During my spring break, a friend and I were talking about homosexuality. It has been on our minds so much since the scandal in the Church. As usual, my friend made an argument for acceptance of the homosexual act. She couldn’t see how the church could hold its view that the homosexual act is illicit. Perhaps, it’s not hard to sympathize with this view. Although the homosexual act is intrinsically disordered, this fact is sometimes covered up by the context in which it appears–the context of an apparently loving and committed homosexual relationship. The good guys, it seems, are the ones who are advocates for protection and inclusion. In this essay I will talk about two important things all homosexuals see as their rights: dignity and protection. I’ll attempt to define both terms considering Church teaching.
What is Dignity?
In reading the Catechism I have been struck by how the Church’s use of both “dignity” and “respect” could be interpreted in many ways. The following statement from the Catechism struck me especially in this way:
Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.” (CCC 1931)
I could imagine a homosexual or an abortion supporter saying to me, “That’s exactly the point I’ve been trying to make! At last, we agree.” This apparent agreement happens because the term “dignity” has not really been defined by many secular people. I don’t believe a secular person could say exactly what a life with dignity means, although it’s clear that many people put a premium on being able to decide for themselves.
The Catechism’s frequent use of the word “dignity” almost strikes me as potentially dangerous given the misconceptions surrounding the word. Nonetheless, I think the reason this section of the Catechism, titled “The Human Community” and subtitled “Social Justice”, is peppered with the word dignity is because it is the key word for navigating social justice and human interactions. However, it’s the Church’s definition of the word that gives it importance. The Catechism explains dignity in these words:
Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity. (CCC 1934)
Thus, the answer to the question of what gives human beings dignity is both their origin (created in God’s image) and their destiny (the beatific vision).
What Does It Mean to Treat Someone with Dignity?
This still leaves unanswered the question of how we Catholics and the secular world can come to agree on how we treat people with dignity–if agreement is possible. It may be easier to start with what dignity is not. As difficult as it is for us to accept, especially in the land of freedom, dignity is not unbridled choice. Rather, I think treating others with dignity means giving people respect. In fact, this is exactly what my friend and I came to see as our moral obligation to the homosexual community. While respect doesn’t imply agreement with everything someone does, it implies respect for rights as the Catechism says,
Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. (CCC 1930).
I think these rights look a lot like the preamble to our Constitution. Still, that doesn’t mean that laws should not prohibit some actions that inherently take away our dignity even as they protect other rights that safeguard our dignity.
What Is Protection?
That word ‘protect’ leads right into my second topic which is protection. Protection is first a very concrete thing but it usually, I think, brings with it the idea of dignity, which is more subtle and less immediately understood. To explain this, I’ll return to the conversation with my friend. During the conversation, my friend shared an article by Father James Martin entitled “Father James Martin: When L.G.B.T. Issues are pro-life issues.” In the article, Fr. Martin concludes that,
the institutional church has an absolute moral duty to stand up for its persecuted and endangered brothers and sisters, publicly. (America: The Jesuit Review).
It’s hard to disagree with Fr. Martin on this point. However, I think he meant more than simply preventing violence. Although he never mentioned the word dignity, Fr. Martin seemed to have something like it in mind when he quoted the Catechism (CCC 2358) in these words,
The church needs to listen to the experiences of L.G.B.T. Catholics in order to better treat them with ‘respect, sensitivity and compassion,’ as the Catechism of the Catholic Church asks. Before we can minister to these Catholics, we need to listen.
Fr. Martin is right. Protection from the threat of danger is only part of the picture. A truly safe place is a place where you are granted permission to speak, as our society loves to put it, “your truth.”
It’s not surprising to me that from Fr. Martin’s article, our conversation turned to the idea of a safe world. It’s not surprising because to me those who try to expand the notion of being pro-life to the protection of the environment or to the protection of homosexuals are often really trying to make the world we live in safe. Indeed, being pro-life isn’t about trying to make every life safe from harm, even though it is about protecting life. As a pro-lifer I believe in protecting life, but I am also aware that we live in a fallen world.
Our Secular Society Wants Everyone to Be Safe
It’s really our secular society that wants a completely safe world, and in pursuing this, society has really caused more suffering. The people who want a safe world start using death to make it safe. They use abortion, contraception, and euthanasia to kill death with death. What I mean is they would rather take away someone’s suffering by taking a life than allowing someone to suffer with dignity. Indeed, they are so concerned with one person’s dignity that they stop seeing clearly–at least so it seems to me.
I think I’m forced to conclude safety is an illusion. There’s really no world where it doesn’t hurt a little to be different. Being an anomaly, as we put it in that conversation, is scary and the homosexual community will always be one. Guaranteeing that every human being is treated with dignity is beyond our control. I say this because I think the parable of the weeds and the wheat is the only reality possible on this earth. Furthermore, the greatest affront to human dignity–death–is an inseparable part of this life and there’s no way to eradicate it.
I think the best way of thinking about it is through Christ’s seemingly unsympathetic statement that “The poor you will always have with you” (John 12:8). It’s important to note (as many people on the internet have) that Christ is quoting a passage from Deuteronomy that encourages generosity: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land” (Deut 15:7-11). While granting that Christ is recommending charity, nonetheless, I’m struck that the longer quotation still suggests that poverty is with us for good. We struggle for the goods of heaven on this earth while knowing, ultimately, they will only exist fully in heaven.