The car pulled into a gas station in East Texas. It was 1959. A bored 14-year-old, I hopped out and headed for the rest rooms. I was confronted with three doors and three signs: “Men,” “Women,” and “Colored.” I knew that segregation existed in the United States and especially in the South. I had heard the stories. But as a girl from the West, I had never before seen the blatant signs. Perhaps I would not have been so shocked if there had been four doors and the signs had read “White Men,” “White Women,” “Colored Men,” and “Colored Women.” I got the implication that “Colored” were not men and women. During my seven-year stay in the South, I even heard one of my friends defend the continuation of segregation, arguing that Blacks don’t have souls.
The pre Civil Right’s Act racism in the United States was an affront to the human dignity of a whole class of people. It allowed society to dismiss Blacks as less than human, to make them “other.”
Our faith teaches us that our dignity comes from God as a gratuitous gift, not earned by our prayer, or faith or activities. This belief in dignity is the basis of the Church’s teaching that every human being deserves respect and should have the opportunity to realize his or her full potential. The way we treat others individually and as a society should be based on God’s love for them, not what they deserve.
The challenge for Catholics is to grow in our respect for all, even if they are “other” - those who perhaps are different from us or difficult for us. How do we respect the driver who endangers others on the freeway, the person who disagrees with our strongly held political opinions, the person who makes our life difficult? How do we involve ourselves in public policy discussions or decisions so as to show respect for the human dignity of all? When we look at public policy through the lens of our faith, we must be sure not to demonize individuals or classes of people. It is too easy to fall into the trap of listening to the voices that make “other” of whole classes of people such as the undocumented, gays or persons of a different political party. It helps to remember that God really does love them too!
“Human Life and Dignity: The fundamental starting point for all of Catholic social teaching is the defense of human life and dignity: every human person is created in the image and likeness of God and has an inviolable dignity, value and worth, regardless of race, gender, class or other human characteristics. … Human dignity is not something we earn by our good behavior; it is something we have as children of God.”
- Quote from Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration, USCCB 2000, p. 21