Thursday, March 22, 2007

Human Dignity: The "Tree"

The cornerstone principle or "tree" from which all other Catholic social teachings branch is the principle of human dignity, articulated simply by Pope John XXIII in Mater et Magistra (1961):

"[The social teaching of the Church] rests on one basic principle: individual human beings are the foundation, the cause, and the end of every social teaching. This principle guarantees the sacred dignity of the individual (#219, #220)."

The U.S. Bishops, in their 1987 Pastoral Letter on the Economy entitled "Economic Justice for All" state the principle of human dignity very succinctly:

Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person. We believe the person is sacred -- the clearest reflection of God among us. Human dignity comes from God, not from nationality, race, sex, economic status, or any human accomplishment. We judge any economic system by what it does for and to people and by how it permits all to participate in it. The economy should serve people, not the other way around. (#13)

For the Church, our human dignity is derived from the fact we are children of God, created in God's image, and therefore we have inestimable worth. From this dignity flows "natural rights", which are rights that are ours by our birth, given to us by God. A "natural right" is the opposite of an "earned right", which are rights given to us by law or by privilege (such as a right to drive, a senior's right to leave campus at lunch, etc). Natural rights, since they were not conferred on us by anyone other than God, can not be justly taken away from us (except in the extreme cases when others rights must be protected, as is the case when criminals are put in jail to protect public safety, for example). Nor can we deliberately forfeit our own natural rights, since they are a gift to us from God. For this reason, the Church has always held that suicide is immoral.

To phrase the matter another way, natural rights are "intrinsic" rights: rights that reside within us as persons. They are the opposite of "extrinsic" rights, or rights given us from outside ourselves, by society or others.

A classical moral principle of the Church is "The ends (the aim or purpose) do not justify the means (how something is accomplished)". In other words, even if a person has a very noble purpose in mind, such as those who wished to save American lives by dropping the bomb on Japan, we cannot accomplish this goal morally by deliberately killing innocent civilians or babies. We cannot violate the natural rights of others to achieve a goal, even a good one.

Similarly, we cannot kill abortion doctors to stop abortion. We cannot promote suicide as Dr. Kevorkian does in order to relieve depression or suffering. Abortions are not justifiable on the basis of the mothers' future plans or even her mental health--or, strikingly, the mother's physical health, because the baby has dignity that cannot be traded off.

As we shall see, it is this fundamental principle of human dignity that serves as the "tree" from which the other branches of Catholic social teachings derive. In the next blog, we'll start looking at some of the branches.

The Treasure of Our Catholic Social Teachings

In 1997, a House sub-Commitee debated the partial birth abortion bill, and solicited 3 "experts" before the committee to testify both for and against the bill. Among those who testified was Helen Alvare, a spokesperson for the United States Bishop's Conference, who gave an articulate, forceful and above all reasoned argument in favor of banning the procedure in the United States. As much as I was impressed with Ms. Alvare's testimony, it became clear that the Congressmen were even more impressed, for over the next 30 minutes, they questioned, prodded and solicited her opinions to the near exclusion of the two other witnesses co-testifying.

Watching all this on C-Span reminded me of something we Catholics often take for granted: the power and intellectual consistency of our social teaching tradition. Beginning with Leo XIII's "Rerum Novarum" in 1891, and refined through the years up to John Paul II, our Church has developed sets of principles and perspectives which can give coherent guidance to public policy, ranging from topics as diverse as welfare reform, capital punishment, and development of third world countries to substantive critiques of socialism and capitalism alike.

It is the internal coherence of these positions that makes them so valued by policy makers and ethicists outside our tradition. Yet sadly, only a small percentage of Catholics understand our social teaching tradition with any depth. Few would know what "subsidiarity" meant, fewer would be able to articulate the proper relationship of government to the economy, perhaps even less would be able to discuss the implications of "preferential treatment of the poor and vulnerable."

Too many of us, rather, are reduced to sincere though unhelpful platitudes that we are to "serve the poor" or "love our neighbors". But how do these gospel commands translate into the issues of our day? What is a "just wage" and how does that translate into the minimum wage debates over the last year? What can we say to those who believe capital punishment is defensible? What about immigration reform? Acceptable levels of unemployment? The role of the state vs. the role of the federal government in Hurricane Katrina reconstruction? Does our faith have anything REALLY to say about these things beyond a sentimental appeal to "just get along"?

I believe it does! Over the course of the next several blogs, I will outline the principle themes of our Catholic social teaching which derived originally from the gospels, but which has crystallized in a sophisticated way over the last 115 years through papal encyclicals.

Sunday, March 04, 2007


One of the fundamental creeds of the Jesuit order, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, is to seek “excellia in omnium”, or “excellence in all things”. That’s a good goal for all of us at Montgomery Catholic as we move forward in our institution’s history.

If you’ve been keeping up lately, there are a number of students, school organizations and athletic teams who’ve exemplified excellence in their endeavors, all worth mentioning here:

First, congratulations to our band under the leadership of Mr. Kerry Palmer. In just their third year of existence, they have qualified for the second time for state competition, this time by scoring straight “superior” scores in all categories at district competition. Last year at state, they scored an overall “superior” rating. These are remarkable accomplishments for such a young band, indicative of their hard work and the excellent leadership of Mr. Palmer at the high school and Mr. Valient at our elementary campus. Together with the “Marching Knights” band that started this fall and entertained at football games, our band program has been an unparalleled blessing to our school community.

Second, congratulations to our elementary campus’ Science Olympiad teams. Under the able leadership of Mr. Larry Meiers and Miss Melanie Grayson, the students of St. Bede placed second overall in the state competition in Jacksonville in February and first and second place in competition at the University of West Alabama earlier this fall. These teams learn advanced science in a practical, hands-on way, and their success reflect both their teachers’ and their commitment to excellence in science education. We are proud of them.

National Merit finalists were recently announced, and Montgomery Catholic is proud to have three students who qualified: Thomas Herge, Trey Griffith and Cynthia Weber. (Though Trey left after his junior year due to his parents’ transfer, we’re still taking credit for him since he took the test with us and has been a member of MCPS since his St. Bede days!). These students are three of the top 16,000 students in the nation, now eligible for merit scholarships. Thomas’ first choice of college is Ohio State, whereas Cynthia and Trey aspire to go to Notre Dame. A fourth MCPS student, Emmy Profio, was named a National Achievement semi-finalist earlier this year. Having three finalists and one semi-finalist for a school our size is a great credit to these students, their parents and their teachers.

Kudos again to our world-class speller Ben Szatanek, who for the third straight year will represent Montgomery County in the state spelling bee contest. You may remember that Ben won the state title last year, and competed at the National Spelling Bee contest in Washington, D.C. In case you think it’s just talent, you need to watch Ben around the middle school, using just about every available minute to drill words that few of us have ever heard, much less used in speech!

Finally, if you’ve been reading the sports pages closely, you’ll notice one of our spring athletic programs is off to a tremendous start. Our boy’s team, with young alumnus Timothy McCormack as their coach, is currently 7-0, whereas our girls coach, led by (older) alum Brian Belsterling, is 7-3, having recently won the “MA invitational” this weekend. A combined 14-3 record having played top-flight competition bodes well for our soccer program for the rest of the spring!

We are, then, blessed to be around so many students, coaches and teachers who aspire for excellence in all things. May their example encourage all of us to strive for excellence "ad majorem deum glorium" ("for the greater glory of God", another Jesuit saying, often abbreviated A.M.D.G.).