Last year, Notre Dame University initiated “The Human Dignity Project,” an effort to articulate and proclaim the Catholic doctrine of the absolute value of the human person, created in the image of God and redeemed in Jesus Christ. Every April is dedicated to sexual abuse awareness; this year, human dignity is its specific theme. This focus inspired me to reflect on the text of Cardinal Dolan’s keynote address at the launch of Notre Dame’s project, as it is such a profound articulation of our understanding of the human person.
Cardinal Dolan posits that the doctrine of the dignity of the human person is normative to our Catholic faith, right up there with the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption and the Eucharist. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (#356), “Man alone is called to share by knowledge and love in God’s own life…. This is the fundamental reason for his dignity. Being in the image of God, the human individual possesses the dignity of a person who is not just something but someone.”
I cannot express what this means better than the cardinal himself: “Yes! God made me in his own image and likeness; I am worth the precious blood of his only-begotten Son; I am God’s work of art; he calls me by name; he knows me better than I know myself; he loves me so powerfully, personally and passionately that he wants me to spend eternity with him; I have come from him and am destined to return to him forever. As St. Irenaeus chanted, ‘The glory of God is man fully alive.’”
This dignity of the person inspired the greatest system of health care, education and charity the world has ever known; it was the theme of Pope John Paul II’s first pastoral visit to Poland in 1979, which destabilized the whole communist system; it serves as the theological ground for all Catholic social doctrine and the defense of human rights. This dignity of the person compelled St. Damien to give his life in service to lepers, Mother Teresa to the abandoned, Vincent de Paul to the poor, the martyrs of El Salvador to the politically oppressed and Elizabeth Seton to school children.
In each human person encountered, we look into a sacred mirror that reflects the life, love, grace and presence of the Divine Mystery. Imagine how different the world would be if everyone believed and lived this wonderful truth. How prophetic and radical is this Catholic vision in a world that seems to be more violent, less humane, more divided and less spiritual.
We need to shout this doctrine of human dignity from the housetops to a world that finds abortion, genetic engineering, capital punishment, genocide, malnutrition, sexual exploitation, violence and euthanasia at least tolerable, if not actually helpful.
The church utters an emphatic YES to life, love, beauty, creativity, sexuality, creation, imagination, joy and anything else that is genuinely human and holy. The Catholic imagination created the Sistine Chapel, Mozart’s Requiem Mass, the concept of universities and hospitals, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Notre Dame Cathedral, the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and the paintings of Raphael, to mention just a few examples of our spiritual legacy.
The church only says NO to those things which damage or diminish our human dignity, those actions or attitudes which objectify the life of another person, those sins which treat other children of God as if they were somethings instead of someones.
The tragedy of sexual abuse, as well as prostitution and pornography for that matter, is precisely this dehumanization of the other and of one’s self for the sake of selfish, sexual gratification. Sexual exploitation of any kind damages the victim to the core of the soul, heart and psyche; it is the gravest of sins because it uses another human person, made in the image of God, as if this wondrous, miraculous, holy being was simply a disposable thing, created exclusively for the twisted pleasure of the abuser.
As Catholics, we commit ourselves to building a safe environment for all people, a civilization of life and love, where the dignity of every human person is respected, venerated and protected. The church sees herself as the servant of the human person, because in Christ, our humanity has become the sacred arena of God’s saving and loving activity.