Attaining Human Dignity by the Conscientious Use of Freedom

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Jonathan van Tongheren*

Abstract: Christianity understands freedom not as the freedom to do whatever one chooses, but rather as the freedom to do what is morally right. Freedom is to take responsibility for ones actions, hence the goal of human freedom is to live righteously and thus attain the fullness of his dignity.

FreedomA recovery of the concept of regime or politeia as elaborated in the political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle [1] would help clarify the deep impact that the culture can have on the minds and hearts of all citizens, including Christians. The regime is the whole political and social order. It refers to the moral tastes, style of life, form of government and the spirit of the laws. So understood the regime is a crucial influence in the lives of most individuals. Only few could escape these influences, such as informed, committed Christians. With the emergence of Christianity, the regime is no longer necessarily as decisive in the lives of individuals. God’s Word and grace mediated through the Church can be wholeheartedly embraced even in the midst of bad regimes. Yet experience shows that many Christians are unduly influenced by the regime, what we usually call the culture or the social conditions.

The impact of the liberal regime

Liberalism and liberal democracy inclined citizens to think about morality to a great degree in terms of rights or subjective values. This in turn leads to a fixation on choice and autonomy as ends in themselves and about the goods of the body, safety, health, pleasure and prosperity. The liberal temper is anything but neutral in the moral tone it sets for its citizens. It supposedly encourages openness to all human possibilities, but today’s version of openness encourages not the pursuit of truth, but rather subservience to public opinion, a preoccupation with having things and a reshaping of religion to suit the temper of the times. Liberal regimes dispose citizens to have an incomplete understanding of human dignity. Persons are said to have dignity because they are autonomous and are capable of making choices. According to the most common opinion in contemporary society, the dignity of the human person is especially secured by ensuring the protection of rights. The initial and primary emphasis on rights is of course a logical step, since the autonomous exercise of choice requires the possession of rights.

Another consequence of understanding dignity as constituted by human autonomy is linking the assessment of human dignity to a persons quality of life, especially the capacity to make autonomous choices. It is now commonly thought that a persons dignity diminishes with his or her declining quality of life. Physical and mental deterioration as well as suffering supposedly diminish human dignity. In Quill v. Vacco (1997), the second circuit court of appeal even went so far as to make an ominous statement about legal obligations toward the terminally ill. Quote: „The state’s interest lessens as the potential for life diminishes.” [2] The presence of this statement in a decision of an American appeals court, surely indicates a trend toward regarding those persons with diminished physical capacity as less than fully human.

Liberal and Christian understandings of human dignity

Now the liberal understanding of dignity is a challenge to the Church, both in the areas of ordinary Christian teaching and in Christian social thought. Careful education is necessary for Christians to understand that the dignity of the human person is not essentially constituted by the ability to make choices. According to Christian teaching, people have dignity because they are created in the image and likeness of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ and destined for eternal life in communion with God. As Vatican Council II put it: „The principal cause of human dignity lies in the call of human beings to communion with God.” Being created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ makes it possible for everyone to respond to God’s invitation to communion with Him. This threefold foundation for human dignity is both unshakable and instructive. No act of the human person can remove this foundation. Even when people commit the worst sins and crimes or suffer diminished physical and spiritual capacities, they retain human dignity.

While this Christian teaching about the permanent character of human dignity is often mentioned and acknowledged by informed Christians, rarely do Christians hear that human dignity is also a goal or an achievement. Given the foundation of human dignity and the reality of sin, it logically follows that all will have to strive and strain to reach their ultimate goal, communion with God. Christians continuously achieve their dignity by seeking the truth, resisting sin, practising virtue and repenting when they succumb to temptation. In other words, dignity is not only a permanent possession. There is a sense in which dignity is appropriated over a lifetime of living according to the fullness of truth. Saint Leo the Great’s famous Christmas sermon states this point in a memorable way. Quote: „Christian, recognize your dignity and now that you share in God’s own nature do not return by sin to your former base condition.” [3] It is significant that this quotation stands as the first sentence in the section on morality in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It immediately directs attention to the necessity of achieving human dignity by living without sin. Vatican II’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world says that: „…man achieves [the dignity to which he is called] when emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself through effective and skilful action, apt means to that end. Since man’s freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the help of God’s grace can he bring such a relationship with God to full flower.” [4]

Human dignity as the goal of freedom

Now we have come to understand that human dignity is not only a permanent asset, but also a goal or an achievement, we also understand that dignity is related to morality. Only in making moral choices and acting accordingly can man achieve his full dignity. Freedom of conscience is required for every individual to achieve his dignity. But it does not follow that conscience is something individually subjective, this would be a reversion of the order of things. Objective morality cannot be subject to individual conscience, but individual conscience rather is subject to objective morality. If morality is subjectified, freedom of conscience becomes problematic, since someone may well deem something right according to subjective individual moral standards, that is objectively a moral wrong. The only way to prevent this problem is to define individual conscience in relation to objective morality or natural law, and the Church has traditionally done exactly that. This is echoed in Gaudium et Spes: „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. Rom. 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. Pius XII, March 23, 1952: AAS (1952), p. 271] In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor.” [5]

The Church thus identifies the contents or rather the substance of conscience as natural law, and the dignity of man as living in accordance to this law. The Christian definition of freedom per se is also closely related to conscience, as opposed to the liberal, humanist understanding of freedom. Liberalism holds that the freedom of one ends where the freedom of the other begins. This is a negative definition of freedom, which limits its moral aspect to the principle of not harming the other’s freedom, whereas Christianity holds to a positive definition of freedom. The Christian concept of freedom can be very concisely defined, in the words of the philosopher prof. em. Robert Spaemann: „What we call freedom is the ability to take responsibility.” [6] In the liberal definition freedom is the freedom to do whatever one chooses, in the Christian definition freedom is the freedom to do good, to do what is right from a moral point of view. thus understands the freedom of man as the freedom to work conscientiously to attain the fullness of his dignity, a dignity that lies in living in accordance with objective morality or natural law.

* Jonathan Van Tongeren is the ex-general secretary of European Christian Political Youth Network (ECPYN), affiliated to the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM). Speech given before the Romanian MPs on the occasion of ECPM Congress, june 2011.

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NOTE

[1]. Cfr. Sir Ernest Barker, The Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle, Methuen, (London, 1906).
[2]. Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 793 (1997) as retrieved from http://supreme.justia.com/us/521/793/case.html July 6, 2011.
[3]. Pope Leo I, „Sermo 1„, Nativitate Domini, (Holy See, 2010) 1-3; PL 54, 190-193.
[4]. Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes, (Holy See, 1965).
[5]. Pope Paul VI, Gaudium
[6]. Robert Spaemann, ‘Menschenwürde und menschliche Natur’, Internationale Katholische Zeitschrift Communio, 39 (2010), 134-139.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY
BARKER, Sir Ernest, The Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle, Methuen, (London, 1906). LEO I, „Sermo 1”, Nativitate Domini, (Holy See, 1957) 1-3; PL 54, 190-193.
PAUL VI, Gaudium et Spes, (Holy See, 1965).
MARITAIN, Jacques, Natural Law. Reflections on Theory and Practice, edited by William
Sweet, (South Bend, Indiana, St. Augustine’s Press, 2001).
BRAGUE, Rémi et al. ed., „Naturrecht heute”, Internationale Katholische Zeitschrift
Communio, 39. Jahrgang, März-April 2010 (Ostfildern, Schwabenverlag, 2010). RATZINGER, Joseph Cardinal, Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Vatican, 1994) 1730-1802.

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