The church teaches that… “respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his (or her) dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis for the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, society undermines its own moral legitimacy.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p 469: 1930)
It’s important to understand today’s meanings attached to the words respect and dignity in order to reckon the rights that flow from a person.
In modern parlance, the dictionary defines dignity as: self-regard, self-respect, self worth followed by: status, position, lordliness and gravitas. What is interesting is that the first three entries are subjective in a sense that they describe the quality of being worthy of esteem or respect that we think we have.
The subsequent entries are objective in a sense that they describe dignity in the abstract, that is, as it appears in others. An observer may presume that a person with a “formal bearing and appearance” is dignified; or one of high office, rank or station is likewise. Yet, how often have we found our conclusions wrong when the presumed dignified person turns out to be quite the opposite?
Now, with regard to the self, can we legitimately assign dignity to ourselves? We may all agree that it is important for each of us to have self-esteem, but what tells us that we have it? In all humility, shouldn’t it be someone else who decides we are dignified? It seems to me that one of the beautiful attributes of being dignified is the very humility and deference the person who has it displays, not conscious of the fact that he or she has it.
With the word “respect”, it is generally thought that respect must be earned by the goodness of ones personal demeanor. To be highly regarded, valued or esteemed, an individual or group would have to have shown honorable traits and actions by how they conduct their lives among others. We cannot simply award ourselves dignity and respect. The ascription of these treasured honors comes from outside of ourselves in two ways.
The first and most important way is the very fact that we are human, and through a power beyond ourselves have made the animal to human, brain to mind transition. If you happen to be one of the people who believe that we have come to this point from choices made by a “creative gene” in evolutionary sequencing, I can offer you no support. There is no proof certain to that hypothesis. If you, on the other hand, are one of the people who believes we have come to this point by the power of God, I can offer you only the support of the Scriptures and the faith of our fathers, otherwise the creator God becomes a metaphysical hypothesis with no absolute proof other than an intrinsic understanding, in faith, supplied by what Christians call Grace through the merits of Jesus Christ. In either case, it is only faith that carries understanding to belief and belief to practice.
The second way dignity and respect may be assigned to particular individuals is by others. Seeing exemplary lives being led, one may conclude that honor is due. Further, each and every creature that is born into the status of “humanity” itself is the highest form of life on earth; we share in the power of its originator. Having been born into the human family, we are all related to each other and to the Creator.
Beyond that, any additional honor we may receive may be attributed to the gifts of our genetic makeup so we can earn the respect and dignity that may come.
It’s not too difficult to see that rights are therefore prior to society, and that the rights to life, liberty and the quest for happiness, though guaranteed by codified law, are surely prior to it. When any nation or state, or for that matter, any tribe, cult, political structure or individual, rejects basic human rights, they are superseding the natural law, as we understand it, and are usurping God’s law which circumscribes the natural law. Were it not for the living God becoming one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, the laws of nature would have simply been attributed to unfathomable deities or to chance.
In the gospel of love, Jesus has shown us the Father, and with his death and resurrection left nothing at all to the capriciousness of chance. “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me” John (10:37)
Spy Wednesday, the day that Judas Iscariot conspired with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, worth about a thousand dollars by today’s standards.
Spy Wednesday, 2010