By Cardinal Justin Rigali

In this column, I have often referenced the concept of the dignity of the person. This week, it is our primary topic.

The source of our dignity
Throughout the Scriptures, we find many expressions of the dignity of the human person. To give just a few of the many references, we can begin with creation itself and read in the Book of Genesis: “God created man in his image; in the spanine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

Even after the fall of our first parents, God did not take away our dignity but promised to restore it one day. He began this restoration by His care for the chosen people and His protection of them. In the Psalms, we read: “You formed me in my inmost being, you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, so wonderfully you have made me” (Psalm 139:13-14).

In the Book of Isaiah, we read: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even if she forget, I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name” (Isaiah 49:15-16).

In the New Testament, the very reason that the Eternal Son of the Father humbled Himself and became man, taught us how to live by His teaching and example and, finally, died for us on the cross, was an expression of our dignity in the sight of the Father. We go so far as to say that when the Father looks upon Jesus, He sees each of us. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews references the Old Testament when he writes: “I will put my laws in their hearts and I will write them upon their minds” (Hebrews 10:16).

Now, one may say: “This is fine for those who know and believe in the Scriptures. What about those who do not know them or, if they do know them, reject them? Do they have any concept or responsibility for the dignity of the person?”

The answer is that they do. As part of that marvelous way in which God has created us, He has placed within us what we call “the law of the heart” or the “natural law.” This is a basic knowledge given to each person by the very fact that he or she has been created in God’s image. It places within the heart of each person a basic knowledge of right and wrong and respect for one’s neighbor. We might say that it is a built-in set of instructions given to the human person.

Allow me to present a couple of examples: The fifth commandment forbids us to kill and the seventh commandment forbids us to steal. If a person does not know or believe in those commandments, may he kill and steal without being punished, since he does not know or believe in the Commandments as revealed by God? Of course, the answer is no.

Then what makes him responsible for these actions? Is it just the civil law which forbids these things? If the civil law decides one day that they are permissible, may everyone go about stealing and killing? Of course not. The inspanidual is responsible for a basic morality because of the law that God has placed within each person. We know that, unless someone is mentally impaired, he or she knows “by instinct” that it is wrong to kill someone or to take something belonging to another. Upon this law of the heart or natural law, is based all other law.

The natural law and human dignity
It may be asked: What does the natural law have to do with the dignity of the person? First, it reminds us of the exalted nature of every man and woman. Not only did God make us, but He also elevated us above all the rest of creation, not only creating us but creating us in His own image. This cannot be said about the rest of the material world. In giving us such dignity, God protected us by giving us this “law of the heart.” This law guards our dignity and aids us in our weakness. It may be said to be a participation in the eternal wisdom of God and it was not even taken away from us after the sin of our first parents.

The other important aspect of this law of the heart is that it reminds us that our dignity and our knowledge of right and wrong do not depend on any arbitrary judgment of any person, institution or government.

Pope Benedict XVI explained this connection recently in an address he gave to the Pontifical Academy for Life. He said: “The recognition of human dignity as an inalienable right is founded primarily on the natural law, which is not written by a human hand but is engraved in human hearts by God the Creator.”

He went on to say said that “history has shown how dangerous and harmful a State can be that proceeds to legislate on issues which affect the person and society, even claiming to be the source and principle of ethics. Without the universal principles that permit the verification of a common denominator for all humanity, the risk of drifting into relativism in the area of legislation should not be underestimated.”

Pope Benedict went on to say that the natural moral law “permits us to avoid this danger and, above all, offers the legislator the guarantee of a true respect for the person because it affirms the existence of an order printed in nature by the Creator and recognized as an instance of true, rational, ethical judgment to pursue good and avoid evil. The recognition of human dignity, in fact, as an inalienable right first finds its basis in that law not written by human hand but inscribed by God the Creator in the heart of man” (Address, 13 February 2010).

The natural law and human life
This teaching concerning the natural law and human dignity is, obviously, especially topical in our own day. Professor Charles Rice wrote: “Natural law is more than just a theory. Whether you accept it can determine whether you will accept or reject the legalized killing of innocent human beings. Anyone who cares about life and death issues has to care about the natural law, one way or the other” (50 Questions on the Natural Law: What it is and why we need it, p. 23, Ignatius Press, 1993).

It is unfortunate that, in our own country, where we rightfully pride ourselves on our defense of inspaniduals against the subjective tyranny of abusive leaders or governments, we have become so blind when it comes to the basic issues concerning the protection of life from conception to natural death. If we permit arbitrary judgments and statements to justify the destruction of the weakest among us, we have begun our descent down a slippery slope indeed.

We may be tempted to think that this defense of the “law of the heart” or the natural law, especially as it concerns the protection of life, is a “Catholic thing.” This is not true.

The natural law is a reality that, apart from being part of our nature, has been expounded for thousands of years, “back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, developed anew by medieval churchmen like Aquinas, elaborated in secular terms by Protestant jurists, reshaped to justify ‘natural rights’ by Jefferson and Adams, and invoked in the cause of racial equality by Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (Peter Steinfels, New York Times, 17 August 1991, quoted in 50 Questions, p. 21). Up until the last 30 or 40 years, it was also considered to be the basis for all just laws throughout the world.

Education and science are marvelous things. Many of us have and do benefit from both. However, there is a danger that goes along with these great potentials of the human person. In the area of education, we can come to think that everything we need to know comes from what we are taught and receive “from the outside.” In the area of science, we can come to think that we can accomplish anything and everything if we just go a little further in our scientific advances.

God would not be a very fair Creator if He had based all our happiness and knowledge upon what we receive from outside ourselves. He would then have left basic judgments concerning good and evil in the hands of only those who are educated. Likewise, if all depended upon scientific knowledge, less advanced periods of history or less developed countries would be seen as inferior in their human dignity. No, the dignity of the person transcends these realities, beneficial as they may be.

Along with the author of the psalms, let us praise God for the wonderful manner in which we have been made and for the knowledge He has placed within our hearts. It is a testimony to our dignity, but at the same time, imposes upon us a great responsibility.

4 March 2010