What Version of Human Dignity Should Catholics Defend?

Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican II declaration on religious liberty, appeals to what it says is a growing awareness of human dignity. More recent Vatican pronouncements, including the new language in the Catechism on the death penalty, have done the same.

In some ways, it’s easy to see why. The Church holds that God created man in his image, so she takes the highest possible view of human dignity. And people in secular society speak of human dignity more than they used to. So why not find common ground by emphasizing human dignity in Church pronouncements?

But there’s a problem that was slighted during the optimistic time in which Dignitatis Humanae was written. The problem is that the meaning of human dignity depends on how man and the world are understood. If this is defective, the understanding of human dignity will be defective as well.

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And Catholic and secular views differ on these matters. The differences may seem subtle, since both views emphasize man’s freedom and greatness, but they are fundamental and have huge practical consequences.

Suppose Catholic Cathy thinks man has dignity because he has a particular nature that shapes all he is, and a good that aims at his perfection, beginning with his physical nature and ending in nothing less than communion with God. Then she is going to believe that favoring human dignity involves working toward a society that accepts this understanding and helps its members use their freedom to realize this good.

Therefore, she is likely, for example, to want what is taught in the schools to reflect the view that God is real, that career success and individual self-expression are subordinate to higher concerns, and that there are two sexes that are oriented toward each other and the offspring that naturally result from their union.

She will disagree with Secular Sally, who thinks that there is no God who commands anything and no fixed human good, that we freely define our nature and good through our desires and choices, and that freedom of self-creation is what gives us dignity. Sally will naturally want the schools to promote this very different understanding and encourage students to accept their radical autonomy. In particular, she will want them to teach that God is a matter of private opinion, that the goal of life is a mixture of career and self-expression, and that what you make of your biological sex, your gender identity, and your manner of sexual expression—which she believes are very different things—is entirely up to you.

The differences will extend to other settings. Cathy’s idea of religious liberty will emphasize the freedom of individuals and groups to conform their beliefs and actions to spiritual reality. In contrast, Sally’s view will emphasize self-definition, and therefore (as the Supreme Court puts it) “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Cathy will say that religious freedom means that Catholic hospitals aren’t required to perform abortions, because they have the right to conform their actions to the truth about human life. Sally will respond that patients have the same right to define moral reality as the hospital does, and that it is their definition and not the hospital’s that should prevail with regard to their bodies when it interferes with their choices such as in the case of an unwanted pregnancy. She is likely to consider Cathy’s use of expressions like “the truth about human life” alarming and indeed fanatical. After all, she will say, isn’t America based on the principle that everyone has his own truth which deserves equal respect?

Dignitatis Humanae implicitly agrees with Cathy on these points, but does so indirectly, by relating freedom of religious expression to an objective moral order that implicitly includes the natural law. But Sally vehemently rejects this understanding of moral order, and views appeals to natural law as a denial of autonomy and thus human dignity. So arguments based on the Catholic understanding of human dignity and religious liberty aren’t going to persuade her.

This is a serious problem, because her understanding of these issues has become publicly accepted as moral reality. To say that human dignity requires schools to tell students that marriage is between man and woman, however true that statement might be, would shock most educated, responsible, and well-placed people today. They think it obvious beyond discussion that it forbids such claims.

To make matters worse, Sally’s understanding of human dignity has infiltrated the Church. A term originally deployed to enable Catholics to introduce the Catholic view into secular discussions has had the reverse effect. Recent events in the Church like the Synod on the Family have made it clear that many highly-placed churchmen favor a sort of lifestyle ecumenism that emphasizes the good elements in nonmarital sexual relationships and a social order that supports those relationships. The results have included support within the Church for “gay marriage” as a civil institution, and for some form of ecclesiastical recognition of such arrangements.

This tendency reflects the secular understanding of human dignity, which values autonomy, far more than the Catholic one, which values natural law and moral reality. Similar concerns apply to the current tendencies toward absolute rejection of the death penalty, and toward universalism, the view that all will be saved. In both cases, the question is whether human dignity means that man can do things that carry ultimate consequences. The Catholic answer has always been yes, the current tendency within the Church points the other way.

What to do? It seems we should continue to use the expression “human dignity,” since the dignity of man is a fundamental point of the Faith, but under the circumstances we need always to clarify why the Church’s version is different and better than the secular one.

One approach would be to note that human dignity can’t be extracted from a naturalistic conception of man that makes him a transitory arrangement of mass and energy. The usual line of thought among secular people who think about the issue is that the ultimate realities don’t matter. For them, it’s enough that we should want our own dignity recognized, and that won’t happen unless we join others in recognizing human dignity as a general principle; so if we’re rational and consistent we’ll do so.

But questions remain. If we really believe man is not part of an objective moral order and has no set nature, can we really conjure human dignity into existence just by wanting it to exist? And if I want dignity for myself, why wouldn’t I think it’s all about me? Or if there is to be a general system, why should that system include all human beings and nothing else? Why not yaks and oak trees, too? Or if it’s to be just human beings, why does it need to be all of them?

After all, secular-minded people who talk about human dignity usually don’t include children in the womb as part of the system. So why not just include one’s friends? Or mafiosi—given that they are men of respect who recognize each other as such and are able forcibly to demand respect? Or—more to the point—people who understand and accept the secular progressive view of human dignity, and so are able to participate as equals in the system of mutual recognition their theory proposes? In other words, why wouldn’t human dignity only include educated progressives?

The history of the left, from the Jacobins to Hillary Clinton’s comments on irredeemable deplorables, suggests that something like this last view is indeed what secular do-gooders tend to believe. If you’re not of their tribe, they have no use for you.

This tendency doesn’t prove they’re bad people, of course; it’s just the logic of their position. But when this position is made clear it’s profoundly unappealing. A basic goal of the Church in the present day, then, should be to clarify positions on all these issues so those interested can understand what’s at stake. Now more than ever is the time for truth, and not for blurring principle for the sake of “reaching out” to those who think in secular ways.


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