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The Dignity Of The Human Person

April 7, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

Last week marked a transition point in our consideration of the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). After having dedicated approximately five years and precisely 267 columns of the “Learn the Faith” section of The Wanderer to the Faith professed as articulated in the Creed and the Faith celebrated in the Church’s sacraments and liturgy, our focus turned to the faith lived, that is, to the Christian moral life.
Consistent with a foundational principle of the Second Vatican Council — the universal call to holiness, particularly as underscored in paragraphs 39-42 of Lumen Gentium — Part Three of the Catechism provides for us a roadmap of how Christians are to live their lives so as to experience authentic happiness in this life, even in the midst of great sufferings and trials, and eternal beatitude in the life to come.
In its essence, as we saw last week, the Christian moral life is all about the freely made choices we make during the course of our lifetime on Earth. In the final analysis, our moral decisions will end in one of two mutually exclusive ways: the way of Christ, which “leads to life”; or a contrary way, which “leads to destruction” (cf. CCC, n. 1696).
The most basic principle regarding the Christian moral life was briefly touched upon last week: the awareness that every human person possesses great dignity which “is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God” (CCC, n. 1700). So great is his dignity that, “endowed with ‘a spiritual and immortal’ soul (Gaudium et Spes [GS], n. 14 § 2), the human person is ‘the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake’ (GS, n. 24 § 3). From his conception, he is destined for eternal beatitude” (CCC, n. 1703).
In his Summa Theologiae (STh), St. Thomas Aquinas asserts that there is, in fact, a threefold dignity that is proper to the human person: “First, inasmuch as man possesses a natural aptitude for understanding and loving God. . . . Secondly, inasmuch as man actually and habitually knows and loves God, though imperfectly. . . . Thirdly, inasmuch as man knows and loves God perfectly. . . . The first is found in all men, the second only in the just, and the third only in the blessed” (STh I, Q. 93, art. 4).
In the second edition of his superb textbook on the Catholic Church’s teaching on moral theology entitled An Introduction to Moral Theology (IMT), Dr. William E. May (d. 2014) elaborates on the nature of each of the three.
The first dignity, which “is intrinsic, natural, inalienable, and an endowment or gift” (IMT, p. 41), is proper to all human beings in that God “created man in his own image . . . male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Man, created as a being who is inwardly capable of receiving the Lord’s own divine life, of becoming a “partaker of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) or becoming “divinized,” can rightly be called a “created word” of God. Every human being, maintains Dr. May, “is intrinsically valuable, surpassing in dignity the entire material universe, a being to be revered and respected from the very beginning of its existence” (ibid.).
Dr. May acknowledges here a rationally inarguable truth regarding the intrinsic dignity of life from the moment of conception. “When we come into existence, we are already, by reason of this intrinsic dignity, persons; we do not ‘become’ persons after a period of development. . . . A baby (born or preborn) does not have the developed capacity for deliberating and choosing freely, but he has the natural capacity to do so because it is human and personal in nature” (IMT, p. 42).
Similarly, the second type of dignity is also intrinsic, but is not an endowment; rather, it is an achievement that becomes possible only with the assistance of God’s grace due to the effects of original sin. It is “the dignity to which we are called as intelligent and free persons capable of determining our own lives by our own free choices” (IMT, p. 42).
In other words, it is the dignity we give to ourselves by making good moral choices based on true moral judgments informed by a properly formed conscience. Man has much responsibility in this regard, for as stated in the Declaration on Religious Freedom by the Vatican II fathers:
“Under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means” (Dignitatis Humanae, n. 3 § 1).
The council fathers devote a full chapter in Gaudium et Spes (nn. 12–22) to “The Dignity of the Human Person.” Significantly, it includes an important and illuminating passage on the development and use of conscience and its critical importance in the Christian moral life: “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (cf. Romans 2:15-16). Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths (cf. Matt. 22:37-40; Gal. 5:14). In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor” (GS, n. 16).
In his magnificent 1993 encyclical on the moral life entitled “The Splendor of the Truth,” Pope St. John Paul II teaches that “it is always from the truth that the dignity of conscience derives” (Veritatis Splendor [VS], n. 63 § 1).
As Dr. May states, “This [second type of] dignity is acquired by diligently seeking the truth about what we are to do if we are to be fully the beings we are meant to be and by shaping our lives freely in accordance with this truth” (IMT, p. 43).
This is precisely where much responsibility is accorded to each of us in that we must assiduously guard against showing “little concern for seeking what is true and good [so as to avoid that our] conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin” (VS, n. 62 § 1).
To be sure, conscience can err “from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity” (GS, n. 16). Ignorance is invincible when it is not willed nor the result of negligence. As an extreme example, consider a bushman in the remote jungles of Africa who did not ever have the opportunity to know the true faith — he is not culpable for ignorance that he obviously could not have overcome.
Contrast that with one living in urban American with ready access, through many means, to the truths of the faith. Suppose he or she deliberately does not seek the truth because it would entail giving up an immoral lifestyle or making changes that would involve no longer “fitting in” with friends or society in general.
Perhaps even more common in today’s society are those who are not consciously avoiding truth, but rather through indifference or negligence do not even give it a second thought. Both types of individuals — either directly or indirectly — are culpable for their actions. As my former moral theology professor used to often repeat: A person is culpable for that truth which he or she should have and could have known. The topic of conscience is one we will return to for a fuller treatment in a later section of the Catechism.

A New Creature

The third type of dignity of the human person given by St. Thomas is likewise intrinsic; it is not an achievement, but a purely gratuitous gift. “It is a gift far surpassing man’s nature and literally divinizing him,” states Dr. May. “It is given to him as a treasure he must guard and nurture and which he can lose by freely choosing to sin gravely” (IMT, p. 41).
Linked closely to the second kind of dignity which we have as intelligent and free persons, this third type comes to us through the saving waters of Baptism when “we are ‘re-generated as God’s very own children and given the vocation to become holy, even as the heavenly Father is holy, and to be co-workers with Christ, His collaborators in redeeming the world” (IMT, p. 44).
As expressed by the Catechism, “Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature’ (2 Cor. 5:17; 2 Peter 1:4; cf. Gal. 4:5-7), member of Christ and co-heir with him (cf. 1 Cor. 6:15; 12:27; Romans 8:17), and a temple of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 6:19)” (CCC, n. 1265).
Filial adoption through Baptism bestows on the believer a dignity that gives him “the ability to follow the example of Christ,…makes him capable of acting rightly and doing good, . . . [and gives him the capacity to] attain the perfection of charity which is holiness. Having matured in grace, the moral life blossoms into eternal life in the glory of heaven” (CCC, n. 1709).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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