August 9, 2009

  • Question 168 - RC Sproul and Intrinsic Dignity of Man

    Question 168 - RC Sproul and Intrinsic Dignity of Man

    Hi Bob,


    Quick question, but perhaps complicated answers. I am reading through RC Sproul's book "What is Reformed Theology". On page 25, he writes,


    Reformed theology maintains a high view of the worth and dignity of human beings. It differs radically at this point from all forms of humanism in that humanism assigns an intrinsic dignity to man, while Reformed theology sees the dignity of man as being extrinsic. That is to say, man's dignity is not inherent. It does not exist in and of itself. Ours is a derived, dependent, and received dignity. In and of ourselves we are of the dust. But God has assigned a remarkable value and worth to us as his creatures made in his image. He is the source of our life and our very being. He has cloaked us with a robe of value and worth.


    I think that if I did not quote that last sentence, we would be unsure that Sproul was referring his analysis of the dignity of man to man's status concerning his relationship with God regarding his justification. Since justification is extrinsic to man, according to Reformed teaching, I take him to mean that is where man's dignity lies, in his status as just in the eyes of God. Now, I have two basic questions, one to understand the Reformed position, and the other to understand the Catholic position.


    Firstly, if man's dignity is extrinsic and is derived from his status as just (clothed in the robe of Christ's righteousness), then would the Reformed theologian NOT ascribe any inherent dignity or worth to a human life, before justification or regeneration, and more specifically, to the unborn child.


    R. Sungenis: The Reformed position has two veins on this issue. First, they believe that man is “totally depraved,” which is the T of TULIP. This means that as far as having any residual ability of free will to come to God after Adam sinned, the answer is no, there is no free will. Man is in complete and utter bondage, and only an act of God, without any dependence on man’s free will, can bring him out of it.


    But there is a second vein to Reformed thinking, and it has two branches. The first is that man’s “natural gifts,” as Calvin calls them, although they were corrupted in the fall of Adam, nevertheless, still operate well enough that man can reason and understand, and therefore distinguish between good and evil (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 2, No 12).


    The second branch is Common Grace, a grace give to all men so that they have the ability to act on the law written in their hearts that was given to them when God made man in his image. By this Common Grace, man can do right from wrong, and knows that he has lost the image of God and needs to have it restored.


    So, from both branches, man knows not to kill the unborn because of the potential that unborn child has of attaining the image of God, not that the unborn child presently has the image of God.


    Laurence: Secondly, what is your opinion on the Church's current exposition of the intrinsic dignity of man that came from and after Vatican II, and does it depart from pre-Vatican II understanding of human dignity.


    Thanks, Bob.



    Laurence Gonzaga


    R. Sungenis: I don’t think it is anything new in Church teaching – and I mean “new” in the sense of never being taught or mentioned previously. It only appears “new” because it wasn’t emphasized as much in the past. As Dignitatis Humanae says,


    “This Vatican Council…searches the sacred tradition and teaching of the Church, from which it draws forth new things that are always in harmony with the old.”


    DH also says:


    “This Council further declares that the right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person as known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.”


    “Reason” certainly tells us that we are to treat all human beings with love and respect, so there can hardly be an argument against it from this perspective.


    As for Scripture, we have passages such as James 3:9:


    “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness,”


    This bespeaks an intrinsic dignity of the human being. The verse classes all human beings as having a certain dignity simply because they are made in God’s image and likeness.


    The same is said in the tradition. Aquinas touches upon the dignity of man in many different topics.


    “It belongs to man's mode and dignity that he be uplifted to divine things, from the very fact that he is made to God's image.” (Q 175, Art 1, Reply to Obj. 2).


    “I answer that, Respect of persons is opposed to distributive justice. For the equality of distributive justice consists in allotting various things to various persons in proportion to their personal dignity.” (Summa, Q 63, Art 1)


    “Hence it follows that a thing is said to be assumable according to some fitness for such a union.  Now this fitness in human nature may be taken from two things, viz. according to its dignity, and according to its need.  According to its dignity, because human nature, as being rational and intellectual, was made for attaining to the Word to some extent by its operation, viz. by knowing and loving Him.  According to its need - because it stood in need of restoration, having fallen under original sin.  Now these two things belong to human nature alone.  For in the irrational creature the fitness of dignity is wanting, and in the angelic nature the aforesaid fitness of need is wanting.  Hence it follows that only human nature was assumable.” (Summa, Q 4, Art 1).


    “On the contrary, On the text, "Their angels in heaven," etc. (Mt 8:10), Jerome says: "Great is the dignity of souls, for each one to have an angel deputed to guard it from its birth." I answer that, each man has an angel guardian appointed to him.” (Q 113, Art 2).


    “It may happen, however, that in view of certain circumstances, a sin committed against one who is not connected with any other person, is more grievous, on account of either the dignity of the person, or the greatness of the injury.” (Q 65, Art 4).


    Accordingly, as opposed to the Calvinists, Augustine says that though the image of God in man is defaced or tarnished, man still has the image:

    Augustine: “But it lost righteousness and true holiness by sinning, through which that image became defaced and, tarnished; and this it recovers when it is formed again and renewed” (On the Trinity, Book 14, Ch 16).

    Augustine: “…but we must find in the soul of man, i.e., the rational or intellectual soul, that image of the Creator which is immortally implanted in its immortality. For as the immortality itself of the soul is spoken with a qualification; since the soul too has its proper death, when it lacks a blessed life, which is to be called the true life of the soul; but it is therefore called immortal, because it never ceases to live with some life or other, even when it is most miserable;--so, although reason or intellect is at one time torpid in it, at another appears small, and at another great, yet the human soul is never anything save rational or intellectual; and hence, if it is made after the image of God in respect to this, that it is able to use reason and intellect in order to understand and behold God, then from the moment when that nature so marvellous and so great began to be, whether this image be so worn out as to be almost none at all, or whether it be obscure and defaced, or bright and beautiful, certainly it always is” (On the Trinity, Bk 14, Ch 4).

    In the “Dignity of the Human Person,” which is the title of a document from Gaudium et spes, the Church echoes Thomas’ and Augustine’s teaching, for she has held that man was created in the image of God, and is called to communicate with God.


    “But the very dignity of man postulates that man glorify God in his body and forbid it to serve the evil inclinations of his heart.” (14)


    “For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God,” (16)


    “Hence man's dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure.” (17)


    “The root reason for human dignity lies in man's call to communion with God. From the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God. For man would not exist were he not created by Gods love and constantly preserved by it;” (19)


    “The Church holds that the recognition of God is in no way hostile to man's dignity, since this dignity is rooted and perfected in God. For man was made an intelligent and free member of society by God Who created him, but even more important, he is called as a son to commune with God and share in His happiness. She further teaches that a hope related to the end of time does not diminish the importance of intervening duties but rather undergirds the acquittal of them with fresh incentives. By contrast, when a divine instruction and the hope of life eternal are wanting, man's dignity is most grievously lacerated, as current events often attest; riddles of life and death, of guilt and of grief go unsolved with the frequent result that men succumb to despair.” (21)


    At the same time, however, there is a growing awareness of the exalted dignity proper to the human person, since he stands above all things, and his rights and duties are universal and inviolable. Therefore, there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one's own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom, even in matters religious. (1, 2, 26).

    But it is necessary to distinguish between error, which always merits repudiation, and the person in error, who never loses the dignity of being a person even when he is flawed by false or inadequate religious notions. God alone is the judge and searcher of hearts, for that reason He forbids us to make judgments about the internal guilt of anyone.

    Dignitatis Humane cites the encyclical by John XXIII, Pacem in Terris; while John XXIII cites Leo XIII for the same principle:


    “By the natural law every human being has the right to respect for his person, to his good reputation; the right to freedom in searching for truth and in expressing and communicating his opinions, and in pursuit of art, within the limits laid down by the moral order and the common good; (12)


    “This too must be listed among the rights of a human being, to honor God according to the sincere dictates of his own conscience, and therefore the right to practice his religion privately and publicly. For as Lactantius so clearly taught: We were created for the purpose of showing to the God Who bore us the submission we owe Him, of recognizing Him alone, and of serving Him. We are obliged and bound by this duty to God; from this religion itself receives its name.  And on this point Our Predecessor of immortal memory, Leo XIII, declared: This genuine, this honorable freedom of the sons of God, which most nobly protects the dignity of the human person, is greater than any violence or injustice; it has always been sought by the Church, and always must dear to Her. This was the freedom which the Apostles claimed with intrepid constancy, which the Apologists defended with their writings, and which the Martyrs in such numbers consecrated with their blood.” (14)


    Evangelium Vitae bases the condemnation of abortion on the dignity of the human person, as does Donum Vitae:


    “This is what is happening also at the level of politics and government: the original and inalienable right to life is questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people -- even if it is the majority. This is the sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed: the ‘right’ ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism. The state is no longer the "common home" where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant state, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenseless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part. The appearance of the strictest respect for legality is maintained, at least when the laws permitting abortion and euthanasia are the result of a ballot in accordance with what are generally seen as the rules of democracy. Really, what we have here is only the tragic caricature of legality; the democratic ideal, which is only truly such when it acknowledges and safeguards the dignity of every human person, is betrayed in its very foundations: "How is it still possible to speak of the dignity of every human person when the killing of the weakest and most innocent is permitted? In the name of what justice is the most unjust of discriminations practiced: some individuals are held to be deserving of defense and others are denied that dignity?" When this happens, the process leading to the breakdown of a genuinely human co-existence and the disintegration of the state itself has already begun. To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others. This is the death of true freedom: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin’ (Jn 8.34)” (Evangelium Vitae, 20).

    Donum Vitae, 4, says much the same:

    “To use human embryos or fetuses as the object or instrument of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings having a right to the same respect that is due to the child already born and to every human person. The Charter of the Rights of the Family published by the Holy See affirms: "Respect for the dignity of the human being excludes all experimental manipulation or exploitation of the human embryo." The practice of keeping human embryos alive in vivo or in vitro for experimental or commercial purposes is totally opposed to human dignity.”

    As you can see, the doctrine of the “dignity” of the human person is an integral part of Catholic theology, and without it we would have a lot of unanswered questions as to how we should treat both human adults and the human unborn.

    R. Sungenis

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