To engage the culture means to communicate with it in order to communicate to it. To engage the culture we need to understand the principles of thought that allow for fruitful dialogue: We need to be prepared to give a reason for what we believe. How can I engage the culture that lets Charlie Ward or Alfie Evans die if I don’t understand what makes life sacred? How do I understand nuclear threats if I don’t know the parameters of a just war?
There are seven main pillars that govern Catholic social teaching, the Church’s teaching on economy, politics, and societal affairs. These seven pillars give us the tools we need to dialogue about all the cutting-edge issues, from euthanasia to immigration policies. The very first principle of Catholic social ethics is human dignity. Here are five key points that every Catholic should know about what the Church puts behind the words, “human dignity,” and why they are so important.
#1. Why Human Dignity?
First, we need to be ready to give a reason for why each human life is precious. In Evangelium Vitae, St. John Paul II lays out the Church’s understanding of why each human life has what he describes as an “incomparable worth.”
Created in His Image
Human life is special because man is called to a supernatural vocation, called to share in the life of God. We are made in the image and likeness of God, the Church teaches, and our nature is capable of being united to the Godhead. Human life is “a sacred reality,” writes St. John Paul II, and we are asked to bring it “to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters.”
Called to Transcendence
Also, human life has incomparable worth because the Incarnation reveals the value of the person. Jesus, Who is God, became man in the mystery of the Incarnation. Each human person sees his true consummation, his ultimate realization in the Incarnate Jesus. Through this mystery, Jesus united Himself to all men in grace, in the Holy Spirit. Since Jesus became Incarnate, then man has been incredibly loved by God and must have an innate dignity.
This principle of human dignity corresponds to our yearning for transcendence, our longing to “be more.” Our earthly human life is the beginning of an everlasting life. The reality that we have an immortal soul allows us to operate in regard to spiritual realities. We can hope for Heaven because of our human soul!
Human life is also special because the Redemption of Christ, through His very blood, reveals His unique love for each person. God loves each of us enough to die for us, according to the humanity of Christ. The all of Christ’s death was for each of His recipients.
#2. Live Human Generosity
These three reasons that life is sacred inform our perspective on life as Catholics. If we are convinced of life’s sacredness, this gift-perspective affects how we communicate with others. If we believe in the principle of human dignity, then we must live human generosity.
Our response to others should be imbued with this spirit: Do you know how I view you? You are someone called to friendship with God Himself, and made for eternal life. No matter what you do in your life, God’s compelling love is accessible to you and He desires you.
Seen in this light, the Church is not a threat to society, but rather its saving grace. Pound for pound, Christianity proposes a more profound perspective of development than any other religion. In Christianity, every part of you is needed and wanted, and brought to a full exercise of power by the possibility of unity with God Himself. Armed with such a claim, we can say that the world needs us. This gives us confidence to dialogue with the world as missionary entrepreneurs.
Our firm conviction that human life is sacred and gifted to us should result in a generosity that is one of the very best “sales points” for our Faith!
#3. Know the Opposing View
Understanding human dignity also means that we understand what undermines it. The opposing perspective suggests that human life is not sacred, but is merely a random collection of atoms. Looked at from a purely material perspective, the elements composing the human body are worth about five dollars, according to some estimates. While a Catholic perspective sees the worth of a human life as incomparable, a purely material perspective sees life as able to be measured or manipulated, often in the name of quality of life or personal choice.
An atheistic worldview sees human life as the result of mere chance and necessity, notes Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate. Such a view reduces reality to mere history and limits man to being a part of the material world. All of this limits the horizon of human generosity. How much more generosity is possible when man is viewed as transcendent, in the image of God, and eternally loved?
#4. See the Main Threats to Human Dignity
To work for the promotion of human dignity, we must also know the specific threats against it. Threats to human life are intense and are increasingly grave against the most vulnerable: the weak and defenseless.
Today’s major threats to human life can be divided into three main categories, according to St. John Paul II. The first kind of threat is against life itself, as seen in murder, abortion, or euthanasia. The second type of threat is an attack on the integrity of the person, as exemplified in torture or manipulation. A third kind of threat is an attack against human dignity, as seen in poor working conditions, prostitution, slavery, etc. Which of these specific threats to the dignity of life are most prevalent in your immediate surroundings?
#5. Why the Economy Needs a People-Centered Ethics
The Church’s understanding of human dignity should profoundly affect how business is done. God is the guarantor of true progress and the economy needs ethics. Specifically, the economy needs an ethics that is people-centered, grounded in this view of human life’s sacredness.
Business is Less than Man
As we’ve already seen, man is made in the image of God; therefore, he is made not just for this earth. Natural morality has a supernatural weight because we are dealing with immortal beings. Business is from man and therefore less than man. If I ever treat business as more important than the integrity of the individuals involved, I violate the order of things. As an employer, this is why I can’t violate the maternity leave of my employee, or ask them to work unjust hours.
The Goal of Business
The goal of business is a more human world, a more human marketplace. Business enables this by developing the human person; through business, the person works for his development in conjunction with his fellow man. The goal of business must unfold in concrete ways; one way business makes the world more human is when its profits go back to improve the welfare of the people. For instance, Harry Chapin donated proceeds from every other concert he played to end hunger. In 2016, Chobani’s founder gave 10% of the yogurt-making company to employees. Personal agendas aside, actions like this can help make the goal of business a reality by respecting the people who do business and need business to live a good life.
At the beginning of the day and the end of the day, the economy needs people. As Catholics, we are in a prime position to affirm the role of people in business. After all, human dignity is a central pillar of Catholic social teaching. We know the remarkable reality that every single human person is created in God’s image, called to transcendence, and eternally loved.