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.

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