Bishop: Demonizing, Dehumanizing, or Divinizing

by Bishop Joensen | June 1, 2022

Bishop William Joensen

I’ve been convicted in recent weeks during our Monday Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction at St. Ambrose Cathedral when we continue to pray the “Litany of Peace in Troubled Times” for the people of Ukraine and other war-stricken regions.  One of the tropes of intercession is, “For courage to resist demonizing and dehumanizing others.”  My conscience tells me, “Guilty.  That’s exactly what you’ve done to Russian President Vladimir Putin in your previous Mirror column and in your general attitude.”  

However much I abhor the war Putin has instigated and the atrocities that his military forces have committed, I cannot consign him to the rank of Satan and his legion of evil spirits and cancel him from the human race, even if Satan must be pleased with Putin’s loathsome behavior.  I am called to be tenacious in hope and prayer not only for the peace of Ukraine and deliverance of its people, but that the irreducible goodness of every human being created by God might prevail, that sin would be cast out, and that all persons—including Putin himself—might be saved.

I think a similarly bracing test of hope, faith, and charity awaits us in connection with the official release of the final U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case (as of this writing, only the leaked version indicating a majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade has been circulated; we’ll see if that majority position holds firm).  The cultural convulsions in reaction to the leaked version portend a long, hot, and ugly summer in our country—particularly if Roe is overturned—that will make the national turmoil in the wake of George Floyd’s death two years ago, or the demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War more than half a century ago, seem tame by comparison.  Some pro-choice proponents have already indicated that they will stop at nothing—including the violent targeting of justices and pro-life organization offices, the disruption of religious worship services, the desecration of the Eucharist, and other violent acts of intimidation and blasphemy—to try to make those who uphold the basic right to life of every human person from conception to natural death duck and run for cover.  

The true champions of women’s flourishing and freedom are not those who argue for the capacity to destroy nascent life in the womb.  As with the early Christians in the Acts of the Apostles, God has given us a mission and charge at this pivotal moment in our country’s history—in salvation history.  We are called to be undaunted in our witness to the truth that each and every human is created by God as a unique person of inestimable worth and dignity, and that Jesus died and rose again so that we might experience even now the “abundant life” that he desires to communicate from his Father in the Spirit.  
We are to keep doing the works that express our deep-seated faith, our love for children of all ages and support of mothers who face all sorts of pressures that are unfriendly and prey upon their decision-making processes.  We challenge men to “man up” as fathers and commit themselves to nurture, be present, and not abandon mothers of their children.  We are to accompany all persons along the continuum of life, including earlier stages via crisis pregnancy centers such as Inner Vision Healthcare in Des Moines and Gabriel’s Corner in Council Bluffs, Mary’s Helping Hands (all supported by our Knights of Columbus bottle campaigns and other forms of outreach, including one near and dear to my heart: the Biking for Babies local ride on Saturday, June 25th, departing from St. Luke’s Parish in Ankeny).  We sponsor Catholic Charities’ Emergency Family Shelter and Food Pantry in Des Moines, the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Shelter in Council Bluffs, and the wide-ranging child counseling services provided to our schools and in-person and telehealth counseling and therapy offered to persons of all ages.  We mobilize resources for the Pulse Life Advocates, and become active proponents for countless other organizations that are not overtly Catholic, but in which persons of good faith take part in solidarity with all defenders of human dignity.

We are to be fearless in laying aside all need for affirmation from the demigods of popular culture—the pundits, celebrities, and yes, many religious leaders, or from the politicians who might even lay claim to Catholic identity as cover for their departure from the most basic tenets of developmental biology, let alone from the unswerving teaching of our faith. From its earliest, apostolic period, the Church has upheld the sanctity of all human life—whether innocent, or mired in its sorry and sinful mis-taking of what it means to be human.  

And this is key: we are to “turn the other cheek,” to remain steadfast in our love for all persons, including the most vehement pro-choice protestor, no matter what sort of invective, saliva or other substance is thrown in our face.  We know ourselves to be in need of conversion, to cast ourselves on God’s grace in order to resist the temptation to write off--or worse, demonize others--which would be the surest way to muzzle our witness and place it under a bushel basket, rather than reflecting the light and truth made known to us by human reason and revealed to us most clearly and compellingly in Christ.  

We are to be both meek and humble of heart, and insatiable in our thirst for justice, the basic foundation for any community, any country, to exist under the rule of law, where the weakest and most vulnerable enjoy primacy of place with the preeminent right to life as a precondition for any other rights to which we might lay claim. 

You know by now that I’m fond of the late Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann, who reminds us, “Human rights depend on the fact that no one is authorized to define the circle of those who are entitled to them and those who aren’t.  Hence, these rights, though rooted in our personhood, must nevertheless be granted to each being born of woman, and this from the first more moment of his purely natural existence, it being unnecessary to superimpose other qualitative criteria.”

We are to love without limit—even to the point where we lay down our lives for the sake of those who scorn us and hold us in contempt in the court of public opinion.  We pray that civic peace will prevail in the wake of the Dobbs decision, but we are not so naïve as to think that we might pass over to the restoration of a more decent post-Roe U.S. democracy without further innocent lives being lost as the struggle to recognize and defend human dignity returns to the states.  The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians, and the greatest testimony to the way, truth, and life who is Jesus.  We want all persons to be saved, and by God’s grace, we will love them to the end.  We are precious and valuable not simply to ourselves, for—as Spaemann posits--if that were the case, the loss of any one species, including the human race, would not be a crime on a cosmic scale but a loss only to themselves.  

But if each human life matters in the ultimate scheme of things, it is because we survive death by the breath of the Risen Lord’s liberating Spirit, and are known and cherished by the God of whom the Psalmist speaks, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps 116:15).  And because God wills that his precious children—each one of us—is to be divinized—to share fully his image and likeness and the communion of love who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—then we, too, can will no less.  We are not angels, whether good or bad—but human beings, no more, no less, and that is good news indeed.

Bishop Joensen

The Most Reverend William Joensen is the current bishop for the Diocese of Des Moines, having been ordained and installed in 2019.