LONDON, JULY 10, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Most everyone agrees that people have dignity, but not everyone agrees on how to define it. And that is where differences of opinion have life-and-death consequences.
To delve into the topic of human dignity, ZENIT approached professor Luke Gormally, a senior research fellow of the Linacre Center for Health Care Ethics and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
The Linacre Center is the only Catholic bioethics institute in Great Britain and Ireland. It is affiliated to the Ave Maria School of Law, in Michigan, which each year hosts a Linacre Lecture. Earlier this year, Gormally gave the Linacre Lecture on “Pope John Paul II’s Teaching on Existential Dignity.”
Q: Your lecture was about existential dignity. What does this consist in and how does it differ from other types of dignity?
Gormally: I used the term “existential dignity” to identify one type of dignity we can recognize in human beings.
All human beings possess what we might call “connatural dignity” — the goodness that belongs to us in virtue of our created nature and in virtue of the kind of fulfillment for which we were created. Existential dignity refers to the goodness we can acquire precisely through living a virtuous life.
Finally, Christian tradition speaks of the dignity of those who have achieved complete fulfillment in heavenly glory: “definitive dignity,” as it might be called.
Pope John Paul does not use this terminology, but it helps in expounding his thought on human dignity if one keeps in mind in particular the distinction between connatural and existential dignity. The theme of human dignity receives a rich and extensive treatment in the teaching of the Holy Father so that it is difficult to do justice to what he has to say in any summary of his thought.
Q: What is the nexus between John Paul II’s understanding of existential dignity and the well-lived life?
Gormally: As my previous answer suggests, existential dignity is acquired precisely by living well as a human being.
What is important in this connection is what the Holy Father has to say about what is required if we are to do this: We need to live in ways consistent with our connatural dignity. The foundation of that connatural dignity is our creation “in the image of God.”
In very summary terms, our creation in the image of God involves an orientation of our being to the Truth, an orientation which is realized in a relationship of filial obedience to the source of the truth of our being, in virtue of which we share in what John Paul calls “the order of love” through the sincere gift of self made possible by the Holy Spirit.
The “order of love” is most truly realized in that communion of Persons which is the life of the Triune God. Our lived — that is, existential — imaging of God is a sharing in that Trinitarian life.
Because each of us has been directly created by God for a fulfillment in communion with the divine Persons, our dignity is that of persons who have been made for their own true fulfillment; so human beings are never to be treated as mere means to the ends of others.
That true fulfillment, however, requires that we live in accordance with the truth about our nature. Essential to our capacity to do this is that we are able to understand what is good and freely to choose it. Respect for human dignity requires recognition of moral truths, and in particular those moral truths in virtue of which certain kinds of choice are in all circumstances wrong.
The Holy Father repeatedly emphasizes the role of moral absolutes as indispensable to respect for connatural dignity and to the realization of existential dignity. The other important point to note about our connatural dignity is that it belongs to us as bodily persons: The unity of the human person is such that our bodily life is not to be thought of as somehow extrinsic to our personal life and to the dignity which belongs to us as persons.
Q: How is the Pope’s view different from the prevalent secularist understanding of human dignity?
Gormally: A widespread secularist understanding of human dignity rests on the assumption that there is no such thing as connatural dignity.
Many influential thinkers — particularly in bioethics and the life sciences — recognize no intrinsic goodness or value in our very existence as human beings. This is unsurprising, if the existence of a Creator is denied and human beings are seen as the chance byproducts of an evolutionary process without any intrinsic finality to it.
Since the nature of human beings, so understood, provides no underpinning for objective values, it is the subjective preferences of adults which determine what is to be counted as valuable. “Dignity” for a secularist mind-set just means existential dignity, and existential dignity is exhibited by autonomous individuals who succeed in achieving in their lives what each counts as valuable. The logic of this outlook is that it is power, not truth, which prevails.
Q: Where does holiness fit in with all this?
Gormally: Well, holiness is the proper name for the fullest realization of existential dignity. So far I have not referred to what presents, according to John Paul II’s teaching, the central problem of achieving existential dignity: original sin.
This involved the loss of our original orientation to a filial relationship to God, an orientation disposing us to receive the truth of our being from the loving source of our being and making possible an authentic exercise of freedom in self-giving love. This orientation ceased to be secure in human life because our first parents succumbed to the lie that God, far from being the source of all that is good in our lives and of true freedom, is the enemy of man.
We have been led to reject God’s paternity and have fallen for the deception that our freedom and our dignity depend on asserting our independence of and opposition to God. “The analysis of sin in its original dimension indicates,” John Paul II wrote in “Dominum et Vivificantem,” No. 38, “that, through the influence of the ‘father of lies,’ throughout the history of humanity there will be constant pressure on man to reject God, even to the point of hating him: ‘Love for self to the point of contempt for God’, as St Augustine puts it. Man will be inclined to see in God primarily a limitation of himself, and not the source of his own freedom and the fullness of good.” We are the inheritors of the loss of a right relationship to God and, as such, impotent to achieve existential dignity.
At the beginning of his pontificate, in his first encyclical, “Redemptor Hominis,” the Holy Father spoke of the “human dimension of the mystery of the Redemption” as the revelation to human beings of their true worth and dignity, a revelation through the manifestation of God’s self-giving love for us, a love that we must allow to transform us so that the image of God is restored in us and we ourselves are made free to enter into relationships of self-giving love.
The image of God is restored in us through our being conformed to Christ, the Son who is the image of the unseen God, and who makes possible in us a right relationship to God and to each other. In order to find again “the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity” man must, the Pope says, “appropriate and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption.”
John Paul II clearly teaches that existential dignity — living well in accordance with our connatural dignity — is possible only through our transformation in Christ, which makes possible our living “in the order of love.” In the history of salvation the normative way to transformation is through our response in faith to the proclamation of the Word of God by the Church and through her sacraments, in which Christ effects the radical transformation which is to be lived out in our life through the help of grace.
The entry into the process of transformation is conversion, which John Paul in “Salvifici Doloris,” No. 12, calls “the rebuilding of goodness in the subject,” of which baptism is the sacrament. Conversion, he explains in the encyclical “Redemptor Hominis,” No. 46, “is expressed in faith which is total and radical, and which neither hinders nor limits God’s gift. At the same time it gives rise to a dynamic and lifelong process which demands a continual turning away from ‘life according to the flesh’ to ‘life according to the spirit.’ Conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming his disciple.” So conversion, which is the first sure step toward achieving existential dignity, heads us in the direction of holiness as the fullest realization of existential dignity.
The rejection of a true sense of human dignity in public life has gone so far today that we do not have a moral ecology at all conducive to the achievement of existential dignity. Hence the most fundamental and urgent need, which should be recognized by every Catholic who contemplates the corruption of our culture, particularly in the West, is for evangelization: for that proclamation of the Gospel which will call people to conversion.
[Tomorrow: Britain’s slide toward a brave new world.]