What do Advent and history teach about the true dignity of man?

The Gospel of St Luke tells us that, as soon as the Angel Gabriel left her, Our Blessed Mother rose and made haste to the hill country of Judea to be with her cousin, St Elizabeth. The exchange that followed upon her arrival must be among the most recited passages in the whole of scripture, recalled each time we say the Ave Maria or the Magnificat.1 And yet at the heart of this mystery is the unspoken reaction of St John the Baptist to the presence of the Messiah. Twice St Luke uses the Greek word eskirthsen — “skipped” or “leapt for joy”. This is rendered in Latin by St Jerome as exultavit — “he rejoiced”. The inerrant word of God tells us that St John, a fetus at six months’ gestation rejoiced to be in the presence of the Second Person of the Trinity, come into the world as a human embryo. Having given us the dignity of being made in His image, He elevated humanity to an even greater extent by sharing our nature, a nature that is both spiritual and corporeal.

The Church teaches that these two aspects of human nature are so closely united that we have “to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body”.2 That has been the Catholic understanding of the human person since the earliest days of the Church. Tertullian sets this out in De Anima.

“Is the substance of both body and soul formed together at one and the same time? Or does one of them precede the other in natural formation? We indeed maintain that both are conceived, and formed, and perfectly simultaneously, as well as born together; and that not a moment’s interval occurs in their conception, so that, a prior place can be assigned to either (Jer 1:5). Judge, in fact, of the incidents of man’s earliest existence by those which occur to him at the very last. As death is defined to be nothing else than the separation of body and soul, (Plato, Phædo, 64) life, which is the opposite of death, is susceptible of no other definition than the conjunction of body and soul.”3

Abortion advocates wrongly argue that the early and medieval Church did not condemn abortion in all circumstances.4 While the lack of knowledge surrounding fetal development made observable movement (i.e. “quickening”) a legal requirement to establish the presence of a living child, this did not alter the unequivocal rejection of abortion from the apostolic era onwards.5  This is demonstrated by the fact that the Didache, written sometime before 125 AD, lists abortion alongside murder, adultery, pederasty and witchcraft.6

The truth reflected in the encounter described by St Luke makes a possible rationale behind Pope Francis’ recent remarks on abortion all the more difficult to comprehend. Interviewed by America magazine, he stated: 

“In any book of embryology, it is said that shortly before one month after conception the organs and the DNA are already delineated in the tiny fetus, before the mother even becomes aware. Therefore, there is a living human being. I do not say a person, because this is debated, but a living human being.7 (Emphasis added)

It seems unrealistic to believe that those who deny the rights of the child in the womb on the pretext of mendacious definitions of personhood might reconsider their support for abortion on the grounds that unborn children are living human beings. For American philosopher, James Rachels, “[b]eing alive in the biological sense is relatively unimportant”.8 He argues that a human being who lacks the capacity for consciousness does not have a life: “A life is the sum of one’s aspirations, decisions, activities, projects and human relationships.” Some “unfortunate” humans “do not have lives, even though they are alive; so killing them is a morally different matter.”9 (Original emphasis)

Of course, this line of reasoning does not only apply to the unborn. There is an influential body of bioethical opinion which argues that newborn infants and adults who lack any “appreciable” mental capacity, “are not and presumably never will be people”.10

The inherent danger posed by false notions of the essential unity of human nature lies at the root of abortion, IVF and the exploitation of fetal tissue. It is this dualism that also teaches children that the mind of a boy can be trapped in the body of a girl or vice versa. Its role in the killing of the mentally disabled can be illustrated by the story of the “Strange Boy at Dessau”. In A History of the Care and Study of the Mentally Retarded, Leo Kanner cites an episode recounted in Martin Luther’s Table Talk

“‘He was twelve years old, had the use of his eyes and all his senses so that one might think he was a normal child. But he did nothing but gorge himself as much as four peasants or threshers. He ate, defecated, and drooled and, if anyone tackled him, he screamed. If things didn’t go well, he wept. So I said to the Prince of Anhalt: If I were the Prince, I should take the child to the Moldau River which flows near Dessau and drown him. But the Prince of Anhalt and the Prince of Saxony, who happened to be present, refused to follow my advice.’ … When Luther was asked why he had made such a recommendation, he replied that he was firmly of the opinion that such changelings were merely a mass of flesh, a massa carnis, with no soul.”11

In Death and Deliverance, Michael Burleigh explains how this view resurfaced in Germany in the first half of the last century.12 In 1920, jurist Karl Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche jointly published Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens13 (The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life) which made a compassionate and economic case for invoking the term “mental death” to justify the killing of the profoundly disabled by labelling them leere menschliche Ärmel — “empty human sleeves”.14

Confronted in 1939 with the Nazi “Aktion T-4” euthanasia programme, several Protestant thinkers took the position that: “the absence of a spiritual life constituted an absence of personality, or in other words, that the mentally defective were merely a massa carnis.15 Although some of those responsible for the management of Lutheran asylums tried to protect their patients, Nazi health bureaucracy was able to take control of some church-run institutions or transfer their inmates to state facilities where their lives were ended. In some cases, resistance was fatally compromised by the adoption of a pragmatic approach. In the Mariaberg asylum, for example, the lives of the most vulnerable patients were effectively sacrificed in an attempt to save those less impaired.16

While some Catholic clergy were more steadfast in their opposition than their Lutheran counterparts, most lacked resolve, and others, such as moral theologian Joseph Mayer, actively aided Nazi efforts. When approached by the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service, SD), Mayer provided a memorandum justifying euthanasia. With Hitler’s approval, Mayer’s arguments were then put to certain Catholic bishops.

One of these bishops was Heinrich Wienken of Berlin, who was chosen to represent the Church in discussions with the authorities. After a series of meetings with officials of the T-4 programme, Wienken gradually backed down from absolute opposition in favour of restricting the policy to “complete idiots”, access to the sacraments and the “exclusion of ill Roman Catholic priests”.17 In the end, the negotiations between Wienken and T-4 broke down when Hitler refused to commit to a written agreement and because, on 2 December 1940, Pius XII issued his condemnation of the killing of those classified as “life unworthy of life”.18 It was the intervention of the Pope that saved the German Church from being manipulated by the Nazi state.

When Catholics look back to this era, it is Bishop August Clemens von Galen and his heroic denunciation of the T-4 programme that they call to mind rather than the shortcomings of Bishop Wienken. But the reason von Galen is remembered is precisely because he was virtually unique within the German hierarchy. Faced with a criminal regime capable of such violence, it is perhaps understandable that so few senior members of the clergy were prepared to risk the retribution that might follow an act of defiance. However, when it comes to defending the lives of the most vulnerable today, there are no such dangers, and yet we see many of the same failures: widespread silence and, in some cases, cooperation with anti-life regimes to excuse or minimise the evil of abortion and euthanasia, as well as the adoption of a “pragmatic approach” which sacrifices the lives of the most vulnerable for the benefit of those considered to have a higher value. 

By the winter of 1944, the war was entering its final months. In his Christmas message that December, the Holy Father called on believers to focus on the light of Christ’s birth shining in the midst of a world in darkness. In his address, he looks ahead to the new beginning that will follow the end of the war but warns that true peace can only be built on Christ. He writes:

“Heads that were bowed lift again serenely, for Christmas is the feast of human dignity, ‘the wonderful exchange by which the Creator of the human race, taking a living body, deigned to be born of a virgin, and by His coming bestowed on us His divinity…’

“The Birth of the Saviour of the World, of the Restorer of human dignity in all its fullness, is the moment characterised by the alliance of all men of goodwill. There to the poor world, torn by discord, divided by selfishness, poisoned by hate, love will be restored, and it will be allowed to march forward in cordial harmony, towards the common goal, to find at last the cure for its wounds in the peace of Christ.19

After the defeat of the Nazi regime, the Allied Powers realised that the denial of the personhood of some human beings was a decisive moment in Germany’s descent into mass killing. It was for this reason that the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sought to guarantee that: “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.”20 Had Pius XII failed to defend this truth then the death toll of 70, 27321 disabled people murdered by the T-4 programme would have been even higher.


  1. Luke 1:41–55.
  2. CCC 365: The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e. it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.
  3. Tertullian, De Anima, Chapter XXVII — “Soul and Body Conceived, Formed and Perfected in Element Simultaneously” (c 203).
  4. See, for example, Glanville Williams, The Sanctity of Human Life and the Criminal Law (Alfred A Knopf, 1974) pp 150–2; and Paul D Simmons, Personhood, the Bible and the Abortion Debate, (The Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights Education Fund Inc, 1990). 
  5. Michael Gorman, “Scripture, History, and Authority in a Christian View of Abortion: A Response to Paul Simmons” (1996) Christian Bioethics, 2, 1, pp 83–96.
  6. Didache, ch 2, “The Second Commandment: Gross Sin Forbidden. And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, [Exodus 20:13-14] you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, [Exodus 20:15] you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten.”
  7. “Exclusive: Pope Francis discusses Ukraine, US bishops and more”, America, 28 November 2022. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2022/11/28/pope-francis-interview-america-244225Donate
  8. James Rachels, The End of Life, Euthanasia and Morality, (OUP 1990), p 5.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Mary Ann Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” (1973) 57, 1 The Monist, p 43.
  11. Leo Kanner, A History of the Care and Study of the Mentally Retarded, (Charles C Thomas, 1964), p 6–7.
  12. Michael Burleigh, Death and Deliverance: “Euthanasia” in Germany 1900–1945, (CUP, 1994).
  13. Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens (1st publ Felix Meiner 1922, Guttenberg Press, 2014), p 59. 
  14. Robert Lifton translates this phrase as “empty shells of human beings” in The Nazi Doctors (Macmillan, 1986), p 47.
  15. Michael Burleigh “Between ‘Enthusiasm, Compliance and Protest: The Churches, Eugenics and the Nazi ‘Euthanasia’ Programme”, (1994) Contemporary European History, 3, 3 p 261. 
  16. Ibid, p 258.
  17. Ibid, p 261.
  18. “The direct killing of an innocent person because of mental or physical defects is not allowed. With the decree of 2 December 1940, the Holy Office replies to the following.
    Question: Whether it is permissible on the basis of an order by the state authority directly to kill those who, although they have not committed a crime worthy of death, nevertheless cannot be of any further use to the nation and are rather a burden for the nation and a hindrance to its energy and strength.
    Answer: No, since it is against the natural and positive law of God. His Holiness Pope Pius XII has approved and confirmed this decision of the cardinals on 1 December and ordered its publication.”
    Jeremy Noakes, G Pridham (eds) Nazism 1919–1945, Volume 3: Foreign Policy, War and Racial Extermination. (Liverpool University Press, 2001), no 757.
  19. Pope Pius XII, Democracy and a Lasting Peace [Christmas Message], 1944 https://www.papalencyclicals.net/pius12/p12xmas.htm
  20. Article 6. Universal Declaration of Human Rights 10 Dec 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A).
  21. Burleigh, Death and Deliverance, p 160.