Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Human Dignity Revisited


First of all, I thank Richard M. for his posting yesterday on the release of the Instruction Dignitas Personae issued by the Holy See. I also thank Michael P. and Rick for their contributions on this matter. In a small service to our contributors and readers, I would like to take this opportunity to offer a brief synopsis of the Instruction. In doing so, I must be transparent in declaring that I have no financial interest in the outcome of this debate; however, I do have a great interest in helping to develop a better understanding of the issues which this document contains that have a bearing on the development of Catholic Legal Theory—especially as they deal with the concept of human nature that is inextricably related to authentic human dignity.


Here I recall that several of us have previously discussed the issue of human dignity. Nevertheless, in reading the Instruction, I am convinced that it presents in a coherent fashion a discussion that is crucial to a proper understanding of human dignity, i.e., that human dignity is important because the idea of human dignity emerges from the nature of the human being and that which makes the human being. The text, in short, is a much-needed presentation about human ontology. I recall here what Pope John Paul II and Jacques Maritain have said in the past regarding human dignity: it is that which is due man because he is man. In short, human dignity is the recognition of what is due each member of the human family because each is a human being who, regardless of the many things that make us different from one another, is a member of this family and whose origin and destiny are shared with every other member of the family. This is a point that the present day world is reluctant to discuss or admit not because of a lack of understanding but in disregard of it. So, I begin by suggesting that the first important point made by the instruction is this underlying principle and truth that it advances about human nature.


The Instruction correctly, in my estimation, acknowledges the importance of biomedical research to enhancing and protecting the dignity of the human person. For those of us who may struggle with life-threatening illnesses or medical conditions, this is good news and Good News, indeed! In addition, the instruction offers important teaching to assist Catholics and all people of good will to understand better the role that developments in medical science can and will have on the formulation of public policy in whose development we, as citizens, participate. Thus, the instruction has special application to the formation of the well-formed conscience of those who shall participate in the debates regarding the policy making surrounding the use of scientific advances.


In this context, the Instruction is clear from the outset that human dignity extends from the moment of conception until natural death. Thus, any practice, procedure, policy, etc. that adversely comes to bear on human life and existence within this natural framework will likely rob someone of his or her dignity unless it advances and promotes life rather than retards or destroys it. It is essential that I point out that the Instruction is the product of not just one person or one dicastery but represents the work of numerous individuals and offices whose wisdom and insights have proven essential to its formulation and a clearer understanding of human dignity. Thus, the Instruction is intended not just for Catholics or Christians but for “all who seek the truth” about human nature. In short, the Instruction is an important synthesis of faith and reason that should appeal to the widest possible audience.


The Instruction’s three substantive parts explicate these points. The first component addresses the anthropological and ethical perspectives regarding human life, its procreation, and its sustenance. Here is where the Instruction elaborates on why it is not only important but essential to protect and nurture the youngest member of the human family when he or she is conceived. Unlike lawyers who often seek to avoid answering difficult but pressing questions, as did the majority of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, the Instruction declares and explains at the outset that from the moment of conception onward the new human being is a person and must, therefore, be accorded not only the same rights as everyone else but the rights that are inviolable to every innocent human being who is considered by society and its juridical institutions to be a person. A related point is one which does not follow or adhere to present day views that may be popular but are, nonetheless, wrong because they convey a false understanding of human nature. This second component, then, emerges from the explanation of the proper origin of human life, which is from the union of the male and the female in the natural family which is also a manifestation of love between these two persons who are jointly responsible for the nurturing and raising of this new person. While human life may start in a Petri dish or other laboratory apparatus that borrows a “little from here and a little from there”, its proper place of foundation is between the conjugal relationship of parents, one of whom is male the other of whom is female—both being charged with the duty or caring for the new person whom they, and God, have authored.


This brings the Instruction to its second major part involving the medical science surrounding the foundation of new human life and the bringing forth of a new human person. The Instruction in this section discusses at some length the artificial means of procreation. While it properly acknowledges that some of these methods can and do produce new persons, they do so at great risk—including fatality—to many other persons who are not selected for nurturing but for destruction and death. As the instruction states, “Techniques are morally permissible if they respect: ‘the right to life and to physical integrity of every human being…’” [Italics are mine] Those techniques which therefore assist the husband/father and wife/mother in their conjugal relations and do not threaten the existence of any person, as understood by the Instruction, who may be produced from their union would appear permissible. Of course, in this age of IVF techniques that may generate a large number of persons, only a few may survive because many will be disposed of, i.e., deliberately killed even when they are subjected to long-term cryo-preservation [freezing]. The Instruction correctly notes that these methods of assisted procreation are riddled with moral problems because some new persons will invevitably be targeted for destruction regardless of the longevity of their existence in this world.


The third and final component of the Instruction touches upon the most recent development in medical science regarding manipulation of the human embryo (person) including genetic management and exploitation. The Instruction does not critique or condemn these interventions as long as they are designed to correct defects that will adversely affect the developing life of the person or the germ line that will become a part of subsequent offspring. The moral difficulty begins to emerge when the manipulation departs from helping the current subject and treats the current subject as an object whose genetic materials or cells may improve someone else’s life later on. Here, existing human life and, therefore, persons are treated as expendable. Their life is not valued as life, their life is objectified because it is not an end in itself, i.e., it is not viewed as human, but it is viewed as a means to contribute to another life. This is the basest kind of servitude that for millennia have justified slavery or inhuman domination that denigrates the dignity that is inherent to each human life, each human being, each human person. A recent illustration of this abuse is found in the arguments advancing human embryonic cloning for so-called therapeutic purposes and research. The necessary procedures, while ostensibly presented as pro-life because the research is intended to “assist” people, inevitably lead to the destruction of every person who becomes an unwilling, sacrificial donor to the “potential” advance for someone else’s life.


The Instruction is a rich document demanding careful study by all. However, I hope this brief synopsis will assist those who read MOJ in some small measure to appreciate the important contributions which the Instruction makes to some pressing problems of the present day and, most likely, beyond.



RJA sj



Araujo, Robert | Permalink

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