Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Andrei Sakharov — Prophets of Human Dignity

“Respect for the human person considers the other ‘another self.’ It presupposes respect for the fundamental rights that flow from the dignity intrinsic of the person.” (CCC 1944)

Two Missionaries of Charity walk with a child Feb. 26, 2020, in Chunakhali, West Bengal, India.
Two Missionaries of Charity walk with a child Feb. 26, 2020, in Chunakhali, West Bengal, India. (photo: Shutterstock)

“Human Dignity — Who Cares?!” That was the caption to a photo of a Latin American woman working in a field. This small poster was affixed to the top of the bulletin board on the dorm room door of my college suite mate. Being a night owl who studied late into the morning, while I was an early riser, Sivani and I were a perfect set for suite mates so that we could both have silence when we needed it to study. But with such differing personalities, we often saw the front of each other’s door instead of each other.

“Human Dignity — Who Cares?!” This slogan stuck with me for years to come into my adulthood. Initially I shrugged it off in cynicism — what did college students in a generally well-shod, ivory-tower academic environment in Massachusetts know about human work conditions? But throughout my life, the image and lines of that poster were a good reminder of something stronger to be dealt with as a Catholic in an increasingly secular, hostile or simply indifferent atmosphere to treatment of the human person.

This concern for human dignity was manifest in the work of St. Teresa of Calcutta, choosing to follow a call to care for the poorest of the poor in India. The question of what she was solving was less important than the care she was giving to each person needed at that very moment. Mother Teresa’s love and that of her sisters was also a powerful, visible sign of the love of God particularly in the Catholic Church for all the world to see. Mother was the only advertisement many needed to remain (or consider becoming) Catholic, let alone for some to decide to help the poor. The dignity of one person or the conversion of one soul was all that mattered to her in a given moment.

The charity work of Servant of God Dorothy Day also echoed this same concern for the poorest of the poor and for conversion of heart. Day’s choices to truly live the Catholic faith mirror those of St. Francis of Assisi, despite what would be obstacles of human respect for many of us. Dorothy Day lived the first beatitude of loving God alone with all of her heart and what was right by him.

This same personal choice to live on the high ground is also something that was evident in the life of Russian Nobel laureate and also a pioneering physicist, Andrei Sakharov, who gave up his privileges and positions as the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb to become the leader of the Soviet dissident movement and a world-renowned human rights activist. Although an influential member of the elite, elected to the Soviet Academy of Sciences at the exceptionally young age of 32, in his memoirs he explains the inner transformation he experienced, how he started to doubt whether his government could be trusted with their new weapons of mass destruction.

“By the beginning of 1968,” Sakharov notes, “I felt a growing compulsion to speak out on the fundamental issues of our age. I was influenced by my life experience and a feeling of personal responsibility, reinforced by the part I’d played in the development of the hydrogen bomb, the special knowledge I’d gained about thermonuclear warfare, my bitter struggle to ban nuclear testing, and my familiarity with the Soviet system.”

Detailing his life decisions made at a great cost to his own welfare, Sakharov emphasized further in his memoirs:

Along with many of my contemporaries, I have come to believe that international security and peace cannot be sustained unless we ensure openness of society, respect for human rights. ... We need ‘freedom of opinion; the free flow of information, control by the people over national life, including decisions affecting war and peace, freedom of religion, freedom of movement; freedom of association ...

Although not a formal follower of any religion, Sakharov professed in his memoirs that “I am unable to imagine the universe and human life without some guiding principle, without a source of spiritual ‘warmth’ that is nonmaterial and not bound by physical laws.”

We need the courage of Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day and Andrei Sakharov, who stood alone for human dignity despite criticism. The face of the human person is rapidly losing its significance both in the unborn child but also simply in the destructive power of how we speak to one another. As I start each day this year reading the Bible with Father Mike Schmitz according to his “Bible in a Year” schedule, I am reminded that I want to be faithful and obedient to a loving and merciful God. I want to be Hannah, foreshadowing the Blessed Mother, who is free in giving over to God what she wants for his will to reign in her life. And so I pray with Mary each evening her Magnificat in praise of God who loves her in her fearless poverty of spirit and all mankind:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed.
The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
For he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers,
To Abraham and his children forever.