory: On the Question of Evil | Alice von Hildebrand
Traveling With Walker Percy | Carl E. Olson

Mary Beth Bonacci is internationally known for her talks and writings about love, chastity, and sexuality. Since 1986 she has spoken to tens of thousands of young people, including 75,000 people in 1993 at World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. She appears frequently on radio and television programs, including several appearances on MTV.

Mary Beth has written two books, We're on a Mission from God and Real Love, and also writes a regular, syndicated column for various publications. She has developed numerous videos, including her brand-newest video series, also entitled Real Love. Her video Sex and Love: What's a Teenager to Do? was awarded the 1996 Crown Award for Best Youth Curriculum.

Mary Beth holds a bachelor's degree in Organizational Communication from the University of San Francisco, and a master's degree in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute at Lateran University. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate in Communications from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and is listed in Outstanding Young Women of America for 1997. Her apostolate, Real Love Incorporated is dedicated to presenting the truth about the Church's teaching about sexuality, chastity, and marriage.

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