It wasn’t until adulthood that I began to discover the breadth of Catholic social doctrine, a rich body of teaching that I’d somehow never been introduced to in all my years as a practicing Catholic. (The title of Mark Shea’s book on Catholic social teaching, The Church’s Best-Kept Secret, applies to far too many of us.) Beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, Catholic social teaching is the Church’s formal response to our rapidly developing world.
My study of these teachings has helped me to better understand the Catholic view of the value and inviolability of human life—and of all creation—as a beautiful and interwoven masterpiece that could only have been created by a loving God. Learning to recognize the inherent dignity of everyone I meet—indeed, every other person—has deeply transformed the way that I see those around me and how I understand the many injustices faced by people around the world.
Following Pope Francis’s 2013 election, his vision of a Church that goes to the periphery and heals wounds like a field hospital after a battle resonated deeply with me, as did his teachings about the countless social ills and injustices in our world. I had always understood the moral requirements and doctrinal teachings of my faith, but Francis’s teaching served as a constant reminder of the intimate presence of God among us and our obligation to recognize and respect the dignity of every human being, because we are all created in his image.
The concept of human dignity is not just a Christian notion, however. It is also the foundational principle for a flourishing global society. Responding to the unimaginable violence and death of the Second World War, the United Nations General Assembly declared in its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
Then, like today, these ideals had not been fully realized, but they do provide a framework for each of us to work towards a just society. In the Preamble to the declaration, the General Assembly proclaimed the hope that this declaration would become “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” It intended that the principles in the Declaration would be used by “every individual and every organ of society” to “strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”
Pope St. John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, called the document “a step in the right direction, an approach toward the establishment of a juridical and political ordering of the world community. It is a solemn recognition of the personal dignity of every human being; an assertion of everyone’s right to be free to seek out the truth, to follow moral principles, discharge the duties imposed by justice, and lead a fully human life” (144).
Only a couple of years later, the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae (“Of human dignity”) grounded its teaching on religious freedom on the recognition that “A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man” (1). The Council Fathers taught that “the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself” (2).
Vatican II also produced a document on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, which enumerates a long list of actions and situations that violate human dignity:
Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator. (27)
Following the Second Vatican Council, an increased focus on human dignity has been reflected in magisterial teachings and significant doctrinal developments. For example, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, John Paul made a significant development regarding the death penalty in light of this greater awareness, stating that the death penalty “must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society.” Just a few years later, during a visit to St. Louis, he called for its outright abolition, saying, “I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”
Then, in 2018, Pope Francis finally closed the door on the Church’s longstanding toleration of the death penalty, declaring it “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” This is a legitimate development in continuity with tradition because previous teachings on the death penalty did not fully consider the dignity of the person, due to its relatively recent emergence as an integral Catholic principle.
In addition to religious liberty and the death penalty, the Church’s increased emphasis on human dignity has led to it forcefully speaking out against other practices once tolerated by Church authority, such as torture and slavery. More recently, the Church has made incremental changes to its approach towards other marginalized groups, including women, gays and lesbians, and people of other faiths in recognition of their human dignity. Many public acts by Pope Francis, both planned and spontaneous, have carried great symbolic meaning that reinforces the Catholic belief in the universal nature of human rights. Gestures such as his embrace of a man with a disfigured face at the end of a general audience; washing the feet of women, Muslims, and prisoners on Holy Thursday; and inviting children with disabilities to join him in the popemobile as it zips around St. Peter’s Square serve as simple reminders of the universal nature of human dignity.
One of the greatest obstacles to society embracing human dignity more fully is the constant failure to recognize the intrinsic value of people in certain classes or categories. We need only look at history and we can see how poorly people have been treated based on their race, ethnicity, economic status, social class, disability, age, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Even after laws begin to recognize the humanity of the members of these classes, these people continue to be treated as less-than (or even subhuman) for years or decades by other members of society. For example, more than a century and a half after the abolition of slavery in the United States, racism continues to saturate many parts of our society.
It also seems that once we stem the tide of one injustice, it’s almost inevitable that another one quietly takes hold within our culture. As John Paul explained this occurrence in Evangelium Vitae, “broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom, and on this basis they claim not only exemption from punishment but even authorization by the State, so that these things can be done with total freedom and indeed with the free assistance of health-care systems.”
I am speaking, of course, about abortion, a violation of the human life and dignity of developing human beings in their mothers’ wombs. Sadly, abortion is championed as a human right by many people in our society, and it is tolerated (and even sanctioned) by many Catholics. Surely, we’ve all seen the wide variety of responses to the recent overruling by the US Supreme Court of the 49-year-old Roe v Wade decision.
I think I can say that my own feelings reflect those of columnist David French: “joy in my heart tempered by disquiet in my spirit.” It’s astounding that over 40 years of nominal support by the Republican party of the pro-life movement accomplished so little, yet it only took five years of using the pro-life cause as a club in an increasingly acrimonious political environment to overturn Roe. Or maybe it isn’t that astounding.
If you’d asked me five years ago, I would have told you that I didn’t expect this to happen in my lifetime. I think many pro-lifers envisioned that it would be a long road to overturn Roe. We thought changing hearts and minds, as well as creating true systems of support for women and families faced with unexpected pregnancies (building a “culture of life”) would precede any changes to abortion policy in the US.
Something that’s disappointing to me is that we Catholics aren’t even on the same page regarding the ultimate goal: that someday, abortion becomes unthinkable.
I thought we all had different ideas about how to get there. I didn’t realize that some don’t even want to get there, ever, as a matter of principle. Much to my dismay, I’ve come to discover that many so-called “consistent ethic of life” Catholics apparently didn’t really want legal protections for the unborn at all. I suppose while Roe was in effect, they were willing to give lip service to the sanctity of unborn lives, but when something actually changed, they were unable to keep up the ruse.
Thanks to my study of Catholic social teaching over the last decade or two, I went from a pro-death penalty, Iraq war-supporting, right-wing Catholic ideologue to a Catholic who embraces a consistent ethic of life with every fiber of my being. And it has been at great cost. I am scandalized that some Catholics are even trying to relativize abortion, arguing that abortion is not a matter of human dignity, but a “religious liberty” issue.
That’s not at all Pope Francis’s position and does not respect the human dignity of the unborn. In 2019, Pope Francis pushed back against this notion, saying:
Sometimes we hear people say, “You Catholics do not accept abortion; it’s a problem with your faith”. No, the problem is pre-religious. Faith has nothing to do with it. It comes afterwards, but it has nothing to do with it. The problem is a human problem. It is pre-religious. Let’s not blame faith for something that from the beginning has nothing to do with it. The problem is a human problem.
I’m saddened that there seem to be fewer people than I thought who really do embrace the seamless garment in its entirety. Pope Francis does, and for that I’m grateful.
So does Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who—in the tradition of his predecessor Cardinal Joseph Bernardin—welcomed the decision with a strong statement that reminded us, “This moment should serve as a turning point in our dialogue about the place an unborn child holds in our nation, about our responsibility to listen to women and support them through pregnancies and after the birth of their children, and about the need to refocus our national priorities to support families, particularly those in need.”
Even though Roe is gone, we still have an obligation to support the dignity of the unborn and their families, especially women and girls who need help raising their children. We all share in this responsibility. I join in David French’s call: “The answer from pro-life America should be clear and resounding—the commitment to life carries with it a commitment to love, to care for the most vulnerable members of society, both mother and child.”
We can’t predict the future. It’s possible that this will backfire spectacularly like prohibition a century ago. I certainly can’t imagine a worse political climate for this decision than right now.
Still, we must look forward. Roe is overturned and we have an opportunity to make this a victory for human dignity.
I’d like to conclude with a reminder for my fellow pro-lifers. These are tense times, and many people are hurt and even fearful following this decision. I would ask that those who are happy with the decision show respect and compassion for those who are not. And even to lend a listening ear. All people have dignity and we should respect it, even those whose beliefs we reject.
Image: By Volte