During a pilgrimage to France, I had the opportunity to discuss the state of its Church with the proprietor of my bed and breakfast. I knew that many French no longer practice the faith. He explained that the French do not know what the Church is asking of them. The answer may seem obvious. The Church wants the French to embrace the faith: to obey the commandments of God and the laws of the Church, to practice the virtues, to pray, fast, and give alms, to celebrate the sacraments, perhaps even to read the Bible and other spiritual books and join an apostolate, and certainly to share the faith with others. I knew, however, that my host’s question was posed on a more fundamental level. He was really asking, why should the French embrace the faith? What’s the point?
The point is at least clear to me. The Church wants the French – and everyone else – to be saved.
Grace is the means of salvation and the Catechism defines it simply yet beautifully: “Grace is a participation in the life of God” (no. 1997). Yes, salvation is redemption from the slavery of sin. But this only explains that from which salvation rescues us. Salvation also delivers us into the life of God. To share God’s life is our destiny. God did not create us only to till the earth, but above all to enjoy the divine life. We don’t have to reject our humanity to share God’s life, but Christianity does reveal that humanity is not synonymous with earthliness.
Our divine vocation is the source of our infinite dignity. The gift of our vocation and dignity is the best part of the Good News. These gifts bring with them the responsibility of promoting human dignity. The Church helps us to see how we must take up this mission given the unique circumstances of our time. Today, the Church is asking us to do the following.
Protect privacy – Governments and corporations both tell us that we must give up some degree of privacy if we want better security and service. Citizens and customers must have control of the degree of privacy they exchange for these goods. In exercising this control, they are not free to make any arrangement. Duty-bound to protect human dignity, they must be aware that national security and customer service are subordinate to privacy. That’s because intimacy is an essential dimension of human life and it requires a degree of privacy. In a situation in which privacy has been robbed from people, or even in which they have voluntarily surrendered it, their initiative for revealing themselves to others and forming relationships is also lost and people gradually become mere things to be managed.
Protect the environment – In God’s command to “fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over… every living thing” (Gn 1:28), he clearly intends for us to use the earth and its creatures as resources for our development. But Earth is also the first home God has built for humanity. Most people have a fondness for their homes and show it by carefully maintaining them. Humanity must balance its use of the earth with the care of a home. Our dignity is tied to our attitude to the earth. If the earth is a home, then we are residents and citizens. If the earth is only a resource, then we are only miners extracting its wealth. We would begin to view others as competitors, not as neighbors, in all aspects of life, even outside the marketplace.
Protect the disadvantaged – Human dignity is only as great as the dignity afforded to the least among us. It is natural for us to respect the successes of others and these obviously vary in degree. Nevertheless, we should respect everyone as having equal dignity. Human dignity is not a universal minimum level of respect but in itself the recognition of each person’s great potential to share God’s life. Our mission to promote human dignity means we must protect the disadvantaged. Although sometimes this means changing unjust political, economic, or social realities, today’s Christians are not called to revolution. Instead, better education for the disadvantaged will most often give them access to the advantages they previously lacked.
Resist the trend to commoditize humanity – It’s difficult to believe for very long that human life is sacred when you accept abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization, and embryonic stem cell research. The first three procedures attempt to manage human reproduction by terminating, preventing, or creating pregnancies at will. Some argue that these technologies allow for pregnancies only when the woman or couple is prepared to welcome new life and that they therefore benefit the potential child as well. The Church responds that both the dignity and the quality of life of the child is protected when human reproduction occurs through acts of procreative, spousal love. It’s ironic that a culture increasingly desiring organic food should simultaneously be supportive of the industrialization of human reproduction. Likewise, stem cell research which destroys human embryos in the process of learning how to heal disease is also more detrimental than helpful to the promotion of human dignity. The Church’s opposition is not anti-science, but it does indicate the difference between ethical medicine and technology that is allowed to do whatever is possible.
Resist the trend to separate love from marriage and family – Frank Sinatra once sang that “love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.” Today, few people agree and the horse is running wild. Like others, Christians acknowledge many forms of love. However, we believe the highest form of love between people is the love of husband and wife. Spousal love is particularly great because it is linked to procreation, the awesome human participation in the creation of new life. Attempts to gain the same legal and social recognition for gay marriage undermine this unique prerogative of heterosexual spouses. Gay marriage and social acceptance of extramarital sex also undermine the family as the basic cell of society and the best place to raise children. Some argue that acceptance of alternative forms of love will bring society together because this is the nature of love. Yes, the Church agrees that love is about forming relationships but relationships establish mutual responsibility. Sexual love which is separate from marriage and family actually makes love and sex more like a market exchange between individuals than a bond which builds family and community. Sexual freedom without responsibility is more about customer satisfaction than human dignity.
I was not quick enough to share this answer with my French host. If I had, I would have explained that it is really God, not the Church, asking Christians to promote human dignity. The Church is simply passing along the message. I know that many people believe the Church has added to the message, making connections between human dignity and controversial issues where there are none. We should carefully consider the Church’s justification for these connections before we make our own conclusions. At least we should do this if we really are interested in knowing what the Church is asking of us.