UST prof at World Meeting: Politics gets ‘dignity’ wrong

| September 24, 2015 | 1 Comment
Teresa Stanton Collett at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, where she presented on the concept of dignity. Maria Wiering/The Catholic Spirit

Teresa Stanton Collett at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, where she presented on the concept of dignity. Maria Wiering/The Catholic Spirit

Human dignity. It’s a concept with roots deep in Catholic social teaching but has appeared more frequently in contemporary law, where — University of St. Thomas law professor Teresa Stanton Collett argued — it’s often misused.

Speaking before a crowded room in at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia Sept. 23, Collett outlined the Church’s understanding of human dignity and contrasted it with the use of the word to bolster support for ideologies opposed to Church teaching.

“Human dignity as a concept has been part of the Church’s teaching for centuries, but it didn’t really enter into the political arena per se until the aftermath of World War II,” Collett told The Catholic Spirit after her Sept. 23 presentation, “Digging into Dignity: Promoting the Dignity of the Human Person.” “It has a very clear meaning in our Catholic anthropology, but in the political realm, it is being used and redefined and filled with pretty much anything that an individual is outraged about — whether it is actually is an outgrowth of human nature or a desire or an appetite.”

A consultor for the Pontifical Council for the Family and a staunch defender of unborn children and the traditional view of marriage, Collett pointed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. It begins: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. . . .”

The problem, she said, is that “dignity” as used by some governing documents — including the constitutions of Italy, Germany and Japan — is divorced from the source of dignity, God, and presented as something that can be granted, rather than something that is inherent to the human person, as the Church believes.

In Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges June decision legalizing gay marriage in all U.S. states, Justice Anthony Kennedy also grounded the majority opinion in dignifying same-sex relationships.

“Justice [Clarence] Thomas does a wonderful analysis of that in his dissent,” Collett said, “and basically says, there’s a fundamental error in Justice Kennedy’s analysis — beyond the fact that its not in the text of the Constitution anywhere — which is that he seems to presume that dignity is something that is given, rather than innate in the human person. For our country that was founded with a Declaration of Independence that recognized that there are unalienable rights given by our Creator, that’s a pretty fundamental error in interpreting our Constitution.”

Collett added: “Dignity inures to the person at the moment of fertilization or conception and continues no matter what their loss of capacity is, no matter what their loss of skills is, no matter what their loss of productivity is — whether they ever had any productivity.”

In her presentation, Collett outlined the Church’s teaching on dignity through its documents before connecting it to contemporary issues including euthanasia, abortion and marriage redefinition.

Pointing to images of the elderly, unborn and disabled, she said all people have dignity because all bear the image of God — “Imago Dei,” a repeated theme throughout the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’ message to the United States.

“Part of our calling is to be transparent about the image of God in us, and to live in the image of God and to make it abundantly clear to those around us, to extend the love of God,” she told The Catholic Spirit. “Instead today, we’ve got these debates on what’s so special about being human, or ‘speciesism,’ ” which questions the superiority of human beings to other life forms.

Collett finds the contemporary political landscape absurd.

“We’re defining things as rights which are not rights — they certainly don’t grow out of our nature,” she said.

“Here’s the real challenge: Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights talks specifically about dignity. Various national constitutions talk about dignity. But when you go back through the history of the United Nations documents, what you find is they could not define its source. It was politically impossible. Its power comes from the fact that it was a consensus document. Everybody could agree that there is something intrinsic in the human person of value that is there simply by the virtue of being human; they could not agree why it exists, they could not agree where it comes from, but they could agree that it exists. Then they go forward with it.

“The problem with not identifying the source is now we get the arguments that the human dignity of a 10-year-old requires him to be emancipated from their parents’ directions and superstition we call religion,” Collett continued. “Well, no!”

“Now, we act as if there’s not a nature, and that’s a problem. The simple fact is, I don’t know how to defend the inherent dignity of every individual if there’s not a God.”

She recounted a conversation she had with an Israeli rabbi, who dismissed her opposition to abortion because of her religious beliefs.

“I said, here’s the deal: There are two views of human beings. Either we’re a bag of chemicals moved by electrical impulses — in which case, I don’t know why we can’t slaughter us like cows — or, we bear the image of God and we’re a specific creation of God for a purpose for such a time of this.”

Ever the professor, Collett gave her audience three assignments: study Church documents on dignity, engage in the political process, and show love and respect for the dignity of people close to them.

“Now that the concept has entered into the political dialogue, it both creates an opportunity and a danger, because the redefinition of it will result in practices and the use of law’s coercive power to make us say things that are false are true.”

She added: “One of the brilliant parts of Pope Francis’ teachings is that he never allows the social to be separated from the economic, and the Church doesn’t do that. But it’s our anthropology that causes that. We are not disembodied minds, we are not disembodied spirits; we are a unity.”

On the third assignment, Collett said it is possible for people “to become so intent on saving the world that we neglect the very unique, fulsome duties that God places on us in the families that we’re born into or that we create through our marriages.”

In “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis called politics “one of the highest forms of charity,” an idea that resonates with Collett. She urges more Catholics and others of good will to answer calls to that kind of public service.

“You give up your lives, basically,” said Collett, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2010, “and you do it so you can reestablish the principle that the family is the basic cell of society, that freedom comes first — [including] freedom from our appetite and sinful desires — and then goes outward; that there is an inherent unity between the economic and the social, that every person is due a level of respect, but not every idea.”

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