Dignitatis Humanae: Teaching for a Vanishing World

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We have been marking this month the fiftieth anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, or “On the Dignity of the Human Person.” It was one of those remarkable documents, relatively brief, but momentous. For it marked the truly catholic reach of the Church in affirming the sense of the “human person” as a bearer of unalienable human rights, including a right to religious freedom even when that religion does not find its ground in the truths professed by the Church.

But 1965 was a turning point in many ways, with the advent of “the pill” and a boost of energy in the sexual revolution. With each victory in that surge, it has become ever clearer that the movement is fueled by the passion to reject every vestige of moral teaching that cast up barriers to sexual liberation. The world has been so inverted since Dignitatis Humanae that the “culture war” now treats as contested ground the very meaning of “dignity,” the “human person,” and “religion” itself.

One friend of many years tried his hand with a book on Human Dignity. He insisted that “human beings have an incomparably higher dignity [than members of other species]. They matter more because of what they are: members of the human species, with unique and incomparable traits and attributes.” But what exactly makes humans higher, with that claim to “dignity”?

Dignitatis Humanae was clear on that point from the first moments: Dignity attached to “beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility.” Dignity begins then with the capacity for reasoned judgment over matters of right or wrong, and the capacity then to bear obligations. Only one kind of creature understands what is means to respect a promise or a “commitment” even when it no longer coincides with his interests.

My friend, writing as an academic however, declined to take that capacity for “moral” judgment as central to the matter. He found the distinct nature of human beings in the freedom to “become different through an upsurge of free creativity.” But of course the question, surely, is whether we can look upon the things we create and pronounce them good or bad. We could have the breathtaking creativity of a Bernie Madoff in fraud, a mark of no small genius. That is not the creativity that my friend has in mind, though only humans can pull it off.

And when we find all about us people quite evidently wanting in creativity –people with a perpetual dullness – do they have less human dignity? Might they be then less human, with a lesser claim to our respect?


I raise the question because my friend says that “a life is a life. . .if anything is sacred, a life is.” And yet, if dignity attaches to every human being, and if all life is sacred, what about that human being in the womb? But my friend performs a familiar shift: he insists that the “fetus” is emphatically not a “person”; it is a “potential life.” He sees then a moral claim for the innocent life of a “potential person,” set against a denial of “dignity” to the pregnant woman, for if she were denied an abortion, she would be converted “into a mere instrument of a purpose not her own.” Of course, when the matter is viewed with a moral lens, the common sense question is how a person can find her “dignity” in killing a thoroughly innocent being.

Abortion continues to stand, for the academic writers, as the “hard nut to crack.” If they want to claim dignity for all human beings, they have to explain why they omit from their protection this group of small humans. If personhood depends on a capacity for creativity already manifested in works, then the liberal mantra of “equality” is quietly, but decisively, cast aside.

Dignitatis Humanae was generous in its openness even to exotic forms of religious experience, and in its willingness to respect the earnest search for the divine. But in our own day, we find lawyers defending “religious freedom” and refusing to reject any claim of religiosity as illegitimate. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has been seeking recognition under local laws, and two years ago one of their exhibits was accepted, next to a Nativity scene, in Tallahassee.

The argument is made that we can spot religious groups that are pretextual or “insincere.” But these people are quite serious that the mockery of Christianity is their religion of anti-religion. And if there is no substantive test here, why can there not be a Church of Insincerity?

In Dignitatis Humanae, the problem was handled in this way:

[S]ociety has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion. [But the laws should] be controlled by juridical norms which are in conformity with the objective moral order.

In other words, the assumption was that the laws that barred homicide and fraud and the most obvious wrongs, would also screen out the bogus movements offering themselves as “religions.” The problem now, of course, is that there has been a flight from the recognition of laws finding their ground in “the objective moral order.” What we have now is a positive law that forces Catholic Charities to fold if it refuses to place children for adoption with homosexual couples. The same laws would punish bakers and florists if they will not celebrate a same-sex marriage.

And so, yes, Dignitatis Humanae: an enduring teaching for a vanishing world, that it falls to us now to restore.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.