Bennett: Let’s proclaim dignity of all persons in all conditions at all stages of life

02 March 2020

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Who am I?

Who are you?

The very nature of our personhood – the inherent dignity we bear regardless of our abilities, our external characteristics, our wealth or our poverty – is so intrinsic to our common life that we must consider it with the greatest seriousness.

As Christians, we know we bear this dignity because we bear the image and likeness of God – an ever-present reality that finds its true meaning in the God-man, Jesus Christ, who reveals to us who we truly are.

In our present age, the objective and universal truth of our dignity is being profoundly undermined through a pernicious alternate philosophy that sees human dignity defined by my freedom to choose, my absolute autonomy, and my constant self-actualization.

This erroneous view now held by so many in our secular society, often unwittingly, has led to a breakdown in genuine care for one another and in fostering genuine human community. The seed of this radical autonomy now bears its fruits: social isolation, rampant homelessness, widespread acceptance of doctor-assisted suicide, and the objectification of the person.

There are several problems with the dignity-as-autonomy view.

In reality, people have different levels of autonomy. Some will have better mental capabilities, more options, and be more independent than others.

This inequality of autonomy has clear implications for human dignity. If people can have more or less autonomy, and if autonomy is directly associated with dignity, it follows that some people have more dignity than others.

Grounding human dignity in the ability to make voluntary choices makes human dignity contingent on human ability, which relates to external factors.

Following this principle, infants, people in unconscious states, those who have developmental disabilities, or even the socioeconomically disadvantaged, have significantly less dignity than those who have the faculties and resources to choose the course of their own lives. Dignity becomes something the privileged have more of than the underprivileged.

This understanding runs fundamentally counter to our incarnational understanding of the human person. The dignity-as-autonomy position makes personal choice the highest good at the expense of other goods. In this view, nothing is inherently good. Things are good only if an individual chooses them.

If we consider, by way of example, the case of doctor-assisted suicide, the patient determines whether his or her life has value. If he wants to live, his life has value; if he wants to die, his life can be disposed of at will.

The contrary view is that human life is not only valuable when people value it but has inherent value on its own. The value of human life comes not from our choosing it; rather, we choose it because it has value.

Human choice, or human freedom, is not an end in itself. Freedom must fit into the larger purpose of humanity.

Freedom is not simply the ability to choose. It is the ability to choose rightly, to choose the good, the beautiful, and to constantly seek the Truth.

The problem of social isolation in our communities also bears witness to a flawed understanding of human dignity: the sovereignty of the individual against a view of the human person as a social being whose true dignity can only be fully understood in relation to others in community.

It is no surprise that a society which defines freedom in terms of voluntary choice has a loneliness problem. If freedom is personal choice, individuals end up making choices with little regard for the common good. Before long, people’s choices conflict with each other. Instead of viewing others as fellow citizens working toward a common goal, people come to view others as barriers to their freedom. Distrust grows and societal bonds weaken. The distrust fostered by individual autonomy has a tendency to drive people apart and into social isolation.

While individual freedom is important, personal freedom is something exercised in community with other people.

Pope Benedict XVI has said that freedom is always a freedom shared with others. Without care for your neighbour, such as those who are suffering, freedom becomes self-centred.

St. Teresa of Calcutta showed us this. When freedom follows a path toward honouring our humanity and our neighbour’s humanity, it is a path society can walk together without forcing each other off the road.

As Parliament considers changes to the law on euthanasia, let us as Catholics loudly proclaim our faith in the Incarnation, in the inherent dignity of all persons in all conditions and at all stages of life, and courageously witness through our faith and actions the beauty of human life and human community.

We do not live our faith in the living God for ourselves; we live it for the life of the world.

Father Deacon Bennett is director of the Ottawa-based Cardus Religious Freedom Institute. He served as Canada’s first and only Ambassador for Religious Freedom from 2013 to 2016. This column was first published by the B.C. Catholic.