New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan gave the inaugural lecture for Notre Dame's Project on Human Dignity Dec. 6, citing the worth of each human life as a basic principle of Catholic faith.
“When we list Catholic doctrines, we usually mention the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Eucharist,” the president of the U.S. Catholic bishops' conference noted. “I wonder why we never include the doctrine of the dignity of the human person?”
“It’s pivotal; it’s way up there; it’s normative,” he told listeners in the McKenna Auditorium at the Notre Dame Conference Center.
“This doctrine of the dignity of the human person should be taught to our children along with the Sign of the Cross, for it is at the very essence of our Catholic faith.”
“God made me in his own image and likeness,” the archbishop taught. “I am worth the precious blood of his only-begotten Son … I have come from him and am destined to return to him forever.”
He cited the teaching of the second-century bishop St. Irenaeus, that “the glory of God is man fully alive.”
“If we really believed it, think of what a difference it would make in the way I treat myself, in the way I treat others. It would be lifesaving.”
The New York archbishop observed that secular critics of the Church often fail to grasp the Christian approach to the human person, and its contribution to the culture and laws of Western civilization.
And while the principles of human dignity necessarily lead to moral restrictions, Archbishop Dolan explained that these moral laws exist to guard the integrity and harmony of creation.
“The Church is all about a ‘yes’ to all that is true, beautiful, and good in the human project,” he stated. “The Church only says ‘no’ to something or someone that would negate the true, the beautiful, or the good in the human person.”
In standing for the worth of each life, he said, Catholics are proclaiming a truth that should bring joy to the world.
“The Church, which has as a primary doctrine the dignity of the human person, is not a shrill, crabby, nay-saying nag, but a warm, tender, gracious mother who invites, embraces, and nurtures her children.”
While the topic of human dignity is often associated with issues like abortion, embryonic research and euthanasia, New York's archbishop pointed out that the same principle must inform Catholics on other social issues.
“If an immigrant from Mexico is a child of God, worth the price of the life of God’s only begotten son,” he observed, “then we ought to render him or her honor and a welcome, not a roar of hate, clenched fists and gritted teeth in response to the latest campaign slogan from a candidate.”
“If even a man on death row has a soul, is a human person – an 'is' that cannot be erased even by beastly crimes he may have committed – then we ought not to strap him to a gurney and inject him with poison.”
Archbishop Dolan suggested that the Catholic understanding of human worth was needed to correct secular philosophies that speak of rights without corresponding duties.
“The same doctrine that gives rise to a grand tradition of respect for human rights also gives us the call to duty and responsibility,” he taught.
“The orthodox insistence upon the dignity of the human person, with the logical corollary that every person deserves dignity and respect, becomes as a matter of fact heretical if it sinks into a narcissistic demand for whatever pleasure or right I feel I am entitled to,” he cautioned.
To avoid this error, the archbishop urged his listeners to recall Blessed John Paul II's principle: “Genuine freedom is the ability to do what we ought, not the license to do whatever we want.”