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Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine

Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine

by J. Brian Benestad

Explains the nuanced understanding of human dignity and the common good found in the Catholic intellectual tradition.


Explains the nuanced understanding of human dignity and the common good found in the Catholic intellectual tradition.

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Catholic University of America Press
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Catholic Moral Thought Series
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New Edition
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

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Church, State, and Society

An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine

By J. Brian Benestad

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2011 The Catholic University of America Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8132-1923-3


The Dignity of the Human Person, Human Rights, and Natural Law

The Dignity of the Human Person


The practice of courtesy revels that people have an innate sense of the dignity of the human person. Even toward perfect strangers, many people will behave with good manners. We all know that the practice of courtesy makes civil life much more enjoyable.

C. S. Lewis provides us with an apt introduction to our reflection on the theme of human dignity in the comparison he makes between individuals and civilizations, noting that the former have an eternal destiny of happiness or misery, while the latter will one day perish.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

Lewis also reminds us that by our actions we are "helping each other to one or other of these destinations." I would also note that the character of the civilizations and cultures in which we live helps or hinders us in achieving a blessed eternal life. That is why Catholic social doctrine (CSD) on the dignity of the human person, human rights, and natural law is so important. Human dignity, properly understood, requires the kind of culture and political community in which it can thrive—in other words, the right kind of mores and laws. In fact, as Cardinal Höffner writes, "The ultimate purpose of all sociality is the perfection of personhood." That is to say, the reason that people live together in community is to achieve the perfection of human dignity, the integral development of the human person. As Pius XI says, "In the plan of the Creator, society is a natural means which man can and must use to reach his destined end. Society is for man and not vice versa."

The contemporary culture of liberalism, unfortunately, disposes citizens to have an incomplete understanding of human dignity. It inclines or tempts Americans, including Catholic Americans, to exercise their rights without taking into account what Catholicism teaches about the proper use of freedom or the right attitude toward the possession and use of material things. Persons are said to have dignity because they are autonomous and are capable of making choices. According to the most common opinion in contemporary society, the dignity of the human person is especially secured by ensuring the protection of rights. The initial and primary emphasis on rights is, of course, a logical step, since the autonomous exercise of choice requires the possession of rights. Catholic social doctrine certainly agrees that the dignity of the human person needs the protection of rights, but stresses that Catholics should exercise their rights in the light of faith and natural law, or they will diminish their dignity. This kind of emphasis is nearly absent in a liberal democracy.

Another consequence of understanding dignity as constituted by human autonomy is linking the assessment of human dignity to a person's quality of life, especially the capacity to make autonomous choices. It is now commonly thought that a person's dignity diminishes with his declining quality of life. Physical and mental deterioration, as well as suffering, supposedly diminish human dignity. In Quill v. Vacco (1997) the Second Circuit Court of Appeals even went so far as to make an ominous statement about legal obligations toward the terminally ill: "The state's interest lessens as the potential for life diminishes." The presence of this statement in a decision of an appeals court surely indicates a trend toward regarding those persons with diminished physical capacity as less than fully human. Some argue that they are not entitled to the same rights as healthy individuals. The Terri Schiavo case showed that the courts and many people gave their approval to the withdrawing of food and water from a person because of her poor quality of life.

Pope John Paul II makes reference to the contemporary assault on the traditional understanding of human dignity in his Evangelium vitae (Gospel of Life). He writes,

We must also mention the mentality which tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible communication. It is clear that on the basis of these presuppositions there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure, or for anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection.

This way of understanding the human person is highly individualistic and fails to appreciate the rhythm of life, in which a person moves from the weakness and dependence of the unborn to the strength of adulthood, to the weakness of old age. Even during the time of people's strength, they are dependent in various ways for their physical, intellectual, and spiritual care. In the Catholic mind, human beings retain their dignity when they are receiving care and may even grow in dignity. Think of the person who accepts his dependence and suffering as a way of identifying with the passion of Christ.

Discussion of human dignity naturally leads into discussion of human rights, because people readily understand that rights can afford some protection to the dignity of the human person. What is less clear to people is how to think about the exercise of rights in the light of some objective moral standard. The relation of natural law to human dignity is unclear these days, because few are conversant with natural law, and the subtle Catholic concept of human dignity has not been sufficiently explained in the United States. In order to advance the discussion in Catholic circles on these subjects, the first section of this chapter draws upon both Catholic and non-Catholic sources to bring out the essential aspects of the Catholic concept of the dignity of the human person. The next section reflects on human rights and natural law in the light of that Catholic concept of human dignity. This second section explains why Catholic social doctrine both defends and criticizes contemporary understandings of human rights and insists on the importance of natural law for public life in the United States.

The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity

Careful education is necessary for Catholics to understand that the dignity of the human person is not essentially constituted by the ability to make choices. According to Catholic teaching, people have dignity because they are created in the image and likeness of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ, and destined for eternal life in communion with God. In Pope John Paul II's words,

The dignity of the person is manifested in all its radiance when the person's origin and destiny are considered: created by God in his image and likeness as well as redeemed by the most precious blood of Christ, the person is called to be a "child in the Son" and a living temple of the Spirit, destined for eternal life of blessed communion with God.

The threefold foundation for human dignity is both unshakable and instructive. No act of the human person can remove this foundation. Even when people commit the worst sins and crimes and suffer diminished physical and spiritual capacities, they retain human dignity. While this Christian teaching about the permanent character of human dignity is often mentioned and acknowledged by informed Christians, rarely do Catholics hear that human dignity is also a goal or an achievement. But this is the clear implication of the threefold foundation of human dignity and the explicit teaching of Vatican Council II and John Paul II.

As Vatican Council II puts it, "The principal cause of human dignity lies in the call of human beings to communion with God." Being created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ makes it possible for everyone to respond to God's invitation to communion with him. Because it is the actual communion with God that perfects the dignity of human beings, Vatican II says, that the "dignity of man ... is rooted and perfected in God" (in ipso Deo fundetur et perficiatur). It is important to note that only through the mystery of the Incarnation and the redemption do human beings fully understand themselves, especially their call to communion with God. During his pontificate Pope John Paul II kept reminding us of this point by quoting a sentence from Gaudium et spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), no. 22: "Christ the new Adam, in the very mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling." In other words, Jesus Christ makes known to man his eminent dignity, a being destined for communion with his Creator, and the means to realize it every day: avoidance of sin and the practice of all the virtues, especially charity. Still otherwise stated, human beings are true to their dignity when they imitate the love of Jesus Christ, the love he showed for every single human being by dying on the cross.

Given the foundation of human dignity and the reality of sin, it logically follows that all will have to strive and strain to reach their ultimate goal, communion with the triune God. All human beings are able to do this because God "willed to leave man 'in the power of his own counsel' (cf. Sir 15:14), so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would fully arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God." Given God's action, "human dignity requires that a person act according to a conscious and free choice," in seeking what is good. The council describes the effect of such human action on human dignity in the language of achievement.

Man realizes such dignity [that of "full and blessed perfection"] when emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself through effective and skillful action, apt means to that end. Since man's freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the help of God's grace can he bring such a relationship with God to full flower.

It is, of course, true to note that very few will succeed in freeing themselves from all captivity to passion. Nevertheless, everyone has the capacity, with the help of God's grace, of moving toward the dignity of perfection.

The council makes the same point when discussing the obligation of all to obey their conscience. "Man has a law in his heart inscribed by God, to obey which is his very dignity, and according to which he will be judged." The text implies that people diminish their dignity by not obeying their conscience. Everyday speech captures this human possibility in the expression "to act beneath one's dignity." In sum, all people continually achieve or realize their dignity by seeking the truth, obeying conscience, resisting sin, practicing virtue, and repenting when they succumb to temptation. In other words, dignity is not just a permanent possession, unaffected by the way they live. All people have to obey their informed conscience, both to avoid acting beneath their dignity and to develop it.

So, there is a sense in which dignity may be continually diminished by a life of sin or progressively appropriated over a lifetime by seeking perfection, as John Paul II said. In Rerum novarum, Pope Leo XIII made the same point using language characteristic of Thomas Aquinas: "true dignity and excellence in men resides in moral living, that is, in virtue." Saint Leo the Great's famous Christmas sermon states this point in a memorable way: "Christian, recognize your dignity, and now that you share in God's own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition." It is significant that this quotation stands as the first sentence in the section on morality in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. It immediately directs attention to the necessity of achieving human dignity by living without sin.

Pope John Paul II argues that "genuine freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image in man." By genuine freedom the pope means freedom that takes its bearing by what is true and good, not the freedom that is indistinguishable from license. In other words, people who understand freedom as license will diminish their dignity by committing sin. On the other hand, people increase their dignity by living virtuously. Pope John Paul II goes so far as to say that martyrdom is "the supreme glorification of human dignity." This statement makes eminent sense, because martyrs achieve the summit of human dignity by laying down their lives for God and neighbor. This is the reason martyrs are held in such high regard by Christians.

The Vatican Guidelines for the Study and Teaching of the Church's Social Doctrine in the Formation of Priests says that human advancement depends on "ennobling the human person in all the dimensions of the natural and supernatural order" and that "man's true dignity is found in a spirit liberated from evil and renewed by Christ's redeeming grace."

The recent Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church also implies that human dignity is not just a given, but also a goal of the individual and the Church. "By her preaching of the Gospel, the grace of the sacraments, and the experience of fraternal communion, the Church 'heals and elevates the dignity of the human person, ... consolidates society and endows the daily activity of all people with a deeper sense and meaning.'" If the human dignity of the individual person necessarily receives healing and elevation by the activity of the Church, then it is not simply a given, needing only the protection of rights. Human beings cooperate with their healing and ennobling by repenting of their sins, avoiding them in the future, and contributing to the common good by practicing virtue in every area of their lives.

In its section on the human person the Compendium makes much of the fact that sin and its effects offend the dignity of the human person. When people act beneath their dignity by sinning, the consequences are "alienation, that is the separation of man not only from God, but also from himself, from other men and from the world around him." This separation or alienation, caused by sin, is an assault on human dignity because it is an obstacle to communion with God and to communion among human beings through their union with him. The piling up of personal sins produces structures of sin in society or the kind of twisted culture that becomes "sources of other sins, conditioning human conduct." In other words, the personal sins of enough individuals produce the kind of culture that will lead others into temptation and sin. So, when individuals act beneath their dignity, they harm the life of society.

Two Different Explanations of the Dignity of the Human Person

In Centesimus Annus (On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum novarum) Pope John Paul II provides a perfect commentary on the importance of human dignity. "The guiding theme of Pope Leo's Encyclical, [Rerum novarum], and of all of the Church's social doctrine, is a correct view of the human person and of his unique importance, inasmuch as 'man ... is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself.'" On the basis of faith and reason the Church proclaims the dignity of the human person as the foundation of Catholic social doctrine. There is no real disagreement on this teaching. Nor is there any disagreement on the threefold foundation of human dignity: creation in the image of God, redemption by Jesus Christ, and the call to eternal life in communion with God.

But there is an apparent disagreement in the explanation of this key concept. Consider the following statements made by the U.S. Bishops in 1990 and 1998.

In a world warped by materialism and declining respect for human life, the Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society [and] ... the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching.... We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person..... Each person possesses a basic dignity that comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment, not from race or gender, or age, or economic status.


Excerpted from Church, State, and Society by J. Brian Benestad. Copyright © 2011 The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

J. Brian Benestad is professor of theology at the University of Scranton and the author of numerous book chapters and journal articles published on Catholic social doctrine. He is editor of Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly.

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