The Portal July 2018 - Page 9

THE P RTAL July 2018 Page 9 Catholic Social Teaching Human dignity Fr Ashley Beck O ne of the great mistakes people often make about Catholic Social Teaching is when people suggest it is simply a religious gloss on political or economic theory. This mistake is made by two distinct groups of people. First, by people who think that it is simply an example of the Church ‘interfering’ or ‘meddling’ in politics, people who want to reject or ignore it (I am not sure which is the more harmful), falsely thinking that the Church as an institution should concentrate on ‘spiritual’ issues or simply trying to get more people into our churches; moreover lay people should be free of the influence in such matters of clergy, including bishops and pope. This view has an ignoble pedigree among Catholics in this country going back to ‘penal times’ in the 17 th and 18 th century when leading lay Catholics in the aristocracy were desperate to show Protestants that if they were allowed to get involved in political life the Catholic Church wouldn’t dictate to them about ‘political’ matters. The mistake is also made by people who like and believe in Catholic Social teaching, particularly politicians and economists. Quite genuinely such people are committed to what the Church teaches, but often on the basis of a couple of articles written about specific issues are quickly seen as experts in it (part of the problem is that there aren’t many experts in it!). Both views overlook that the Church makes it very clear that Catholic Social Teaching is a branch of moral theology. It is primarily about theology - that is, what we believe and say about God. This realisation can be very unsettling as it makes it hard to dismiss what the Church says. We saw this in the EU referendum just over two years ago: I wrote an article for the Catholic Herald explaining the guidance Catholic teaching was able to give us (that is, it helped us to be opposed completely to the ‘Leave’ campaign) with the provocative title ‘It’s the Theology, Stupid!’ It caused considerable offence and a crop of very angry letters. At the heart of the theology of Catholic Social Teaching is the concept of the dignity of the human person created in the image of God. Christianity teaches us that because we are made in God’s image we have an inalienable and unconditional dignity and sacredness. Our human rights theory, which is more extensive than those developed in political life, is characterised by seeing our rights and dignity as coming from God - and that means they can’t be changed. An example would be what we teach about the rights of refugees and migrants: even though these are enshrined in international law, and being somewhat challenged by unscrupulous politicians (including some in various parts of Europe who claim to be committed Catholics), for us because these rights stem from our dignity as persons created by God, they’re not negotiable. In our time one of the most important theologians of the human person was St John Paul II. He had been immersed as a student and young priest-professor in the ways in which Christian philosophers had written about the human person (in the movement known as ‘personalism’) and of course he worked through this in the context of the assault by the Nazis on the dignity of the human person in Poland and the rest of Europe during the Second World War. Reflecting on the nature of the human person doesn’t simply give us rights because we’re created by God: it also helps us understand that our personhood is defined by our relationships with others. Through these relationships we have the potential to become good people, to be able to try and avoid selfishness, individualism and competitiveness. This concept of the human person rooted in the Christian doctrine of creation is totally at odds with the Enlightenment idea of the individual, isolated and ‘self-made’, characterised by a false idea of autonomy and freedom. This contrast between ideas shows how important a properly rooted Catholic Social Teaching is: so much of what is wrong in contemporary Britain is because of the false and damaging exaltation of the individual. It also follows that if we deny the dignity of the person we are denying God. When human persons, created in God’s image, are denied their dignity and sacredness, we’re really rejecting authentic belief in God; it’s a form of blasphemy. In future months when we look at the history of social teaching and examples of it, try and remember that it’s deeply theological , all the time.