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Upholding human dignity

Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, lived for some forty years under Communism. He witnessed firsthand the driving philosophy of this oppressive system. He saw how it sought to subjugate the individual. He witnessed the denial of the essential worth and dignity of the individual. He watched a system which set out to control individuals regularly, violate basic human rights and use surveillance and persecution to restrict personal freedom. He also saw how human creativity was smothered as the State sought to determine how people were to think and act.

Pope John Paul II at St Peter’s Square, Vatican (1987). Image: Wikimedia Commons

As Pope he became a great advocate of the dignity of the human person. His experience of Communism in his home country of Poland was a particular stimulus for his philosophical and theological writings throughout his life. Becoming Pope enabled him to more broadly share his important insights on this subject.

He saw firsthand how communist regimes stifled individual expression and did not respect the primacy of the personal conscience. As bishop in Communist Poland he promoted the idea of human solidarity and the importance of the structures of social life offered by the family, the Church and labour unions as a vital source of resistance to this regime. These were means by which the alienation caused by the communist system could be offset.

His philosophical reflection focussed on the truth that each human person possesses intellect and free will. The intellect involved the interior consciousness of the human being in which the individual person possesses not only a rational capacity but has an awareness of the self in relation to others and to the world.

Each person has various dimensions which include the physical, emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual.

The possession of free will meant that the human being pursues goals which constitute the person through action. The person is actualised by the decisions that they make.

In Pope John Paul II’s understanding, each human person remains “a remarkable psychophysical unity, each one a unique person, never again to be repeated in the entire universe”.

He understood that the person was a dynamic unity of body and spirit. This opened him then to the theological dimension of the dignity of the human person. Created in the imago dei, redeemed by Christ and offered eternal beatitude, Pope John Paul II recognised that it is the intention of God that each person be free to develop their full human potential. He was, thus, a strong advocate for religious freedom.

In his encyclical, Centesimus annus, he stated, “Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are”.

He understood well that the State cannot set out to crush the religious spirit that lies within each person. He wrote “Certainly, the curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is not only a painful experience, but it is above all an attack on man’s very dignity, independently of the religion professed”.

His pontificate was marked by being a constant advocate for and defender of human rights understood in their full theological context. He understood that the human community needed a social order that was grounded in the objective truth about the human person. He knew firsthand what happens to a society and to the life of ordinary citizens when this truth is rejected. It leads to the denial of human dignity and ultimately the loss of individual freedom.

This Christian teaching on the dignity of the human person is beautifully presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and is foundational to Catholic social teaching. It has been a constant theme in papal writings from the early part of the twentieth century, and is receiving a fresh focus by Pope Francis.

Recently the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith produced a “Declaration on Human Dignity”. It described our dignity as ‘ontological’, that is, it pertains to our very being. Our dignity is not something earned or bestowed by others. It is a given. Thus, “the vulnerable, the most insignificant, the outcast, the oppressed, the discarded, the poor, the marginalised, the unlearned, the sick and those downtrodden” all possess this dignity.

A Catholic understands that they are created in love, redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, and offered eternal life with God in heaven.

We have an extraordinary dignity as human beings.

The Church has been a powerful advocate for the dignity of the human person. While political systems which have been developed without the influence of Christian faith and practice need assistance to understand the significance of this God-given dignity, it is also true that as many traditionally Christian countries need to be reminded of the Christian roots of this ideal. They increasingly reject the Christian understanding which has been essential to the idea of human dignity in Western societies. It is necessary for the voice of the Church to speak up.

One issue that is emerging as more and more critical is that of the respect for religious freedom even within traditionally Christian societies. Our laws should allow citizens to be free to follow their conscience in matters of religious faith. This freedom should include the right to worship and to observe and practice the tenets of belief in the Divine without fear of persecution. Such freedom, like all fundamental human rights, is not created or granted by the State, but is a gift from God.

A truly democratic society will ensure that religious freedom is protected by law.

When religious freedom is respected by the State, religious publications and teaching are not subject to censorship or public vilification. The right of parents to choose the religious education of their children is respected. It also recognises that religious organisations are free to contribute to civil society in accord with their beliefs, so they can conduct faith-based schools, run hospitals and aged care facilities and provide other services for the benefit of society.

The Catholic Church upholds the dignity of every human person and urges all governments to ensure that the God-given freedoms of its citizens are respected and upheld.


    2 responses to “Upholding human dignity”

    1. Mavis Beattie says:

      Your Grace, we are truly Blessed to have such leadership.

      All Catholics, indeed all of Christian faith, should feel up- lifted in the knowledge that we stand together for Truth and Freedom in these troubled times.
      Thank you.

    2. Susanne Borg says:

      Wonderful piece, freedom is more important now given what is happening in the world now.

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