Human Beings are Not for Using

The astonishing teaching of the Catholic faith is that human beings are, alone in all creation, the only creatures God has made for their own sake.  All the rest of creation, good and sacred and holy as it is, does not exist for its own sake.  It is, properly speaking, for our use—just so long as we understand what “use” means.

“Use” does not mean “mindless exploitation”.  It means that we are intended to be the stewards of creation, to tend and care for the garden of the earth.  The Hebrew word used in Genesis to describe the work Adam did in the Garden is the same word used to describe the work of the Levitical priests in the Tabernacle.  In short, Adam and Eve (and we) are called to be priestly royalty, not robber barons.  The creation entrusted into our care is neither mother nor strumpet, but sister, for she shares the same Creator we do.

Some people are uncomfortable with the idea that there is a real distinction between us and the rest of creation.  But one of the quickest ways to see it is so is to note that a very good working definition of sin is this: Sin consists of treating persons like things and things like persons.

Examples of sins which treat persons like things include:

  • Pride (the essence of which is to thrust all other persons, including the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, back toward "thinghood," and into nothingness. "You? You're nothing! I am the Great Mark P. Shea!"
  • Lust (as C.S. Lewis observes, the lustful man on the prowl does not "want a woman". He wants an experience for which a woman happens to be the necessary apparatus–that is, a thing.)
  • Slavery (persons become property)
  • Murder (which radically reduces persons to things called corpses)

And so on.

Similarly, examples of sins which treat things like persons include.

  • Idolatry (treating things such as golden calves, stock certificates, sexuality, money, time, or comfort like the Blessed Persons of the Godhead)
  • Greed (exalting possessions above persons)
  • Gluttony (exalting pleasure above persons)
  • Avarice (exalting status and power above persons)

Because we are fallen creatures, the temptation to treat persons like things is everywhere in our culture.  And, of course, it always presents itself to us as the very model of practical common sense.  A recent survey, for instance, showed that a large number of Catholics (more than the national average of Americans in general) believe that torture should be employed in the War on Terror.

The Church, however, teaches that human beings cannot be subjected to torture for any reason.  It teaches, both in Veritatis Splendor and in the documents of Vatican II that torture is intrinsically immoral.  That’s because humans are not things to be used, but persons retaining a fundamental dignity no matter how bad they might be.  Enthusiastic supporters of the Bush/Cheney policies of prisoner abuse and torture are forbidden this kind of ends-justifies-the means thinking by the Church.

Unfortunately, exactly the same thinking undergirds those of an allegedly more “progressive” bent who also reject the Church’s teaching that humans are not things to be used no matter how small they might be.  The argument boils down to the same thing as the torture supporter: “Think how much good we could do if we could just treat the embryonic person as a thing.” 

To all such thinking, the Church says: People are not for using.  They are for treating with the respect due the image and likeness of God.

Mark Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • Guest

    Excellent article once again, Mark.  Please define "torture" for me.  Unfortunately the Catechism's definition is too broad for this discussion as it could easily include spanking a child to change his/her behavior.  Thx.

  • Guest

    For the record, it is the policy of the United States Government that all battlefield detainees and prisoners of war are treated in accordance with international treaties and standards of conduct.

    Such policy is already enshrined in the United States Code, but because of false and outrageous allegations like Mr Shea continues to parrot, the Executive has taken to issuing it's own guidance under Executive Orders and directives to ensure there is no abiguity.

    Here is a sample of the most explicit guidance:

    Executive Order, 13 Nov 2001: Defines "terrorists", requires detainees be "treated humanely, without any adverse distinction based on race, color, religion, gender, birth, wealth, or any similar criteria", and establishes procedures for trials.  See Section 3 for treatment criteria.

    Dept of Defense Directive 2310.01E "The Department of Defense Detainee Program":

    1.1. Reissues Reference (a) to revise policy and responsibilities within the Department of Defense (DoD) for a Detainee Program to ensure compliance with the laws of the United States, the law of war, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and all applicable policies, directives, or other issuances, consistent with References (d) through (k).

    4.2. All persons subject to this Directive shall observe the requirements of the law of war, and shall apply, without regard to a detainee’s legal status, at a minimum the standards articulated in Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (References (g) through (j), full text of which is found in Enclosure 3), as construed and applied by U.S. law, and those found in Enclosure 4, in the treatment of all detainees, until their final release, transfer out of DoD control, or repatriation. Note that certain categories of detainees, such as enemy prisoners of
    war, enjoy protections under the law of war in addition to the minimum standards prescribed in Common Article 3 to References (g) through (j).

    Executive Order, 20 Jul 2007: Explicitly defines and excludes torture (as defined in the United States Code, i.e. federal law), as well as any act that could be construed as humiliating, degrading, or profaning to the person or their religion.

    conditions of confinement and interrogation practices of the program do not include:

    (A) torture, as defined in section 2340 of title 18, United States Code;

    (B) any of the acts prohibited by section 2441(d) of title 18, United States Code, including murder, torture, cruel or inhuman treatment, mutilation or maiming, intentionally causing serious bodily injury, rape, sexual assault or abuse, taking of hostages, or performing of biological experiments;

    (C) other acts of violence serious enough to be considered comparable to murder, torture, mutilation, and cruel or inhuman treatment, as defined in section 2441(d) of title 18, United States Code;

    (D) any other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment prohibited by the Military Commissions Act (subsection 6(c) of Public Law 109 366) and the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (section 1003 of Public Law 109 148 and section 1403 of Public Law 109 163);

    (E) willful and outrageous acts of personal abuse done for the purpose of humiliating or degrading the individual in a manner so serious that any reasonable person, considering the circumstances, would deem the acts to be beyond the bounds of human decency, such as sexual or sexually indecent acts undertaken for the purpose of humiliation, forcing the individual to perform sexual acts or to pose sexually, threatening the individual with sexual mutilation, or using the individual as a human shield; or

    (F) acts intended to denigrate the religion, religious practices, or religious objects of the individual;  

    The reader will note that I have provided primary sources, not blog entries, news reports, or links to "pro-" this or that websites.  I have quoted the policy and laws of the United States.

    I know people who have served at Gitmo…they are deeply offended and bewildered that time and time again their professionalism and, frankly, their characters are constantly sniped at by the left.  I know, personally, that these laws are enforced.

    The weak counter argument that these directives and laws are some vast cover to "keep the regime's skirts clean" is so much hogwash.  Even if the Commander-in-Chief issued orders to torture, which he has not, someone has to carry it out.  I know of no one in the military who would execute said illegal order.  Case in point: Abu Ghraib.  The investigation was underway before it ever hit the press, because a soldier came forward and reported the criminals who were involved.  The criminals involved were all convicted in a military court and sentenced to prison.  The point is that things like Abu Ghraib are aberrations, not policy, and the military has disciplined our own when our honor is tarnished by criminals.

    On "waterboarding"…first, it was performed three times according to the press.  Furthermore, this activity was reviewed by all three branches of government, including the Democratically controlled Congress, and sanctioned as legal.  We're all welcome to our opinions, of course, but I remain unconvinced that it's torture since I've personally seen it demonstrated more often on TV than I care to count.  Frightening perhaps, but since there is no permanent harm done (water can't get into the mouth or nose), there's probably more dangerous hazing going on in college frat houses.

    Nonetheless, since it's only been used three times years ago, and seems to be a magnet for derision, it's a practice we should probably ditch.

    I think it's time we apply the same standard to these political debates that we apply when people challenge us on the "Trail of Blood" or "Da Vinci Code" nonsense, which fall in the same category as all this "Bush/Hilter/Halliburton" nonsense: Facts Please.

  • Guest

    Good post mickeyaddison. We've been around Peugeot Sound on this one.

    I think the topic is fresh on Mark's mind as we contemplate the Crucifixion. We demostrated to the Trinity on that one that evil will treat God himself as a thing. As for swallowing water, I prefer that to morning commuters swallowing shrapnel of steel and concrete after they've brushed their teeth. A person who would treat people as objects to be exploited for terror needs to be brought to responsiblity, by force if necessary.

    The left coast has more sensitivity for  "innocent" saplings than innocent souls. Cheney will be back out there soon enough to get your thinking straight.

    In all fairness, Mark stays pretty well on the Oregon Trail of Orthodoxy and a reminder from him is easy to take.

  • Guest

    That Bush/Cheney torture line raised the hairs on my neck too Mark. Of course we are to oppose torture but don't fall into the looney left's definitions on what torture is – lives depend on the information extracted and we should try everything short of torture to obatain same – AndyP/Doria2 – Yonkers,  NY