The bishops of Alaska released a joint pastoral letter this month, highlighting the meaning, origin, and implications of human dignity in today’s world.
“What God creates is good. With this pastoral letter, we wish to invite a closer examination of the human person and human sexuality from God’s perspective, wisdom and love,” the bishops wrote.
“Human life is sacred precisely because its origin is from God, is sustained by God, and is ordered to return to God. This biblical understanding is the basis for the Church’s teaching that all life, from conception to natural death, is sacred and holds inherent dignity that must be protected,” they continued.
Entitled “Living in the Image and Likeness of God,” the Feb. 14 pastoral letter was signed by Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Anchorage; Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz of Anchorage; Bishop Chad W. Zielinski of Fairbanks; and Bishop Andrew E. Bellisario of Juneau.
The bishops outlined the reasons behind the Church’s teaching on life and death, and how it should affect every Catholic’s attitude towards others.
“The Church, and we — her members — are called to work for an end to abortion and the death penalty. We are also called to resist legislative efforts that would allow the taking of any human life by medically prescribed suicide,” said the bishops.
The Church, they continued, “makes it clear that life must be respected as a gift, but a gift that is not ours to own outright, but one that must be in keeping with God’s desire and design for humanity.”
Because the Church’s teaching is clear on the importance of respecting human life and dignity, the bishops went on to say that self-respect is crucial to understanding overall sacredness of life.
“Our body is a temple of the Lord, and in relationship with Christ, we learn to grow in virtue and self-discipline.”
The bishops pointed to a number of obstacles to the protection of life in Alaskan society, particularly suicide and addiction. Alaska has the second highest number of suicides per capita, they said, and many individuals struggle with drug or pornography addictions.
In addition, the Alaska bishops highlighted global struggles, including violence, division, indifference to the poor, homelessness and racism, as well as refugee crises around the world. They also noted the mounting attacks against religious freedom, which has “come under threat in recent years.”
Despite these challenges, the bishops noted the importance of treating each individual with the dignity of “a child of God.” They also underscored the importance of helping to “heal the wounds of our brothers and sisters” and to be “agents of reconciliation,” noting that Christ is the ultimate healer.
“It is Christ who holds all things together. Christ breaks down the walls that divide us, and He roots out the prejudices that erode our common humanity; He makes us one.”
Closely related to the truth of human dignity is the proper understanding of human sexuality, the prelates said, which relates to other topics such as marriage, chastity, and the understanding of gender.
“This truth that all human life has its origins in God’s creative love also shapes our understanding of human sexuality,” they emphasized.
“Human sexuality is a gift, as well as a powerful, mysterious complexity of affection, emotion, and passion, all lived out in the body, which is marked by a complementarity — male and female,” the bishops said, adding that this relationship is “ordered to conjugal love of husband and wife in marriage.”
The Church teaches that marriage is a bond, holy and sacred, which can only be shared between a man and a woman. The bishops said that this institution, which has been “willed by God at the beginning of creation,” has also been under attack by its recent redefinition through the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in “Obergefell v. Hodges.”
Because of this, the Church should further promote efforts to “support and strengthen the Church’s understanding of marriage and family,” the bishops said.
They also noted the importance of chastity in modern times, as the “virtue that integrates one’s sexuality within the dignity of person as created in the image and likeness of God.”
Chastity, said the bishops, should be practiced in all vocations, whether married, consecrated, or single, because it mirrors Christ’s ultimate gift of self.
“At the heart of our relationship with Christ is the call to make a gift of self to others, for this is the heart of love, the good of another,” the bishops said.
“True human joy and contentment can only be found in faithfully living according to the natural law, the moral law of the Creator.”
The bishops also reflected on the struggle with gender identity, saying that “we cannot dismiss God’s creation of the human person as male or female.” However, they also acknowledged “the challenging complexities involved for individuals” who struggle with relating to their biological sex.
Discussing individuals with homosexual tendencies, they stressed that Catholics cannot “condone immoral behaviors,” but rather should “recognize them as brothers and sisters” worthy of respect.
“We simply must give witness to the news of Jesus Christ, both in good times and in bad. In doing so, we seek only to love and serve all those with whom we share in a common humanity, a common dignity.”
The bishops voiced that “every age has its challenges,” but the key to living as a Christian in turbulent times is to “keep our eyes fixed on Christ.” They noted every Catholic’s responsibility to live an “integrated faith life, in public and in private,” and to seek interior conversion through formation of the human conscience and a relationship with Christ.
“Our relationship with Jesus Christ gives us hope in the knowledge that we are redeemed in His mercy,” the bishops said.
“With this pastoral letter, we encourage all to draw closer to Christ, to continually renew their relationship with Him so that we may seek the truth of Christ together, that we may live more fully the dignity that is ours, being created in the image and likeness of God.”