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"The Dignity of the Person Must Be Recognized..." | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J. | January 21, 2009 | Ignatius Insight
Editor's note: The
following sermon was given by Fr. Schall at the Right to Life Mass at Dalghren
Chapel, Georgetown University, January 20, 2009.
"Thy hands made and fashioned me; give me understanding
that I may learn thy commandments." --
Psalm, 119, 73.
The first sentence of Dignitas Personae, the recent (September 8, 2008) document of the
Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, reads: "The dignity of the person must
be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death." I might
add: this dignity must likewise be recognized in every human being from
conception to unnatural death by whatever physical or human agency.
Our dignity begins with what we are; something we do not
give ourselves but receive from whatever it is that causes us to be. No one
gives himself what he already is in his coming to be. What we are given is
completed, on our part, by what we choose to do with what we already are.
On God's part, as the Creed tells us, our lives are
completed by the judgment of "the living and the dead." Here it is finally set
down whether or not each person chooses to live his life in the dignity
originally intended for him. Without this latter judgment, no human life is
complete for the purpose for which he was created. This purpose was that he
should, on living well, receive eternal life at his completion in death in this
In an early Peanuts
(1952), Charlie Brown is sitting on a stool impatiently listening to Lucy
telling him, "And then I dreamed I was climbing a stairway...." In the next
scene, she continues: "But I suddenly began to fall...." To this boring
information, Charlie complains: "I can't stand people who tell me their
But Lucy is undeterred: "And then before I knew it, I was in
this garden...." Charlie frowns: "Why do they always have to go into details?"
Finally, Lucy asks: "Do you suppose all that means anything, Charlie Brown?" A disgusted Charlie turns
away, with these last incisive metaphysical words: "Absolutely! It means you
From this little scene, I want to take several themes: that
of being asleep, that of things that have meaning, and even of dreams that are
at best totally unordered in reality, but, as Aristotle said, they are often
filled with familiar things.
Let us ask ourselves this evening: "Are we awake to what it
means to possess human dignity?" I will sketch two narratives, that, I think,
compliment each other. One is a top-down account, and the other is a bottom-up
approach. I will conclude these narratives by placing them within the context
of what Benedict XVI said in
concerning the phrase of the Creed that reads: "He will come to judge the
living and the dead." Judgment is a theme that we already find in another form
The first narrative begins with the citation from Psalm 119.
It says, "Thy hands made and fashioned me, give me understanding that I may
learn thy commandments." We did not make or fashion ourselves to be ourselves.
What it is to be a human being, to be this particular self, is not itself an
object of the human practical intellect, which, with our hands, is the source
of our capacity to make things.
The doctor's craft, as Aristotle says, is limited by what it
is to be healthy, something the doctor does not himself constitute but only
serves. As doctor, he only aids the body to restore what it is missing. What it
is to be healthy and happy, to be complete, does not, as such, fall under the
medical craft. but the knowledge and carrying out of our purpose is the most
important thing about us.
We are, moreover, given intelligence to know the
commandments, to know what we are. Leon Kass gave a lecture the other day on
"Why even atheists find the ten commandments useful." Try to imagine life in a
world in which but no one obeys any of the commandments.
What are we then? On the basis of the proposition that human
dignity passes from conception to natural death, we recall that even natural
death is both a penalty and a blessing to us. Natural death makes possible new
generations. It also indicates that, with the fall, we are "born to die," even
though death was not intended from the beginning.
We are not created for this world, though we are created in
this world where we are to increase, multiply, and have dominion. From the
beginning, however, we were created for a life that is more than human.
Deathless life in this world is a curse, not a blessing, as many novelists and
scientists have realized and the present pope has emphasized.
What is the scheme and scope of our being in this world as
persons with dignity? Historians of population estimate that perhaps a hundred
billion human persons have lived on this planet. Some seven billion of us are
still alive for a while. Without the dead having gone before us, we would not
or could not exist. We know of the vastness of the physical universe and the
relative tininess of our planet and of ourselves within it.
But we are not to forget that the remarkable complexity of
any of us equals and probably surpasses that of the rest of the universe
itself. Chesterton said that we are not to allow mere size to diminish spirit,
what it is that makes us unique, our rational nature and soul.
The cosmos, its levels of being, its size, its differing
natures—including particularly our own—can itself be confused with
its very origin. All pantheists postulate this identity between the world and
God. But we suspect that this origin is greater than and apart from what it has
caused to be.
What I want to suggest here is that each of the some hundred
billion human beings who have in fact existed have done so not as forms or
abstractions but as living beings who die. They exist for a purpose. Indeed,
their purpose is rather the cause of the universe, not the other way around.
In the beginning there was only God, a Trinitarian God,
complete in Himself who did not need any universe, natural, rational, or
angelic, to be what He is. The Trinitarian life of God is a complete life. It
requires nothing but itself. If anything besides God exists, it does so not
because God needed it. God plus the universe does not constitute more God.
Why then is there something rather than nothing, something
other than God? This is where we come in. If we know why each human being who
ever lived exists, we understand his dignity. We will understand the great
Socratic principle that "It is never right to do wrong." God did not first
create a universe, then, on looking the empty property over one fine sidereal
day, busied Himself with what best to do with it.
Rather, in the beginning, God decided to associate other
free and rational beings, who were not gods, with His inner life. It is for
this reason that each rational being exists. The cosmos itself exists so a
finite life that is not God might be possible. There is an inner worldly
purpose that does not run against the ultimate purpose. Each person exists that
he might receive eternal life with god. This purpose is the basis of our
dignity. It is also its driving force, the longing that we find inciting us
ever on to achieve what in fact is this happiness.
Indeed, it is within this world that we are given the
freedom and space to decide what we choose to be. The relative autonomy of the
temporal order, the order we know of the polities in this world, is there in
order that something beyond it might occur. In this sense, the completion of
the dignity of each person is carried out in all times and places where there
are human beings, whatever their worldly condition.
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Let me now go to the bottom-up consideration. We are all
realists enough to know that human life, over the course of its history on
earth, is also a vale of tears. The history of our kind, and of our times, is
filled with natural and human disasters, with disorders that we cannot help but
know. Still, we can ask: "What is the best circumstance in which an actual
human person, with this transcendent dignity, should be conceived and born in
The answer, no doubt, is that each person should be
conceived, born, and raised in a family consisting of a man and a woman joined
together for life. The document, Dignitas Personae, that I cited above, puts it succinctly:
The human embryo has, therefore,
from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person. Respect for that
dignity is owed to every human being because each one carries in an indelible
way his own dignity and value. The origin of human life has its authentic
context in marriage and in the family, where it is generated through an act
which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman. procreation
which is truly responsible vis-à-vis the child to be born 'must be the fruit of
We all know, of course, that this sort of happy birth into a
functioning family of man and woman and their children does not always or often
Still, it is worth noting clearly what ought to be. The
dignity of the child, of course, remains no matter how it is begotten. Sin is
in the sinner, not in its results. One of the great problems in all families
and polities is what to do when this natural basis does not in fact function.
Often, we know legislation itself promotes this malfunctioning of the family in
various ways based on counter assumptions about what the dignity of the person
The whole scope of reason and what Christians call charity,
in fact, is called into play in order to repair or deal with disorders put into
the world in violation of this given dignity. But, as I say, it is worthwhile
to know what in is best even if we do not bring it about.
In the context, I want to return to something that I said in
the beginning. All human beings once conceived, however close to birth they
come before dying because of natural or human interference, are created with
the same dignity.
This purpose implies that God's purpose in creating each of
us for eternal life is not as such obviated by the violations and harms imposed
to our kind by our own actions in preventing or killing human lives in early
stages. Put in other terms, human beings responsible for the killing or
maltreatment of other human beings thrust acts into the world that disorder
their own souls and terminate or derange the lives of others.
We know that the forgiveness of sins— even the worst
ones— is possible. But we also know that the world, with human beings
destined for eternal life in it, is created in a justice that includes our acts
in respect to ourselves and others. Plato in his great reflection in the Republic reminded us that in no existing political order are
all the good things properly rewarded, nor are all the evil things properly
Benedict XVI takes up this theme in Spe Salvi. He is very precise. He addresses the much neglected
question of the temporal and eternal punishment due to our sins. In short, God
does take His initial intention in creation seriously. He has given us the
means and desire to achieve our transcendent end, but only if we freely choose
it once offered to us. Our choices are worked out in our relation to others of
our kind whose good we are to know and foster. The first principle is "Do no
harm," as the famous oath stated.
In the light of reason and of the graphic insistence of the
Church on the dignity of the person from the moment of conception to natural death,
it seems evident that the killing of such human beings, that not providing them
with the love and home in which they can properly flourish, is a grave
violation of the love God intended for each person He has created.
Today, many of us are perplexed almost to the limit that
these disorders of soul against our kind continue and indeed are fostered in an
ever more sophisticated manner in our politics and culture. Looking at these
and other great crimes against our kind, Benedict wanted to know if the world
could be complete if what was evil among us were not properly punished. He has
the same thought that Plato did, namely, that without the immortality of the
soul, most of these crimes would in fact go unpunished and the world would not
be just. Then Benedict adds, following two famous Marxist philosophers whom he
cites, that the only way the world could be just was if there was a
resurrection of the body in which the persons who actually committed the crimes
would be judged.
This resurrection of the body, as the Creed indicated, makes
possible a judgment of each life in order that that life be complete in its
truth. The truth is whether it, having been initially called to eternal life,
actually, in its own deeds, chooses what is good. With the help or rejection of
grace, was it worthy of that eternal life to which it is called from its
In other words, as we gather at this Mass, there is
something momentous in the realization that human life is transcendent from the
moment of its conception. We are responsible for it even to the judgment of our
own deeds and the consequences that follow what they are. Let us not be asleep
or merely dream about the important things. The commandment is spelled out for
us and we are judged by it
To conclude, we read in Hebrews: "Not a creature exists that
is hidden from him, but all things lie bare and exposed before the eyes of him
with whom we have to reckon" (4:13). We remain sober before the ever growing
violations of human dignity of which we here in this place and in this time
cannot but be aware.
The careful words of Benedict in Spe Salvi, that the world is also made in justice, stand as
both a warning and a consolation to each of us. The pope continues: "Evildoers,
in the end, do not sit at the table at the eternal banquet beside their victims
without distinction, as though nothing had happened."
Benedict then, as he often does, cites Plato who "expressed
the truth with an unambiguous clarity, saying that in the end souls will stand
naked before the judge. It no longer matters what they once were in history,
but only what they are in truth."
"Thy hands made and fashioned me; give me understanding that
I may learn thy commandments."
"The dignity of the person must be recognized in every human
being from conception to natural death."
"Not a creature exists that is hidden from him, but all
things lie bare and exposed before the eyes of him with whom we have to
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Columns, Essays, and Book Excerpts:
"Always More Than Is Seen": Benedict XVI on the Meaning of Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Case Against Abortion | An Interview with Dr. Francis Beckwith, author of Defending Life
What Is "Legal"? On Abortion, Democracy, and Catholic
Politicians | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond L. Dennehy
The Dignity of the Human Person: Pope John Paul II's Teaching on Divinization in the Trinitarian Encyclicals | Carl E. Olson
What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
Introduction to Three Approaches to Abortion | Peter Kreeft
Some Atrocities are Worse than Others | Mary Beth Bonacci
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and
Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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