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Dignitas Personae: On the Originality of Every Human Person | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 29, 2009 | Ignatius Insight
"The body of a human being, from the very first stages of
its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells. The embryonic
human body develops progressively according to a well-defined program with its
proper finality, as is apparent in the birth of every baby." -- Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae, #4 (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Dignitas
Personae: On Certain Bioethical Questions,"
September 8. 2008, L'Osservatore Romano, December 17, 2008.)
"The originality of every person is a consequence of the particular relationship that
exists between God and a human being from the first moment of his existence and
carries with it the obligation to respect the singularity and integrity of each
person, even on the biological and genetic levels. In the encounter with
another person, we meet a human being who owes his existence and his proper
characteristics to the love of God, and only the love of husband and wife
constitutes a mediation of that love in conformity with the plan of the Creator
and heavenly Father." -- Dignitas Personae, #29.
On the February 22, 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith, when Cardinal Ratzinger was its Prefect and John Paul II was
pope, published a very significant Document called Donum vitae, the Gift of Life. On the 8th of
September, 2008, the same Congregation, now headed by Cardinal Levada, with
Benedict XVI pope, in view of the importance of human life, produced a further
reflection on the subject matter of the earlier document.
The title of the newer Document is Dignitas personae. It sets out to do what the title suggests, namely,
to spell out in reasonable terms just what this dignity implies particularly
concerning the conception and birth of human children and the best conditions
of their flourishing. In other words, the "gift of life" is the basis of the
"dignity of the human person." This gift implies a giver who, ultimately, can
account for what it is to be human, something parents themselves do not make
but are, in their love, the occasion and co-operative agent of each particular
human child who comes to exist in this world.
"The teaching of Donum vitae remains completely valid, both with regard to the principles on which
it is based and the moral evaluations which it expressed," Cardinal Levada
wrote. "However, new biomedical technologies which have been introduced in the
critical area of human life and the family have given rise to further
questions, in particular in the field of research on human embryos, the use of
stem cells for therapeutic purposes, as well as in other areas of experimental
The Document considers certain questions, the evidence
available concerning them, and a judgment on the validity of what is discussed.
The argument is straight-forward and unambiguous. If something is still open to
discussion on the matter of fact or principle, Dignitas personae says so. But in each case, it makes an informed
authoritative judgment about the issue at hand. Here, the Church is primarily
concerned with what is the truth of the issue, not whether anyone observes it.
Men need to know what is right in their decisions about whether or not to live
Is such a Document merely the Catholic Church giving its own
"private" opinions about delicate contemporary topics? I think not. In this
area, even though revelation may reinforce what is open to reason, the Church
speaks primarily from and to reason.
In presenting principles and moral
evaluations regarding biomedical research on human life, the Catholic Church
draws upon the light both of reason and of faith and seeks to set forth an integral vision of man and his vocation, capable
of incorporating everything that is good in human activity, as well as in
various cultural and religious traditions which not infrequently demonstrate a
great reverence for life (#3).
This statement is a good example of what is distinctive
about the Catholic mind in general, namely, that it does not limit itself to a
reductionist science or a view of reality that eliminates some available
evidence from its consideration. By knowing the limits of science, it knows the
broader scope of reason and the human condition.
Thus, "science (is) an invaluable service in the integral
good of the life and dignity of every human being." Christians are encouraged
to enter the sciences that directly relate to the human good. Science, when
properly understood, can assist the poor and weak. This scientific product must
be brought humanly close to those who need it. Both comfort and hope can thus
be offered to actual persons. "These (comfort and hope) give meaning to moments
of sickness and to the experience of death, which indeed are part of human life
and are present in the story of every person, opening that story to the mystery
of the Resurrection."
Clearly, the Document has the whole person in mind,
including his transcendent end. The Document is meant to be intelligible not
just to the "Catholic faithful," but also "to all who seek the truth" (#3). In
view of the increasing dangers to human life in this area, one might suspect
that, in pursuit of political or scientific "goals," there are not a few who do
not "seek the truth." The Church is aware of the widespread refusal of many,
including not a few leading Catholics, to admit and put into effect and into
law what is true about the human person.
The basic thesis of Donum vitae is recalled as the guiding principle of Dignitas
The fruit of human generation, from
the first moment of its existence, that is to say, from the moment the zygote
has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human
being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected
and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that
same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the fist
place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life (#4).
Clearly, the Church has taken its stand on this principle
that logically follows from our understanding of the wholeness of an individual
human life, including its transcendent end.
This is not presented as a "private" opinion. It is affirmed
as a universal truth open to all minds as such whatever their background. The
Church is quite aware of and spells out the various historical and scientific
arguments that would seek to bypass this principle by claiming human life does
not really begin till later stages in pregnancy or even, as some maintain
today, after birth itself. In the light of what we know today about the origin
of human life, it is clear it begins in conception. From this fact, all other
conclusions and judgments in the Document consistently follow.
The first conclusion that is drawn is one of natural law.
"This ethical principle, which reason is capable of recognizing as true and in
conformity with the natural moral law, should be the basis of all legislation
in this area" (#5). What it is to be a human person does not as such "develop"
or "evolve" from conception. It is already there. "The human person has,
therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person" (#5). With
this judgment, the Church definitively rejects the many earlier theories based
on a notion of "ensoulment" that came after conception. It also rejects those
newer proposals to deny humanity to the human fetus or the human child on birth
so that it can be judged "fit" to live.
The origin of the human child, moreover, in view of what it
is, should only have its origin in marriage, not in scientific laboratories.
"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 marriage.'" (#6). Marriage
is not simply intended to be a human institution. In what it is, it is intended
to be the proper and only place where human life should be begotten and brought
forth. One might say, on this basis, that the Church is hopelessly
romantic—which it is—but in defending the dignity of the person, it
is defending what love itself is intended to be.
The coming to be of new human life is a gift, not a right.
The proper relation of a man and a woman is the only place where the good of
the begotten child can properly flourish and be recognized in its origins in a
relation of a man and a woman. Anything else that pretends to be marriage or a
place for the inception of human life is, in principle, a violation of the
dignity of an actual child.
"By taking the interrelationship of these two dimensions, the
human and the divine, as the starting
point, one understands better why it is that man has unassailable value: he
possesses an eternal vocation and is
called to share in the Trinitarian love of the living God" (#8). The vocation is true of every child, whether
healthy or not. The notion that deformed or superfluous children can be
eliminated assumes that their dignity is subject to human presumed needs. It is
the other way around: the needs of the child determine the actions of the ones
naturally designated to care for it.
The Church then bases its judgments on the particular
problems that the Document brings up on two fundamental principles: 1) "the unconditional
respect owed to every human being at every
moment of his or her existence, and 2) the defense of the specific
character of the personal act which transmits life" (#10).
We may or may not like to hear what is said because we are
practicing or experimenting with approaches that violate one or both of these
principles. However, "the intervention of the Magisterium falls within its
mission to contributing to the formation of conscience, by authentically
teaching the truth..." (#10). One needs to ponder what is said here. When we
think of, say, Catholic or other politicians or scientists actively engaged in
promoting actions that violate human dignity, the Church is primarily concerned
with their consciences and ultimately the salvation of their souls. It knows
the dignity of the child, however killed, experimented with, or abused, remains
and is intended for eternal life.
In a sense, this Document is primarily concerned with the
souls of those who violate this given human dignity. There is a long history in
mankind of rejecting a known truth, but that truth needs always to be
reaffirmed as such. The abuse of a thing, no matter how wide-spread, does not
obviate the force of the principle.
These are the principles of Dignitas personae. What follows are a series of issues and a judgment
about them. They are: 1) "Techniques for assisting fertility," 2) "In
vitro fertilization and the deliberate destruction
of embryos," 3) "Intracytoplasmic sperm injection," 4) "Freezing embryos," 5)
"Freezing of oocytes," 6) "The reduction of embryos," 7) Preimplantation
diagnosis," 8) "New forms of interception and contragestation, 9) "Gene
therapy," 10) "Human cloning," 11) "The therapeutic use of stem cells," 12)
"Attempts at Hybridization," and 13) "The use of human 'biological material' of
Obviously, these are all the current, controverted topics,
about which the Document speaks with full knowledge of the particulars
involved. I do not intend here to go into each one. This Document can easily be
found online. In each case, the Congregation states what is proposed, what is
at stake, how it relates to the two basic principles of the dignity of the
child and the nature of marriage. No doubt, many things we are now
doing—notice abortion itself is not directly treated as it is obviously a
major violation of the dignity of the person—are supported by law or
practice. In this sense, the Document is a judgment on modern society in the
name of the human person which this same society is by natural law designed to
This is not a "negative" Document. "There are those who say
that the moral teaching of the Church contains too many prohibitions. In reality,
however, her teaching is based on the recognition and promotion of all the
gifts which the Creator has bestowed on man: such as life, knowledge, freedom
and love" (#36).
Chesterton once remarked, speaking of the Commandments, that
though they often seem "negative" what in effect they do is make possible all
the wonderful things we are free to do if we do not do what is wrong or
forbidden. This is, I think, the effect of this Document. If we do not do,
individually or as a society, what we are not to do as it violates our dignity,
we are free to live the live that God intended for us, a life that really does
enjoy the gift of children and the adventure of their lives.
The Church is not naïve. "Human history shows, however, how
man has abused and can continue to abuse the power and capabilities which God
has entrusted to him, giving rise to various forms of unjust discrimination
and oppression of the weakest and most
defenseless..." (#36). Clearly today, these weakest and most defenseless are
the unborn and those born by immoral processes of man or science.
Yet, while knowing what goes on, the Church also sees that
"human history has also shown real progress in the understanding and
recognition of the value and dignity of every person as the foundation of the rights and ethical imperatives by which human
society has been, and continues to be structured" (#36).
Thus, "Behind every 'no'
in the difficult task of discerning between good and evil, there shines a great
'yes' to the recognition of the dignity and inalienable value of every single
and unique human being called into existence"
(#37). If we ask the question today, "Who is in fact looking after what is best
for each human person?" it is the one who insists on that person's dignity,
from birth to natural death. It is the one who understands that this person, in
fact, is ordained to eternal life.
The alternatives to this truth, when examined, as this
Document does, all conspire to make man and woman less than they are, less than
they would want to be if they were whole, if they knew themselves. They are to
love each other and beget children, as Benedict says in Spe Salvi, for their "eternal life." This purpose is what they
tell the priest in rite of baptism is their intention for this, their child.
The dignity of the person does not serve science or politics or our wishes, but
rather gives direction to them so that they can freely be what they are
intended to be.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Columns, Essays, and Book Excerpts:
"The Dignity of the Person Must Be Recognized..." | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
"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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