Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Politics of Respect for the Dignity of Every Human Person

"Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems."

It is more important than ever that we affirm, with unsentimental clarity of mind, the dignity of the human person — recognizing that this pertains to each individual member of the human species, in any situation and at every stage of development or condition of dependence. This great dignity precludes our ever acting in such a way as to directly intend to kill an innocent human being.

This is a duty and a task entrusted to human freedom, because human individuals never exist in isolation. The bodily dimension of their distinct personhood is always from another — distinct but engendered physically by others — and therefore existing within the givenness of vital person-to-person connections and calling for mutually and communally enriching interpersonal relationships.

This relationship is evident in a direct and fundamental way in the bond between a mother and the child in her womb. She and the child's father have the proximate engendering relationship and therefore the primary responsibility to protect the life and honor the dignity of this person entrusted to them.

This is the basic structure of the human ecosystem: the natural "first" community of the family, which must in turn be upheld, aided, and fostered by still other persons at various levels of proximity: extended and intergenerational family relations, local communities, social and cultural institutions, and the government in its laws and (as needed) its other sustaining resources.

Without the human ecosystem, the connections between persons, between communities, and the span between the generations are unable to take root and flourish. This is a critical problem: the sustenance and development of distinctive peoples, cultures, and civilizations is at risk. The continuation of history is at risk. And we are presently enduring a violent rupture in the human ecosystem.

For many reasons, it has become conceivable (and even celebrated as a "right") for a mother to kill her child in her womb. Often what really happens is that people in power seize upon an isolated, unsupported mother's vulnerability, and manipulate her into thinking that she has to let them kill her child... so that they can make money.

Where is the law? Indeed! Where is it? It is shameful in its absence.

We might also wonder, "Where is the community? true friends? the extended family? the child's father?" Does anyone embrace relationships that are given within the basic experience of being human? How many people, indeed, are irrevocably committed to an interpersonal relationship? Specifically, how many are irrevocably committed to the relationship of man and woman in marriage which establishes them as father and mother in a family? How often are such relationships, in their concreteness, perceived as limits to the individualistic pursuit of power over material things, self-satisfaction, and consumption?

What is going on here?!!

In fact, the conditions for human living are extremely tenuous for persons today in the so-called "developed world." People are thrown far from one another in every direction by the centrifugal forces unleashed by the explosive growth of human material power without a wisdom corresponding to it. Indeed there has been unparalleled development - which is valuable in itself but deeply problematic when it occurs (as it has in the past century and a half) in a wildly unbalanced way.

The materially strongest parts of the world have not seen a corresponding deepening of awareness of what it means to be human, or the urgency of the questions that arise from being human. If anything, the "sense of the human" has atrophied vitally (even as "humanism" has mindlessly latched on everywhere to the mechanics of our discourse). We have not cultivated wisdom. Meanwhile, unthinkable levels of immense power and vast possibilities have been placed in our foolish hands.

As a result, many of us live monstrous lives — perhaps with spectacular external thrills, relentless pursuit of vulgar artificially engendered desires, nervous exhaustion from over-consumption, and an underlying interiority of harrowing loneliness, emptiness, or even zombie-like numbness. Many other people have simply been overrun, pushed to the edge, traumatized, mentally and emotionally damaged, wandering in search of help.

Still, there is hope. Humans are mysteriously resilient. The human person is always something more than material things, and the awakening of the desire for transcendence — for the meaning of things and of their own lives — continues to break through again and again.

All of this serves to remind us that we are much in need (and people who read my pages know where I think the answer to the ineradicable human questions can be found). Here I only wish to indicate something in a particular category, what I consider to be a political task.

We need to ponder, articulate, and put into action a new kind of wisdom for the enormously powerful world in which we live. We need a practical wisdom — a philosophical and political wisdom — that puts the human person at the center, and that opens space for persons to live the fulfillment of their freedom, to live as persons-in-communion. Such a society will not only protect life, but also honor and respect the dignity of every person. Such a society aspires to be a civilization of love.

People are called to work for this in different ways, according to their gifts and vocation. The work is long and serious, and probably offers little in the nature of the "thrills of the electronic tribe." Such noises, even with their temporary sense of connection, are not likely to bear much fruit. They are too easily co-opted by "the passing whims of the powers that be."

Certainly people should work to change laws. The law must protect the life of the child in the womb and his or her mother (these two precious persons in a mysteriously given, ineradicable relationship), as well as the lives of every human person. But law will have little meaning or permanence unless it is situated within the context of a movement of society toward a real respect for the dignity of every person stemming from the conviction that "a human being is always sacred and inviolable."

How do we become a people who respect the dignity of every person in this tumultuous world? This requires — among many more important, gratuitous openings of hearts — a humble commitment to attaining a deeper "sense of the human," a greater wisdom. We must find ways to cultivate and educate ourselves and the coming generations to a personal maturity that will enable us to find the right bearings in this vast, intense, interconnected, explosive world. We need more than reaction, and more than self-protected instinct-driven belligerent tribalism. We need a renewed discovery of living with intelligence, responsibility, self-discipline, and (a particular challenge) self-limitation.

This last virtue is especially vital to healing the human ecosystem. We are kidding ourselves if we think that we can rediscover the vital sources of human community, human belonging, and the experience of loving and being loved while also continuing to rush after all the acquisitive obsessions generated by a monstrous economy of consumption and waste.

We will not "fix" our human problems simply by changing a few laws or reversing a few socially decadent trends, and leaving everything else the same. We will not renew marriage, the family, or community; we will not stop killing children in the womb, neglecting them after they're born, ignoring the poor and the sick, doing violence to one another, abandoning our elders; we will not stop the collapse of the last vestiges of civility and courtesy that become more precarious every day in our communication with each other — we will not succeed in any of these purposes if we continue to enshrine the crass cupidity that amounts to a "practical materialism" as our social ideal. We cannot lust for the possession of material things and also respect human dignity. We will never honor the preciousness of every human person as long as we continue to practice "the idolatry of money."

I say these things as a reminder to myself as much as anyone else. By inclination, I prefer easy solutions. I like the idea of "one big victory" that fixes everything. I like my stuff! I am no better than anyone else. I am part of this problem that is not simple to resolve. I need to be reminded that the challenge of being human is a continual process of personal renovation, and that this new epoch desperately calls for social renovation. With all our flaws and weaknesses, it's still crucial to set our sights on the goal, move toward it, and begin to long for its accomplishment.

In this way, we can pursue a political wisdom that patiently shapes processes and institutions toward the perception of something higher than the rancor of partisan politics driven by the logic of power. Our political culture all too often uses the language of human dignity to dress up its vulgar grasping preoccupations. It swings like a pendulum, now here, now there, wildly unstable. Riding the pendulum and trying to catch something worthwhile as it swings is a perilous venture. I honor the courage of those who try to do it sincerely. There is work here that is far more important than it may appear (and it happens in a realm beyond my competence).

Let us, however, remember wisdom. The ideal of seeking a political order that in some fashion correlates to a real respect, honor, justice, solidarity, and love toward the sacredness of every human person is a goal not to be thrown away lightly, or forgotten in the glow of some temporary change in the "passing whims of the powers that be."

 It deserves a foundation that is firm and deep.