On Human Dignity

Stanley Hauerwas and my reading of the Roman Catechism on human dignity.

A few years ago, I met a man through books, his name was Stanley Hauerwas, along with Karl Barth and Jurgenn Moltmann, he became a very close friend of mine through his writing. I respect the minds of few people more than those of these men, and through Hauerwas I’ve learned a very different yet coherent sketch on Human Dignity.

Hauerwas on John Courtney Murray:

Hauerwas’ critique of Murray centers in the fact that Murray’s position is based on a high humanism that is inappropriately non-theological. Murray’s views are based on inalienable rights, that in his defense were at the time a brilliant and progressive critique of liberal democracy, but his grounds for his critique are supremely anthropological and betray a lack of trust in revelation as a source for human dignity.

As Hauerwas puts it “Christians do not believe that we have inalienable rights. That is the false presumption of Enlightenment individualism, and it opposes everything that Christians believe about what it means to be a creature. ” The reasons Hauerwas maintains this position is that As Bentham et al have critiqued inalienability of human rights as a universal stricture from politics, Hauerwas does so because of the Church. For Hauerwas, human dignity is not a matter of negotiating competing parties and their rights in a survival of the fittest model. Hauerwas rejects all attempts to justify a politics and a communion based on violence.

Fortunately for us, human rights are not based on inalienable and competing powers, and are not rights at all but callings. The Christian Tradition has been right to focus on vocation instead of permission when discussing anthropology and human dignity.

To be blatantly specific, inalienable rights assert that the freedom of the individual is the trump card and that the freedom such an individual maintains is a thing called “rights” over against other forces which might attempt to impose strictures on them. The problem with such thinking is not merely the idealisms that do not translate into reality, but the fact that such a view of “rights” cannot help but undermine what the church claims about the reality Jesus makes possible.

To be a creature means to be in communion both with The Triune God and all other creatures. The communion which we share in is not based on dignifying rights, it is based in and through the internal life of the Trinity and such dignity as sharing in the Triune life grants to all other things through the continued act of creation and sustenance. The dignity of Humans then is a matter of creaturely and rightly theological understanding far more than a matter of rights and contracts and impositions and misuses of natural law.

If we are to be Christians, then let us be Christians and reject inalienable rights in favor of a communion based understanding of the dignity of humans. When it comes to legal theory, I am not saying that Christian lawyers and politicians and law makers must rewrite the entire government of this country, that’s ridiculous. What I am saying is that insofar as it is possible to approach the world they find themselves in, they must keep communion and the sacraments in mind, and approach these matters with the sober judgment of men and women mature in an imagination properly catechized by the faith.

Now I know that this seems a far-fetched stretch when brought back to politics, but I am not saying that American Christians must rewrite the constitution, what I am saying is that they must reject the worldview present in the constitution if they are to maintain a view of human dignity that is specifically Christian. If we are to be Christians at all, we must be Christians first.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident” is simply another way of saying “There does not need to be any revelation in order for humanity to exist and have freedom.” “Endowed with inalienable rights” is simply another way of saying “We understand that all life is always competitive in nature and there is no resolution aside from Darwinian social policies.”

These are no basis for a true and full dignity of the creature which is the right and domain of the Church to declare. And She has spoken:

“The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God.” -Catechism. 1994, Part One, 27.


6 thoughts on “On Human Dignity

  1. To be a creature does not necessitate communion. Lucifer is a prime example, along with any being which rejects or fails to fulfill the ultimate goal of actually coming into the communion you describe. Communion is not something that is inherent to a creature. It is a voluntary result of a rightly ordered being.

    As for inalienable rights, I think they are an excellent way to describe those things which are so separate from governance that they cannot even be considered for rejection. The key part is that phrase that comes first, “that they are endowed by their Creator.” It is a clear recognition of the source of those rights and explains exactly why they are inalienable. They are asserted by the authority above all authorities. These rights are inherent to man. It is the proper use of those rights that will lead us to the communion you describe.

    • I hope i wasn’t saying that to be a creature de facto necessitates communion. I was trying to make a teleological statement.

      I mean , we could go back and forth and say there there is a universal communion of a first type between God and creatures through the life giving and all sustaining Spirit, but but that might be fruitless. I think what I was trying to say got ‘lost in translation’ where Zizioulas met Hauerwas and didn’t properly get reformatted by the Roman Catechism perhaps. But alas, thank God for learning. haha.

      Maybe you’re right, from reading the second paragraph. I think Hauerwas as always was making an ecclesiological statement about the way in which Christians should conceive of their personal identity around commitment and communion rather than autonomy and rights. Which I agree with.

      In terms of the public sphere’s adaptation of what I was getting at, was this: “What I am saying is that they must reject the worldview present in the Constitution if they are to maintain a view of human dignity that is specifically Christian.”

      What I meant by that was more for theological method/Christian imagination. I was trying to call people away from the thought life that says “let’s assume the constitution is always right about everything and perfectly coheres with our faith.”

      I wish I could more accurately describe what I’m getting at. Either way, thanks for the comment, it’s back to the drawing board for me.

      Sneagan, you’re cool.

  2. “What I meant by that was more for theological method/Christian imagination. I was trying to call people away from the thought life that says ‘let’s assume the constitution is always right about everything and perfectly coheres with our faith.’”

    I think we should hold the same to be true about any document written by a human, under human design – apart from apostolic ex-cathedra proclamations by the papacy – not limiting it to the Constitution, and by all means not excluding anything Hauerwas says from the game.

    I see no issue with the terminology of inalienable rights. In the constitution they are spelling out practical ways to treat fellow humans with the dignity and privileges inherent in being simply that, human. To be a good leader, you must be a good teacher – and they are doing the best they can to ensure that future generations of the nation they’re trying to birth have access to teachings of the basic treatment of humanity, even if those generations do not prescribe to a religious system that handles that education for them.

    Any worldview present in the constitution that might differ from a Christian worldview is present because the Constitution is NOT a religious document – expecting it to meet that criteria, and criticizing it when it fails, only exacerbates the problem of the government taking the Church’s place, and does nothing to solve it.

  3. The constitution creates procedures for the government to follow and limitations on its power. The “rights” it creates are only enforceable against the government (e.g. if a restaurant refuses service to a black person, the suit is NOT founded on the 14th Amendment, but on the Civil Rights act; if a government agency refuses service to a black person, the suit could be founded on the 14th Amendment). The Constitution says nothing about God or worldviews or enlightment or reason or anything. The founder disagreed about what the constitution meant, because it was almost entirely a politial compromise – which is why it is so darned difficult to interpret. If we aren’t talking about government we shouldn’t be talking about the constitution, because it is out in left field. (Granted, S.H. is most likely arguing against what many people think the constitution represents, but arguing against them, he implicitly concedes that their understanding is correct).

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