Catholic Social Teaching and Human Dignity


Catholic social doctrine mystifies many people. Is it political or theological, spiritual or practical, left or right, modern or ancient?

Rather like the moment Jesus asked his apostles, “Who do people say that I am?” and got a wide diversity of opinions and guesses in response, so today the Church’s social teaching is regarded with tremendous confusion.

It’s good, then, to take a look at how the Church herself understands her social doctrine and to see how she traces the roots of this doctrine back to the teaching of the Twelve Apostles.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church does this and is the indispensable basis for understanding everything that follows from it. In the words of Pope St. John Paul II: “The theological dimension is needed both for interpreting and for solving present-day problems in human society” (Centesimus Annus, 55).

The first thing to notice is that the Church’s teaching on social doctrine is indeed rooted, as all of her teachings are, in the apostolic Tradition — particularly as it is expressed in Scripture. This, in itself, is often a revelation to many moderns, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who often seem to be under the impression that Catholic social doctrine is an attempt by the Church to be hip, not an attempt to be faithful to the teaching of Christ.

In reality, however, Catholic social doctrine springs not from some social, economic or political theory of recent vintage. Rather, it arises from the often-uncomfortable fact that God has given us not one, but two, great commandments. The first is, of course: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). If the faith simply consisted of this commandment, we would be able to go to some sort of private worship ceremony in our prayer closet and pay no attention to anybody but God. It would be the perfect “Me and Jesus” sect of one.

But Jesus forever complexified matters when he immediately added: “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:39-40). Yet he complexified it further still, when he ratcheted up the command to love others as we love ourselves — which gave us enough slack to treat others as badly as we treat ourselves — to the command that we love one another as he has loved us (John 15:12).

It is from the demand of perfect love, not merely for a perfect God, but for highly imperfect neighbors, that all of Catholic social teaching springs. The whole doctrine is plainly impossible and absurd without the grace of God, of course — like expecting a horse-whipped and crucified man to walk out of a tomb in a miraculously glorified body.

But since the confidence of the Church is that this is precisely what has occurred, let’s take a look at Catholic social teaching anyway.

Catholic social teaching sits on a throne with four legs:

— The Dignity of the Human Person

— The Common Good

— Subsidiarity

— Solidarity

Catholic social teaching begins at the beginning, with the fact that God is the origin of all that exists and the measure of what should be. Every social reformer, even an atheist, who cries in outrage, “That’s not the way it is supposed to be!” — when a child starves, or an oppressed worker commits suicide, or a war breaks out, or a poor mother is bled white by tyrannical taxes or a lunatic dictator starves his people — has in the back of his mind, however dimly, a notion of what the Church calls “the dignity of the human person.”

That dignity is rooted in the fact that each and every human person is not a mere animal and still less a mere thing. This is why slavery is evil: It reduces persons to things called property. It is why prostitution is evil: It reduces persons to things used to gratify a particular sensation. It is why murder is evil: It reduces persons to things called corpses.

Each human person is a creature made in the image and likeness of God: an animal with a rational soul, capable of communion with God, able to love, to think creatively, to see, think and feel beyond mere appetite. We are not a means to an end. We are, according to the Church, the only creatures in the universe that exist for our own sake (The Church in the Modern World, 24): made out of the sheer love of God and intended for free union in the love of God.

In short, Catholic teaching on our dignity begins with the fact that creation — especially the creatures called homo sapiens — is entirely gratuitous. Out of sheer love, God created both the universe and us and calls us to share in his divine life. He forgives our sins, generously pouring himself out to us while calling, teaching and enabling us to do as he does and to become participants in his divine life.

All authentic religious experience takes us toward this reality, which is why the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” — is universally recognized. Cats see no reason to be fair to mice, but humans grasp that everybody is owed fair dealing, justice, etc. — even when they won’t admit it. Some will try to deny this, but the fact is that when people selfishly try to deny it to others, they always claim it for themselves and complain that they are being treated unfairly. This elemental demand for justice and human rights is the giveaway that we intuit something different about the nature of human beings: the fact that we are creatures made in the image and likeness of God.

This primordial recognition of the moral law is called “natural revelation” and is at the root of subsequent supernatural revelation, which begins to take place through the call of Israel as God’s chosen people.

Israel’s expression of this primordial insight about the dignity of the human person comes (as is typical for this ancient people) in imagery that is profoundly liturgical. So we see, for instance, in the creation narrative of Genesis 1, a description of creation that is redolent of the liturgical imagery of Israel. Creation is pictured as the construction of a gigantic temple, just as the Temple in Jerusalem was festooned with decorations to recall Eden.

And just as ancient temples had an image representing their peoples’ god or gods, so the Temple of Creation built by God in Genesis has an image of God as well: man and woman — any man and woman, every man and woman. Everything else in all of creation exists for their sake. Even the very law of God himself is made for man, not man for the Law (Mark 2:27).

Man and woman are placed in the Garden as priest-kings and queens, tasked with tending the garden of creation. (Genesis uses Hebrew words to describe the work of Adam in the garden identical to those used to describe the work of the Levitical priests in the Temple.) Adam and Eve’s primordial task is union, fruitfulness, rule, work and worship — all reflections of the love, creativity, lordship, power and beauty of the God whose image they reflect.

To be sure, sin enters into the picture with the Fall. But sin is, nonetheless, not the most basic fact about us. Sin is always parasitic on the most basic truth: that we remain creatures in the (damaged, but not destroyed) image and likeness of God.

That puts Catholic anthropology at odds with American culture, which comes out of a Calvinist and Puritan ethos — and which, therefore, sees original sin and the Fall, not the image of God, as the most fundamental truths about us. The simplest way to describe the difference is to say that our culture sees virtue as the mask and sin as the horrific face of the person, while Catholic anthropology sees sin as the anonymizing mask and virtue as the true face of the person, made in the image of God and, in Christ, exalted to participate in divine nature.

Because our dignity comes from our created nature — from the kind of creatures we are — and not from what we do, we retain our human dignity despite our sins. And since God is love, his intention for us remains in love, despite whatever sins we commit. And God’s will is always bent on our salvation: a salvation that involves the whole person (body, soul and spirit) and God’s relationships with every person and with all of the created world.

Mark Shea is a Register

columnist and blogger.