[Last summer I was asked by my diocesan bishop to prepare a short reflection on the dignity of the human person within the context of the Diocese of Wyoming. Given that today is election day, it seems appropriate to share what I wrote for him.]
The Dignity of the Human Person
Our Contemporary Situation
As Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae says, our times are characterized by an increasing emphasis on the dignity of the individual human person: “A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty.” (DH 1) This is a positive fruit of the Enlightenment era, which perceived the use of reason as requiring a greater stress on the individual.
Formed in the last stages of the settlement of America, Wyoming and the American west especially value freedom and individuality. The rugged frontier attracted self-reliant, pioneer personalities, and the isolated conditions re-enforced and rewarded independence and responsibility. Consequently the culture of the frontier, which persists to this day, further emphasized the individualism of the modern era. The “cowboy ethic” stresses the virtues of responsibility, persistence, temperance, and everything else requisite for true independence.
While the positive side of the modern and western situation is evident, the individualism of the modern era can easily veer into autonomy, to the detriment of human dignity. As Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes points out:
Modern atheism often takes on a systematic expression which, in addition to other causes, stretches the desires for human independence to such a point that it poses difficulties against any kind of dependence on God. Those who profess atheism of this sort maintain that it gives man freedom to be an end unto himself, the sole artisan and creator of his own history. They claim that this freedom cannot be reconciled with the affirmation of a Lord Who is author and purpose of all things, or at least that this freedom makes such an affirmation altogether superfluous. (GS 20)
The consequence of this explicit or implicit atheism is a lack of grounding for morality and a loosening of the bonds between persons. The same modern era which has brought worker’s rights, increased societal roles for women, and an end to slavery has also given us abortion and the Gulag. Absolute individualism leads, by a surprising logic, to the devaluation of the individual and its dissolution into a collective. The same western culture which led to a famously early recognition of women’s rights can produce an indifference to religion and morality, as though ethics and ultimate questions are purely private affairs left to the individual’s whim. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church expresses the balance required:
The human individual may never be thought of only as an absolute individual being built up by himself and on himself, as if his characteristic traits depended on no one else but himself. Nor can the person be thought of as a mere cell of an organism that is inclined at most to grant it recognition in its functional role within the overall system. (CSDC 125)
Human Dignity in the Catholic Tradition
However, this balance is not achieved by looking to individualism on the one hand and collectivism on the other and then charting a course in between them. As so often happens in the moral life, the mean is found only by finding a new beginning point, a new trailhead. Secular attempts to find the basis of human dignity easily swerve toward one extreme or another because the basis of human dignity is not secular. The Catholic tradition grounds the dignity of the human person in two mysteries: creation and redemption.
Creation and the Dignity of the Person
Man the Image of God
The mystery of man’s creation is unfolded above all in the first chapters of Genesis, where man and woman are created in God’s image and likeness on the sixth day in Genesis 1. In this text which portrays God as the wise architect who exercises dominion over all creation through his word, man is established as a steward of the earth who exercises dominion in wisdom and rationality after the pattern of God his maker. Psalm 8 meditates with wonder on man’s authority over the world:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established; 4 what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? 5 Yet you have made him little less than God, and you crown him with glory and honor. 6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you hast put all things under his feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea. 9 O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
It is on the one hand a wonderful dominion man exercises, and yet on the other hand it is given to him by one whose dominion is unimaginably greater and it leads man’s thoughts back to his God. Man is a vice-regent, a steward, a representative of God on earth, and this fact balances tremendous dignity with a decisive limit on man’s claims.
Man Created for God
But the account of man’s rationality in Genesis is not complete without the seventh day, which is the goal toward which the whole week of creation leads. This climactic Sabbath day expresses in a narrative way the fact that the human person exists for the sake of a relationship with God. Although every other living creature is subjected to man’s needs, man himself is ordained to divine worship.
The fact that man is subjected to God alone and not to any other creature leads to a fundamental principle: “In no case . . . is the human person to be manipulated for ends that are foreign to his own development.” (CSDC 133) That is to say, the human person can never be treated as a mere means, because that would subordinate the person to a mere creature. But the same fact, that man is subjected to God, means that the human person is not an end in itself in such a radical way as to exclude a common goal for the whole human race. All human beings have a single good, a single goal, in God. This makes it possible for persons to form community, and in fact for the whole human race to form a unity. As Gaudium et Spes expresses it, “God, Who has fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood. For having been created in the image of God, Who ‘from one man has created the whole human race and made them live all over the face of the earth’ (Acts 17:26), all men are called to one and the same goal, namely God Himself.” (GS 24)
Man the Image of the Trinity
But there is a further aspect of creation only hinted at in Genesis, namely that to be made in the image of God is to be made in the image of the holy Trinity and so to be called to share its life. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, although truly distinct as persons, live one single interior life which is nonetheless a life of relationship to one another. God, who is reason itself, lives in relation; God, who has every power and goodness, proceeds from another. When the light of this mystery is brought to bear on mankind, it reveals that the person is by the very fact of its rationality called to live in communion with others. As Gaudium et Spes says:
Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one. . . as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself. (GS 24)
No greater dignity could be conceived than to share in the interior life and unity of the divine communion, and yet this same dignity excludes a proud individualism that would claim absolute autonomy. As good as it is to live according to one’s own reason, the Father himself by his very thought lives in communion; as good as it may appear to be self-reliant, the eternal Word, the Son, receives everything from his Father; as necessary as it may be to leave others to their lifestyles and opinions, the Holy Spirit proceeds not as tolerance but as Love. St. John Paul II captures the point:
God created man in His own image and likeness: calling him to existence through love, He called him at the same time for love. God is love and in Himself He lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in His own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. (FC 11)
The Catholic tradition bases the dignity of the human person not only on its creation by God but also on its re-creation in Christ. The gospel message speaks of a dignity surpassing all that could have been expected, because God became man and died for us. As Gaudium et Spes observes, “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” (GS 22)
The mere fact that God took on human nature immediately gave every human being an unsurpassable dignity. Every mother is ennobled by the fact that God has a mother; every baby is a marvel because God has been a baby. In the second chapter of On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius compares the Incarnation to “when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all.”
But the entire New Testament dwells on the even more amazing fact that the God-man gave himself up to death for all. St. Peter exhorts Christians to recognize their own dignity, saying, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1Pet 1:19) St. Paul asks, with wonder, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for all, will he not give us all things with him?” (Rom 8:32) God himself has suffered death for each human person we meet: Christ warns us that at the last day he will say, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:41)
All of this can be said even of those who have not recognized the gift given them in Christ. Of those who acknowledge Christ and receive his Spirit, St. Paul teaches that they become “children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ….” (Rom 8:17) The tradition of the fathers and doctors sums this up by saying that the Son of God became man that we might become gods. (See the citations in CCC 460)
This dazzling emphasis on the dignity of each person still does not lead to an absolute individualism, but rather to a unity in Christ. The dignity given to the human person by the fact of the Incarnation and saving death of Christ gathers all humanity around a common point of reference, establishing Christ in fact as a second Adam and natural monarch of the human race. Saving faith and the reception of the Spirit makes us adopted sons of God precisely by making us members of Christ, uniting us into one mystical body.
Some Concluding Practical Notes
It seems good to point out briefly how what has been said above relates to marriage and family, one of the great “personal dignity” debates of our time, even though marriage and family are not the primary focus of this essay. A few bullet points should suffice:
- If the dignity of the person is not understood, then one cannot understand how children can be the primary end of marriage. The goal or end has to be the best thing; so much in marriage is beautiful and good that only something as exalted as the human person itself could be better.
- Marriage is the first communion of persons and it founds the first society, the family. The radical individualism of our times which undermines the dignity of the human person also attacks marriage and family directly.
- The dignity of the human person as grounded in Christ’s redemptive death connects directly to St. Paul’s teaching that marriage is an icon of Christ and the Church.
- The dignity of the human person as grounded in the doctrine of the Trinity connects directly to St. John Paul II’s teaching about family as communion—the quotation from him above was taken from his apostolic exhortation on the family.
CCC = Catechism of the Catholic Church
CSDC = Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church
DH = Dignitatis Humanae
GS = Gaudium et Spes
FC = Familiaris Consortio