What’s Dignity Got to Do with It?

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Reflections upon Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical letter: Caritas in Veritate

Benedict XVI signs the papal letter, Caritas in Veritate (Charity/Love in Truth)

Benedict XVI signs the papal letter, Caritas in Veritate (Charity/Love in Truth)

 In his recent encyclical letter Benedict XVI takes on the topic of globalization, with his eye fixed on the ethical issues raised by the emergence of the modern global marketplace.  His message is clearly shaped by the present context of global recession (aka, “credit crunch”), which he takes as evidence of a need for more enlightened ethical thinking and behavior.  The root of the problem, in Benedict’s view, is that while the global interdependence of peoples and nations has become the overarching reality of economic development in our time, this global economic interdependence has not been matched by a corresponding global ethical interdependence.  He calls for an “ethical interaction of consciences and minds that would give rise to truly human development.”[1]  By human development, he refers to a vision of human dignity and vocation which proceeds from the Church’s social doctrine of charity (caritas).[2]

 As he reflects upon the sources of the problems which have led to the current economic crisis, Benedict recites the usual laundry list of general principles and hot-buttons for business ethics: the sins of short-term financial strategies, and the need  for more attention to long-term results, sustainability, transparency, respect for the diversity of stakeholders’ values (not just stockholders’ wealth), “social capital”, and the moral value of investments.  This has all been said before, and with greater depth of analysis.   But it would be unfair to criticize the pope for not having pursued these themes with more intellectual rigor.  He has a bigger goal in mind-namely, to offer a theological approach to business ethics in the era of globalization.

 This he does with cogent insight into the idea of human dignity as the basis for any discussion of economic development.  Since economic development exists for the sake of human beings, we must ask of any economic theory, what vision of human development does it provide? This is the foundational question for economic ethics.  Biblically speaking, human dignity is determined by the mystery of relationship with God.  To arrive at a coherent description of what makes humans human-that is to say, what ascribes value to human life-requires an understanding of the human person as being created for, and existing within, relationship with God.  This requires a doctrine of the whole person, the integrated self, as existing in relationship with God.  Non-theological theories (e.g. secular economic theories) lack the basis for establishing this transcendent significance of human dignity.  Benedict identifies transcendence at the very core of what it means to be human, and thus the ultimate vocation for all persons is to live in congruence (and “solidarity”) with the God-given transcendence that defines human dignity.  Responsibility to this vision is thus the ultimate vocation for all persons:

 [I]ntegral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. Moreover, such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God[3]

 And because “authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension”, the dimension of eternal life becomes the decisive event for valuation of human life and calling (vocation).[4] If life held no transcendent value, then ethics could be reduced to a mere metaphysical structure grounded in materialism and/or determinism.

 But human worth transcends death, precisely and only because human life transcends death.  Human dignity pertains to the event of life, and the way in which a life is lived, as can be judged by the impact we have upon other lives.  The significance of eternal life for ethics is that it places eternal value in human persons-real persons in real circumstances, not abstract or idealized persons.   Lives are not to be relativized therefore, in comparison with other values, such as moral absolutes and conceptual ethical principles.  Of course, Dostoyevsky has said all this before and much better, in his portrayal of Ivan’s moral despair in The Brothers Karamazov: “if there is no resurrection, then everything is lawful.”

 In the resurrection therefore is to be found the ultimate justification of belief in human dignity.  This dignity pertains not to any natural endowment of homo sapiens,  nor to any moral “goodness” which we possess within our own self-reliant capacity to judge moral truths, or to will ourselves to be good, but rather, the ultimate source of human dignity is to be found in active, living relationship with the living God.  Karl Barth also identifies this transcendent source of human dignity, as being the natural endowment granted to all people, regardless of their faith or moral aptitude-

 But just because God is human in this sense, it is actually due to man and may not be denied him through any pessimistic judgment, whatever its basis. On the basis of the eternal will of God we have to think of every human being, even the oddest, most villainous or miserable, as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother and God is Father; and we have to deal with him on this assumption.[5]

I think Jüngel gets it right when he says that this makes Barth the champion of an even greater, more transcendent vision of human dignity as a “natural” endowment, than any version of traditional natural theology could possibly conceive.

 In this, Barth has in some measure christologically surpassed the conception of all natural theology.  One can hardly any longer make the charge Barth’s rejection of any natural theology withheld from humanity the significance which is its due.[6]

 The strength of Benedict’s encyclical derives from his effort to apply a “transcendent vision of the person” to business ethics.  We’ll take a look at some of the implications of this proposition in our next posts…


[1] Caritas in Veritate, 9 (emphasis added).

[2]  Benedict claims that this social doctrine promotes “development goals that possess a more humane and humanizing value”, 9.   As representative of church doctrine on this score, Benedict draws extensively upon his predecessors’ encyclical letters, especially: Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, and several writings from John Paul II.

[3] Caritas in Veritate, 11.

[4] Caritas in Veritate, 11.

[5] Barth, The Humanity of God, 50.

[6] Eberhard Jungel, God’s Being Is in Becoming, 97.