Wherein Lies Human Dignity?

Human dignity: this is the underlying truth that forms the very core of Catholic social and moral teaching. If we ever hope to influence the culture in a positive way, therefore, we really need to be able to answer the question, wherein lies human dignity?

According to the Council Fathers, “The root reason for human dignity lies in man’s call to communion with God” (GS 19).

While other parts of Gaudium et Spes establish a connection between the image of God in man and our innate human dignity, one should notice that this alone doesn’t suffice to answer the question.

The root reason for humankind’s exalted status lies in the call to communion with God.

Sounds simple enough at first glance, but this one solitary sentence actually says quite a bit about human dignity, so much so that it’s worthy of deeper consideration.

In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, the Council Fathers give us a clear sense that Divine Revelation is really best considered Divine invitation. God reveals Himself for a purpose; so that we may enter into a relationship with our Creator. It’s the Divine call to communion of which GS 19 speaks.

The Council reminds us very early on in Dei Verbum that God’s act of Self-revelation is purely an expression of His goodness; i.e., it is solely for our sake that the Lord reaches out to us in this way, and He wills our faithful response so much that He gives us the grace that we need in order to respond.

While it truly is God’s will that we should know Him, and love Him, and ultimately live with Him forever, make no mistake about it; God is entirely complete without us. If we respond to the Lord’s generous offer of love and communion – that’s great!  But if we don’t, either way, the Lord our God is perfectly content within Himself (i.e., His content is forever unchanged).

This realization can be confusing for us. If God is so perfectly content apart from our response to His call to communion — and we know that He is — what does this say about our dignity? What does this say about how much we are valued in God’s eyes?

The reason it can be difficult for us to get our hands around this lies in the fact that God is to us a Mystery.

Mystery in the theological sense doesn’t mean unknowable; it simply refers to a truth that is so profound that we can only begin to comprehend it by way of analogy. For this reason, we often tend to anthropomorphize God – we assign human characteristics to Him in order to better understand Him and to speak about Him. This is useful and necessary for sure, but it most definitely has its limits, and such is the case when we contemplate the fact that God is utterly content and absolutely complete even if we reject His call to communion.

When we say that God wills that we should respond to His call in faith, hope and love, it’s easy for us to confuse God’s will with our human desire, and so we need to remind ourselves that these are two very different things; otherwise, we will miss the uniquely profound way in which human dignity is reflected in God’s call.

Consider this; the Council Fathers tell us that man cannot fully find himself apart from a sincere gift of self (GS 24), and since we were not created to be solitary beings, we have a real need for interpersonal communion in order to fully develop our potential (GS 12). This means that apart from a loving exchange in which we enter into communion with another, we are in some way left wanting; our desire for communion, therefore, is truly a desire for completeness.

If we go out on a limb and offer the gift of self to another – whether it’s in the romantic sense, or even if it’s just in an act of friendship – and the other rejects us, it naturally wounds us, right? But there is another side to this coin…

If we were to sever ties with a very close friend, for example, rejecting their offer of love, and yet in the aftermath of that betrayal our friend remained perfectly content, utterly complete, entirely unchanged, then what? Well, it would hardly be reasonable for us to conclude that our friend ever really valued us in the first place.

And so when we confuse God’s will with our desire as we ponder the fact of God’s perfection apart from our response to His offer of Self, it can blur the incredibly profound statement that is made by God’s call to communion as it relates to human dignity.

The reality is this: God’s utter perfection even in the face of our rejection doesn’t undermine human dignity — it underscores it!

Think about it — in every single act of self-donating love that we practice, no matter how magnanimous; no matter how pure our motives may be; there’s always something in it for us. Even Mother Theresa benefitted personally from her acts of charity. The fact of the human condition is that every act of love meets not just the need of the one we love; it meets our own need to love so that we might be fully human. Even as we may grow in virtue and our acts of love grow ever more selfless, their very purity only serves to increase our likeness to God with increased efficaciousness, and so we stand to benefit all the more. The bottom line is this; when we love, there’s always something in it for us!

None of this, however, is true of the Triune God who is in Himself a perfect union and communion of Persons. He lacks for nothing. There is no increase to be had in Him, nor is any decrease possible within Him. This means that the call to communion that comes to us from God us is motivated by a love so pure, so selfless, and so complete that we can’t even begin to comprehend it!

And so it is precisely in God’s perfection apart from anything that we can give to Him in return that His call to communion reflects our human dignity so profoundly. It is solely and completely for us that the Lord so gives of Himself, and He gives without limit, holding back nothing.

And so what is God saying to us, and about us, in calling us to communion through His act of total Self-donation?

The answer is visible on the Cross; God became like us because He wills that we should become like Him. He calls us to communion because He wills to give us His very life so that we might become like unto God; that we may be divinized in Him and live forever.

For having been created in the image of God… all men are called to one and the same goal; namely, God Himself” (GS 24).

We know that our answer to God’s call is not a solitary act given in one single moment; rather, it’s a journey. “Communion” is relationship, and this points to yet another very important aspect of human dignity that is repeated throughout the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Human dignity while innate is not static; we are called to develop it as we respond by God’s grace with increasing faith to His glorious invitation. The call to communion with God is the call to develop one’s dignity; growing ever more like Him through our own acts of self-donating love — given to Him who knows of no increase, of course — but given to other human beings in whose image and likeness all of us were created as well.

Everything stated here — this message that is so critically important for those who wish to transform the culture for Christ — is summed up in just one simple sentence as given to us by the Council Fathers:

The root reason for human dignity lies in man’s call to communion with God.

Let this serve as an indication of the timeliness and richness of the Council documents; a veritable treasury of our Catholic faith for those who are willing to explore them by the light of sacred Tradition. As Pope John Paul II said, “With the passing of the years, the Vatican Council’s documents have lost nothing of their value or brilliance. They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart…”

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