Article 38 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
It occurred to me during a recent visit to JFK Hospital in Edison, NJ that the familiar and beautiful notion of being made in the “image and likeness of God” is not so convincing when contemplated from the seated position of a hospital waiting room. I sat across from a 73 year-old woman holding back tears as she prepared for her surgery. With a long blond wig that had twisted in the wind during her journey from the parking lot, her husband sat next to her but was more fixated on playing poker on his iPad rather than tending to the needs of his ill spouse. Over the shoulder of this man, I could see through the large window another couple and their young grandson (I assume) making their way toward the waiting room from the outdoors. It was a sad sight watching the aged woman seated in an old worn wheelchair, with equally tattered clothes, being pushed by her husband who was at least as wide as the wheelchair, huffing and puffing as he entered the hospital. The child was blissfully oblivious to the sad portrait to which he was a main subject. Then there were the twins seated to my left. They were mistaken by a hospital employee as husband and wife before being told by the female of the two that they were brother and sister born just minutes apart almost 80 years before. Both struggled with each breath that sounded like a speeding locomotive.
Sadly, as I watched I was suddenly gripped by the fact that each of the senior citizens I saw were once small babies, then children, later teenagers, and finally young men and women with the strength and vitality of youth, easily discernible back then as being made in the “image and likeness of God.” But the ravages of age, coupled with the tragedy of illness, made this term more difficult to reconcile with the faces before me. Yet, it is in the lives of just such as these that we are summoned to discern the “image of God.”
In my previous article I talked about God as Creator of the visible world. In other words, the world and the universe have traces of God everywhere. Just as artists leave something of themselves on their canvas, so God left some of his perfection on everything he made. At the top of the list are human beings.
Humanity is the Creator’s masterpiece, “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake” and “alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life” (ccc 356). According to the Catechism, “God created everything for humanity” (ccc 358) and “attached so much importance to salvation that he did not [even] spare his own Son for the sake of humanity” (ccc 358).
What makes humanity supreme over created things? Sacred Scriptures tells us that God formed Adam out of the slime of the earth and “blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). What was cold and lifeless became warm and pulsing with life; what was dust and incapable of thought received the spark of intelligence. Being in the image of God the human possesses the dignity of a person, who is not “just something, but someone” (ccc 357).
“God created everything” (ccc 358) for this “someone” called the human being. It is humanity’s intelligence and will that makes the human person supreme over all visible creation and for whom “the heavens and the earth, the sea and all the rest of creation exist” (ccc 358). As we look at their faces, their hearts, their words, their works, and their attitude toward all things, it is evident that they, in a special way, are an image of God. Only humans have founded states and cities, developed and cultivated arts and sciences, developed trade and commerce, and advanced culturally and economically. Humans use the stars to direct their journey over the ocean and in the desert. Human beings have wrung medicine from coal and from mold! They use soybeans to make food and clothing! Everyday human minds plan, discover and set new goals for their genius to achieve.
Yet, the Catechism quoting the Second Vatican Council tells us, “it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear” (ccc 359).
“The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual” (ccc 362), and “the human body” shares in “the dignity of the image of God” (ccc 364). As such, we have an obligation to regard our bodies “as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day” (ccc 364).
The final part of this section emphasizes the teaching of the Church that “every spiritual soul is created immediately by God” (ccc 366), unlike our bodies which are “produced” through the DNA of our parents. In addition, the human soul “is immortal” and “does not perish when it separates from the body at death” (ccc 366). Finally, our souls “will be reunited” with our bodies “at the final Resurrection” (ccc 366).
Human life deemed worthless or without meaning according to the Catechism is impossible to fathom. No such human life exists. As the Canadian Bishops observed in their 2005 pastoral letter to the sick: “[even] illness may seem to rob people of dignity, but a patient’s intrinsic dignity is never diminished.” Thus, the people I saw in the hospital waiting room at JFK on that windy day enjoy the fullness of being in “the image and likeness of God” – the value of which can never be measured.