Hospitality – First Principle of the Moral Law

(July 22, 2001)

Then Abraham got some curds and milk,
as well as the steer that had been prepared,
and set these before the three men;
and he waited on them under the tree while they ate.
(Gen 18:8)

For this act of hospitality Abraham received what he most desired: Within a year his wife Sarah gave birth to a son. (v.10) Because of their incredulity – and sheer joy – Abraham named the child Isaac (the Hebrew word for "laughed" is yishaq). In a remarkable adumbration of the Blessed Trinity, Abraham recognized the “three men” as the Lord himself.

In the following chapter Abraham’s nephew, Lot, also provided hospitality for supernatural visitors. Like his uncle he bowed before them, washed their feet, and gave them food and a place to rest. Nevertheless, these messengers did not bring a new life, but rather destruction, because the men of Sodom tried to reduce them to objects. (Gen 19:5)

These two instances teach us something about the meaning of hospitality. For sure it involve attending to the physical needs of the visitor - water, food, a resting place, etc. – but there is something deeper. It means to see the guest as a subject, not as an object. The great philospher Immanuel Kant called this principle the categorical imperative: "Act so as to use humanity, whether in your own person or in others, always as an end, and never merely as a means."*

In the United States we are facing a crucial test of this moral principle. After years of in vitro fertilization, we have amassed many frozen embryos. As a source of totipotent stem cells, researchers want to use them to seek cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and other terrible afflictions.** Since their owners will eventually disposed of the embryos, why not utilize them for this important research?

Scientists in another nation followed a similar logic. In Germany during World War II, certain people were classified as subhuman. As they were destined for disposal, doctors decided to use them for medical experiments. Reading about those experiments today, anyone - except a neo-Nazi - would recoil in horror.

Some argue that because a human embryo does not have arms and legs, we cannot consider it the same as a baby or even a fetus. However, the question is not their outward appearance but whether they are a human life.*** If not, there is no moral problem employing them to grow a heart or liver. But if they are tiny humans, those who use them for research would be in the same position morally as Dr. Mengele. The fundamental principle has been stated above: treat each human as an end, never as a mere means.

I know some people are genuinely uncertain if the embryo is a human person. I can only ask you to consider what a hunter does if he sees a bush move. Will he not hold his fire until he is sure it is not another human being? Even if the chance of it being child were one in a thousand, I do not think he would take the risk just to have a freezer of venison.

Abraham showed hospitality by welcoming unexpected visitors. As it turned out, he received the Lord himself. Today’s Gospel offers a yet clearer example of deep hospitality. Although she did not provide food or water, she gave what mattered most. In comparison with her frenetic sister, Mary appears more indolent, but what she did required harder work. She recognized Jesus as a subject. She listened to him.

I’ve been with people who tried to do all kinds of things for me. They desired to make an impression. In spite of their apparent kindness, I felt like a caged animal wanting to break out. They had not connected with me as a person. Now, very likely I shared some – or even all – the blame for the situation.

But it cannot be so with Jesus. When we come before him, like Mary, we must try to give him our full attention. It’s hard for us today with such busy-ness and distractions. A priest told how a woman in his communion line took out her cell phone, dialed home, gave some quick instructions, then hung up right before her turn to receive. We can smile at the Marthas, trying to accomplish twenty tasks at once, because we Americans are her neurotic children. What we need to do is ask Mary to intercede for us. She chose the "better part," namely Jesus himself. And that can never be taken from her. (Lk 10:42)


*As the Catholic Encyclopia article brings out, Kant's categorical imperative is not without problems. Nevertheless, the Holy Father says something similar in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae: "As far as the right to life is concerned, every innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others. This equality is the basis of all authentic social relationships which, to be truly such, can only be founded on truth and justice, recognizing and protecting every man and woman as a person and not as an object to be used." (#57)

See also Veritatis Splendor: "since the human person cannot be reduced to a freedom which is self-designing, but entails a particular spiritual and bodily structure, the primordial moral requirement of loving and respecting the person as an end and never as a mere means also implies, by its very nature, respect for certain fundamental goods, without which one would fall into relativism and arbitrariness." (#49)

**"When a sperm cell and an egg cell unite, they form a one-celled fertilized egg. This cell is totipotent, which means that it has the potential to give rise to any and all human cells, such as brain, liver, blood or heart cells. The first few cell divisions in embryonic development produce more totipotent cells. After four days of embryonic cell division, the cells begin to specialize." See What Are Stem Cells?

***People, who otherwise urge us to look beyond externals, often miss this point. For example in testimony before the U.S. Senate Mary Tyler Moore stated, "an embryo bears about as much resemblance to a human as a goldfish."

However, Chris Currie, 37, who has had diabetes since age 11, said he views stem cell research quite differently.
___"I'd love for there to be a cure for diabetes," he said, but explained he opposes embryonic stem cell research because he believes embryos to be human beings from the earliest stages of conception.
___His opposition "isn't based on religious feelings," he said. "Please don't caricature me by lumping me in with the Religious Right. I oppose stem cell research on humanistic grounds. I don't want to be cured if curing me would mean killing another human being. Even if that would save my life."
See Stem Cell Research Poses Spiritual Quandary

See also: Embryonic Stem Cell Statement (Catholic Leadership Conference)


Spanish Version

From Archives (16th Sunday, Year C):

2010: The Difference Between Martha and Mary
2007: Being in the Lord's Presence
2004: Five-Legged Dogs
2001: Hospitality - First Principle of the Moral Law
1998: The Better Part

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Bulletin (Ordination of Armando Perez; Seattle Times on Stem Cell Research)


Erickson V. Bartell Drugs

Abortion and Pro-Choice

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Other Homilies

Report on Earthquake Relief