God Doesn’t Make Junk
One of the many fond memories of the Christian Manhood class I had with Jim Skerl was a poster he had hanging in room 221 of Loyola Hall. It was an image of a Depression-era little boy--poor, shoeless, with frayed pants and a newsboy cap standing outside a weathered tobacco barn. Under the image of the boy, in bold letters, was the statement:
“God made me, God doesn’t make junk.”
The poster, coming from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (if memory serves), took its text from the words of Jazz singer Ethel Waters, who said, “I know I’m somebody ‘cause God made me, and God don’t make no junk.” The point made in both cases is clear: people - all people - are invested with dignity and nobility, which comes from the fact that we are made by God.
Though perhaps stating it less dramatically, in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis emphasizes the same idea:
…[H]uman beings possess an intrinsic worth superior to that of material objects and contingent situations. This requires that they be treated differently. That every human being possesses an inalienable dignity is a truth that corresponds to human nature apart from all cultural change. (FT #213)
As a result, “[t]he dignity of others is to be respected in all circumstances” (FT #213, emphasis mine). Thus, the umbrella of respect--and protection--extends widely: from the unborn to the elderly, from the victims of human trafficking to those endangered by terrorists, from the undocumented immigrant to the affluent, settled business executive.
This affirmation of the worth of every human person and their fundamental right to life --regardless of circumstance--is the core of the social teaching of the Catholic Church and stands in prophetic witness against the commoditization of people: the idea one’s worth is dictated by her or his material contribution to the economy.
The special status accorded human beings has been recognized even outside the Church. The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his ethics - his “Categorical Imperative” - highlighted the essential worth of the person. In the second formulation of the imperative, he stressed that one should “[a]ct in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” People have a value in and of themselves, not because of what they contribute to some other - however lofty - end.
Though Kant tried to create a moral system apart from religion, one can’t help thinking that his premise - the essential worth of the person - was influenced by the Judeo-Christian culture in which he lived. So intimately connected was his idea to that of Catholicism that no less a light than Pope St John Paul II would borrow freely from Kant when formulating his own philosophy; that of Christian Personalism.
For it is in the book of Genesis (literally the book of ‘beginnings”) that one finds the basis of human dignity. Generating the universe out of nothing, God created “humankind in His image; in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1: 27). Looking out over creation (which he had previously declared “good”), God declared it “very good” with the arrival of humanity. Why? Because we are intimately known and “wonderfully made” (Ps. 138).
All of us. Without exception.
The U.S. Bishops, in their statement Sharing Catholic Social Teaching, remind us that “every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person” (SCST, 1998). That includes our social clubs, political parties, businesses, and schools.
It also influences our day-to-day interactions with people. Humorist Dave Barry correctly pointed out, “A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person.” One might add that “a good Christian who is in awe of Jesus on Sunday, but is not in awe of Him in even the ‘least’ of His brothers and sisters, is not a good Christian.”
Legendary teacher Michael Pennock ‘64, when writing about Catholic Social Teaching, liked to visualize the doctrine as a wheel with human dignity as the hub and the other precepts as spokes emanating from it. Because every human person has dignity and worth, we must care for the poor and most vulnerable, give everyone a voice in society, protect the fundamental rights of all people, and care for our common home.
Because of our commitment to the right to life and the dignity of the human person, October has been set aside as “Respect Life” month in the Catholic Church. It is a reminder that we have an obligation to each other, especially those who cannot speak for themselves. It is the time to refocus and see in those around us the awesome wonders they are, and in our encounters, help them see that reality in themselves.
Because God doesn’t make junk.
A.M.D.G. / B.V.M.H.