In the 1970’s, Canadian-born celebrity Art Linkletter was known for his daily radio show, “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” I recall listening to Linkletter interview young children on the car radio as we rode to school each morning. Later, in my early teenage years, a new series could have been created called “Teens DO the Darndest Things” based on a teenage prank that landed me in the hospital.
The weeks and months following my accident was a time of intense healing. Back then, there was silence about things like post-traumatic stress. While healing from my physical injuries and various surgeries, my most significant internal healing came by way of personal resources including a strong willpower, a prayer life that was quickly developing and other internal initiatives.
With the Internet as a futuristic, unrealized invention, the only way to acquire books was to shop at a local bookstore, order them through the mail from a catalog or borrow them from the local library. As it turned out, I received my first copy of the “Documents of Second Vatican Council” the old fashioned way — as a gift. In fact I received two special gifts while hospitalized including the “Vatican II Documents” from a religious brother and a book on Our Lady of Guadeloupe from my godmother, Esther.
As I lay immobile in my hospital bed trying to make sense of the terrible event that almost cost me my life, I found comfort in the story of Our Lady of Guadeloupe and prayed that she and young Juan Diego would intercede for me as I struggled to recuperate. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes, herein referenced as GS) also sparked my interest, especially the sections that talked about the dignity of the human person.
The sentence that especially caught my eye, as I stared into the crisp white pages of the fresh new copy of the documents of the Council, was the following: “A man is more precious for what he is than for what he has” (GS, 35).
At a time when most teens were thinking about getting a first job or a 10-speed bike or a learner’s permit in preparation for a car license, I found myself reflecting on the notion that “who I am” as a child of God, according to our Catholic faith, is more important than all the material goods I could ever accumulate in a lifetime. What distinguishes us as being precious from God’s point of view is the fact that you and I exist and not that you and I have financial wealth or a collection of rare artifacts or social status or a prestigious position.
With the residual odor of toast in the air, having just finished breakfast, and a voice resonating in my ears from a hospital receptionist paging a doctor through the public address system, I realized as I read the Council document that I was learning one of the most important lessons of my life: People are more important than things!
In the days that followed, Christ was assuring me through his Church that the dignity I enjoyed, even in my broken body, was “more precious than gold” (1 Pt 1:7). This also set me on a quest to discover how this truth applied not only to “the things that we possess,” but also to “the things that we do.”
Exploring the document more deeply, I realized that the Council taught respect for both the individual and the community: “the goal of all social institutions is and must be the human person” (GS, 25). According to the Church, when we talk about human dignity we mean that everyone ought to have: “… 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 religious freedom” (GS, 26).
Explaining that God “willed that all people should constitute one family” (GS, 24), the Council teaches that all social groups must respect “the needs and legitimate aspirations of other groups” as well as “the general welfare of the entire human family” (GS, 26). In fact, we are expected to be neighbors of every person and to “consider every neighbor without exception as another self” (GS, 27). Simply stated, “whatever is opposed to life itself … whatever violates the integrity of the human person … whatever insults human dignity … all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed.” They poison society, harm those who practice such destructive behavior, injure the subjects of such violence and dishonor God. (see: GS, 27).
The Pastoral Constitution states further that “respect and love ought to be extended also to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters” (GS, 28). By recognizing the basic equality of all people we assert that “all discrimination is contrary to God’s intent and must be overcome and eradicated” (GS, 29).
The document affirms that both individual and community have obligations to each other. While human institutions must work to safeguard basic human rights, (GS, 29) each person contributes to the common good by supporting private and public institutions which work for a better world.
An unfortunate reality noted by the Council is that even with “unprecedented wealth, resources and economic power” available in the world of 1965, people worldwide remained “tormented by hunger and poverty” (see GS, 4). The Council states: “the greater part of the world is still suffering from so much poverty that it is as if Christ himself were crying out in these poor to beg the charity of the disciples” (GS, 88). Our unfortunate response almost 50 years later is “ditto” — there is nothing significantly new under the sun in this regard.
To be clear, the Church’s motivation is not to bankrupt the wealthy but to divest the poor from the cycle of poverty that entraps them. In the Gospel of Luke 19:1-10, for example, the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, who had given half his wealth to the poor, was not asked to give the other half.
The fact of the Incarnation of God’s only-begotten Son helps us understand that Christ humanizes the world, teaching us what it means to be fully human and beckoning us to see His face and image in every human person. It is only when we begin to recognize this Imagio Christus (Image of Christ) in everyone can we accept and understand the absolute and unconditional dignity of every human being. We accomplish this one person at a time.
It is not the amount of money we possess or the position we hold or our religion or philosophy of life or social standing that gives us human dignity. It is not our intelligence or good looks or mild manner or kind words that give us dignity. The dignity we enjoy extends in no way from what we can do or cannot do. What gives us dignity is the simple, yet profound fact, that God called us into being; the fact that each of us can say, “I am.” What more would it take to convince us to begin living more respectful, more dignified lives? When all is said and done, what we do should always point to who we are, as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit http://www.catholicspirit.com/columnists/fr-john-hillier/