The Dignity of Man

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Around Fairfield County, Conn., I am known as the bishop of Bridgeport and as the supreme chaplain of the Knights of Columbus. I am also known as the proud owner of two golden retrievers named “Barnes” and “Noble.” Since I am an inveterate dog lover, you will understand why I readily took a call from a fellow dog lover during a call-in radio show I used to host. Yet, the caller’s question got me into trouble. She wanted to know if her dog would go to heaven.

Alas, I just could not bring myself to say that her pooch would enjoy the Beatific Vision. I made it clear that the vision of God is reserved for human beings and angels, not our cherished pets. She was pretty unhappy when she heard my reply, and so were other callers. The “fan mail” that week was also pretty tough. Not long after, the radio station gave my airtime to a call-in sports show.

I thought of my ill-starred radio career when I considered this month’s reflection, which pertains to the creation and dignity of the human person. Questions 66-70 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church help us see something our culture increasingly forgets — namely, that human beings are created “in the image of God” and possess a dignity unmatched by the rest of creation (Gn 1:27). Today, some people paradoxically champion animal rights, yet support the taking of innocent human life through abortion.

Meanwhile, the British Parliament recently allowed scientists to develop human-animal hybrids for experimental purposes. Still others, in an effort to protect the environment, assert that human beings are not really the pinnacle of God’s creation. According to one author, “Trees are more important than we are, because if we have no trees, we can’t breathe.” 

Why did God make us? Back to Top

Although we human beings must respect and protect creation, we also must take care not to lose our Godgiven place in it. The Church teaches that we are created “in the image of God.” In order to see what this phrase means, let us go back to what we studied about the Trinity. God’s inner life is characterized by truth and love. While the Father gives his all to the Son and the Son perfectly reflects the Father, the Holy Spirit is the bond of love between them. Yes, we were made to reflect the creative, life-giving and utterly generous love that characterizes the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity. Our human capacity for truth and our ability to be loved and to love — however limited by nature and wounded by sin they may be — reflect something of God’s inner life.

The Church also teaches that man is “the only creature on earth that God willed for its own sake” (Gaudium et Spes, 24). This means that God willed us into being for no reason other than his love for us. Simply put, God did not need us, but wanted us to share in his infinite truth, beauty, goodness and love. This is the key to our human dignity. Since God values us for our own sake, so too should we value others for their own sake. In other words, we should not treat people like objects. Among other things, this means rejecting the temptation to view people as objects of lustful desire and refusing to treat defenseless persons as mere instruments for research purposes, such as the case with embryonic stemcell research.

Since we live in a world where human dignity is constantly threatened, we need to reflect even more seriously on the question, “Why did God make us?” The Baltimore Catechism states that we were made “to know, love, and serve God in this life and to be happy with him in the next.” This teaching, so often forgotten in today’s world, has ancient roots. In the last part of the second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote, “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.” He went on to say, “If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings on the earth, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word of life bring life to those who see God?” 

'The life of man is the vision of God' Back to Top

During his lifetime, St. Irenaeus addressed a culture in which human dignity was threatened by flawed views about the meaning of life. His words are timeless, and they say something very important for us and the world in which we live. First, when Irenaeus says, “The glory of God is man fully alive,” he is telling us that God delights in us, in our humanity and in the many gifts he has given us (see Is 62:3). These gifts include one’s body, intelligence, freedom and ability to love. Truly, “We are the work of his hands” (Is 64:7). Our uniqueness is not merely genetic. We are a unity of body and soul — a material body given us by our parents and a spiritual soul that God directly creates (see Compendium, 69-70).

The late and beloved Pope John Paul II often stated that each person is “an unrepeatable reality” (see, for example, Redemptor Hominis, 14). What is more, the human race shares a common origin in God the Father, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name” (Eph 3:15; Compendium, 68). Accordingly, human dignity and rights are not given to us by any human authority or government, but by God. We are thus responsible for building a just and tranquil society that respects human life and dignity.

All this may help shed a little more light on the Church’s teaching that God willed us to exist, as individuals and as a human community, “for our own sake.”

Next, let us make sure we understand two things that St. Irenaeus is not saying. First, when he says that “the glory of God is man fully alive,” he is not reducing God’s glory merely to the human level. In other words, he is not justifying certain trends in theology and secular culture that make us choose between God’s greatness, which is far above us (transcendence), and God’s closeness to us and to our humanity (imminence). God glories in us while remaining “the God of glory and majesty” (First Eucharistic Prayer). Secondly, Irenaeus is not endorsing the contemporary view — often assumed by weekend golfers and by families who think they are too busy to go to Mass on Sunday — that a life with only casual reference to our Creator is good enough.

Irenaeus’ message becomes clear when we look at what he says next: “The life of man is the vision of God.” Here he is teaching that our human dignity lies in the fact that we are the only creatures who can freely turn ourselves toward God — that is, we are the only creatures who can freely “know, love and serve God.” When we do this, we do not lose our identity, intelligence, talents or freedom. Our humanity is not compromised but is instead fulfilled by our friendship with God. Our search for truth and love here on earth is aided, not hindered, by the light of God’s truth and love dwelling in our minds and hearts. Indeed, our being known and loved by God, and our knowing and loving him in return, is what constitutes the fulfillment of all our desires. To be “fully alive” means embracing, right in the heart of earthly existence, where we have come from and where we are going. 

Called to Greatness Back to Top

Finally, let us turn to the third part of the quote from Irenaeus: “If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word of life bring life to those who see God?” These words relate to one of the most important statements of the Second Vatican Council: “Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of the human person come into true light” (Gaudium et Spes, 22; Compendium, 67). Both St. Irenaeus and the council fathers teach that we can understand ourselves only when we grapple with the truth that God is far above us and yet very close to us.

Pope John Paul II adopted Gaudium et Spes, 22, as a central theme of his papacy because he urgently wanted the world to grasp the innate dignity of the human person. John Paul II made use of this quote often so that we would understand three things: 1) Jesus is God’s eternal son, who fully shares our human nature. As God-made-man, he sums up the transcendence and imminence of God; 2) Jesus, the Word made flesh, shows us his transcendent Father in heaven whom we cannot see; 3) In revealing the Father by means of our humanity — by becoming one of us and drawing close to us — Jesus shows us that his Father loves us and will go to the greatest length to call us to himself.

The mere fact that we are called to eternal friendship with God means we possess a dignity beyond compare. We are called to live and work “in the world” and yet we are not to be “of the world” (see Jn 17:14-15). We are down to earth but called to a greatness that goes beyond our earthly existence. The challenges we face in answering that call is another matter for future columns!

Next month, we will take one more look at creation and examine the simple but complex statement, “Male and female he created them.” This is another deeply human truth that is obscured in these days, as our culture adopts same-sex “marriage” into civil law. v 

Discussion Reflection Questions for Council Use Back to Top

1. What in the modern world indicates a loss of understanding
about the dignity of the human person?

2. In what way is the Holy Trinity significant to our understanding
of the reason and purpose of our creation?

3.What does St. Irenaeus mean when he says,“The glory of
God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God?”

4.Why does loving and serving God fulfill, rather than hinder,
our identity and freedom?

5.What does Jesus reveal about man’s place in creation?