Apostle of true human dignity

11 Mar 2013

By The Record

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he appears for the last time as Pope at the balcony of his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, on February 28. It was his final public appearance before his papacy drew to a close. Photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters

By Anna Krohn

Despite the startling and unpredicted speed of his abdication in recent weeks, and despite the predictably shallow media outpourings, there have been a number of insightful commentaries on (now Emeritus) Pope Benedict’s papacy.

Benedict’s role in the revival of liturgical literacy, of experientially rich re-evangelisation and his ecumenical creativity over the last eight years have been well highlighted and even his opponents acknow-ledge the gigantic and deep theological footprint he leaves in the life of the Church.

What has received slightly less attention is Benedict/Joseph Ratzinger’s keen attention to the cultural and philosophical scaffolding upon which today’s bioethical issues are played out.

In a recent and concise Youtube clip, Australia’s bioethics scholar and Bishop Anthony Fisher of Parramatta notes that during his long life, Pope John Paul II tackled particular hot-button life issues.

There are explicit teachings by John Paul II on reproductive technology, abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, genetics, organ donation and the ethics of warfare in his magisterial “Culture of Life” and “Theology of the Body” projects.

During this time as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger was immersed in the details of these projects.

Bishop Fisher goes on to say that Pope Benedict, in his short papacy, extends his mighty predecessor’s work by taking us more deeply into the foundations of the “Gospel of Life” and into a greater understanding of the philosophies and attitudes which would undermine the reception and growth of that Gospel.

Pope Benedict writes in his charter for Christian practical charity, the Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate: “Scientific discoveries in this field (of bioethics) and the possibilities of technological intervention seem so advanced as to force a choice between two types of reasoning: reason open to transcendence or reason closed within immanence” (n 74).

It is not science, still less reason itself, that gives rise to a total secularisation of attitude and action – but rather science and particularly biomedicine done within a totalising ‘technologising’ ideology: “The technological way of looking at the world is free of values. It searches for what it can do, rather than what it ought to do.”

Technological progress is only truly progress for us if it is matched step by step with ethical formation and spiritual maturity.

“Otherwise, man’s situation, in view of the imbalance between his material capacity and the lack of judgement in his heart, becomes a threat for him and for creation” (Spe Salve #23).

Benedict XVI’s patient and intriguing pedagogical style invites us as Christians not only to repeat automatically, as it were, ethical concepts such as “natural law”, “human rights” or “freedom of conscience”, but to examine which “reasoning” we really employ when invoking these.

This means that we not only question the roots of our modern culture but shake up our thinking and purify our practices as Catholics, both personally and institutionally.

Pope Benedict continued a running dialogue throughout his pontificate with the idea of human dignity. He declares, “This is a fundamental principle which faith in the Crucified and Risen Jesus Christ has always defended, especially when, in respect of the simplest and most defenceless people, it is disregarded.”

He is aware when using this notion that there are competing and contradictory versions of human dignity. Hence the rise of the “dying with dignity” movement – with its emphasis not on the inherent value of human life but upon a privatised notion which treats life as only one more consumable.

Benedict insists that the notion of human dignity only works as it should when it is opened upwards to transcendent value and when it is extended outwards to include the lives of all people.

Dignity does not change with the passing of time. The teaching that the Church unceasingly proclaims is that human life is beautiful and should be lived to the full, even when it is weak and surrounded by the mystery of suffering (World Day of the Sick 2009).

The right to life and the right to discover the truth (particularly the truth about God) are bound together in Benedict’s understanding of human dignity.

While Benedict acknowledges that not all people “have the faith”, he believes that it is possible for non-believers, by use of their God-imprinted minds and hearts, to share some of the hopes, insights and concerns of those who do. So for him working for humanity means working with ‘truth-sensitive’ non-believers and others.

The transcendent dignity of the person is an essential value of Judeo-Christian wisdom, yet thanks to the use of reason, it can be recognised by all.

This dignity, understood as a capacity to transcend one’s own materiality and to seek truth, must be acknowledged as a universal good, indispensable for the building of a society directed to human fulfilment (World Day of Peace 2011 #2).

Furthermore, the task of recognising the “gift” of each person’s inalienable dignity gives us in the Church the “task” of joining logical dots which connect the value of the human person to what Benedict calls the “dignity of Creation”: alongside the ecology of nature, there exists what can be called a “human” ecology, which in turn demands a “social” ecology. All this means that humanity, if it truly desires peace, must be increasingly conscious of the links between natural ecology, or respect for nature, and human ecology (World Day of Peace 2007).

However, Benedict’s bioethical vision is not utopian. Christians know that the “peace that passeth all understanding” lies beyond even their best efforts, most promising collaborations and cleverest therapies. Sin, suffering and failure will continue to be “a terrible presence” in our lives and our histories and are only answered by holiness and Spirit-infused virtue (faith, hope and love).

With these, Christians bring to bioethical realities the witness of the power of God in Christ who is “hope for the world’s healing (who) has emerged in history. It is, however, hope – not yet fulfilment; hope that gives us the courage to place ourselves on the side of the good …” (Spe Salve #36).

Dr John Haas also considers the Pope’s Bioethics work at: www.ncbcenter.org/document.doc?id=495.

Further Reading on Benedict XVI’s discussion of human dignity can be found in his Address to the Pontifical Academy for Life, Saturday, February 13, 2010.