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Our Neighbor

The tragedy today is the increasing inability to recognize the human person. It is as Flannery O’Connor said: “Today we feel more, but we see less”

One of the greatest questions discussed in medical ethics today is the question of personhood. Is the fetus a person? Is the embryo? Is the “brain dead” patient? What is a person? Who is a person? The discussion goes on and on without anyone willing to change his or her opinion. This crucial question has become a matter of interpretation to be settled by political power. Morality, which is based on respect for the dignity of the human person, is thus being reduced to politics.
What is the Christian answer to the question: What is a person?
There are many philosophies and theologies of personhood claiming a Christian origin or inspiration, but Christianity did not begin as a philosophy or theology. Christianity is the result of the experience of encountering a man who claimed to be the embodiment of the Mystery at the origin of everything that exists, including personhood. The question for us is: How does this experience affect the way we look at the fetus, at the embryo, the sick, the poor, etc.? It is not that it makes us see something that is not there. Instead, it is like what Father Giussani said when others could not see the reflection of the Milky Way on the water because they were not standing where he was. “I see what you see,” he said, “but I see more.” It is a matter of “seeing more” of what is there.
Recall what Jesus said when the disciples asked Him, “Who is my neighbor?” His reply was not a sociological analysis of the concept of neighborhood. “Your question is wrong,” He suggested (telling them the Parable of the Good Samaritan). The question is not, “Who is my neighbor?” The question is, “Who do you recognize as your neighbor?” It is a matter of recognition. We can discuss the concept of personhood, but the real question is: Who do we recognize as a person?
The tragedy today is the increasing inability to recognize the human person. It is as Flannery O’Connor said: “Today we feel more, but we see less.”
The Jewish-Italian writer Primo Levi was sent to a concentration camp but spared the gas chambers because he was able to help with some experiments that were taking place in the camp. During the “oral exam,” given by the scientist who directed the experiment, to test his qualifications, Levi realized what was the true horror of what was happening. The Nazi scientist did not hate him, or his race, or his religion. Levi was in front of something much more terrifying. The man looking at him simply did not recognize his humanity. In his eyes, Levi was not a human being, a human person.
The Christian contribution to medical ethics (and indeed ethics itself) is simply this: the capacity to recognize and affirm human personhood. It is to see those in front of us as Jesus did, as human persons defined by their needs. The greater their needs, the greater is the claim to be human persons. This is the exact opposite of the increasingly prevalent view today: the claim to personhood is recognized in those with the power to affirm it.
Levi’s generation was able to defeat the Nazi horror. “Never again!” became their claim. Why is it that only in a few decades the inability to recognize persons threatens us once again?