By Father Angel Perez-Lopez
As we celebrate the anniversary of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (EV), we must acknowledge the many challenges present in our culture that undermine the dignity of the human person: infants are still murdered in the womb; assisted suicide is considered legal in some places; sick people are not valued as they should be, etc. In these difficult times, we make John Paul II’s principle our own – “the Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel” (EV, 2).
God is the center of the universe. We are not. Every creature that exists has been created to manifest God’s goodness. This is the correct angle from which we need to understand the dignity of the human person. Such dignity is never absolute. It is always relative to the Lord.
In fact, our natural dignity consists in our unique way of participating in God as the source of our being and goodness. Unlike any other creature of the material world, we are created in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen. 1:27). We resemble Him because of our rational nature. Therefore, our natural dignity concerns who we are. It is not about what we do or what we possess (cf. EV, 19). It cannot be lost (cf. EV, 9). It accompanies all of us for the rest of our lives, not only here on earth, but also in the afterlife.
Those who defend abortion or euthanasia, for instance, tend to mistake the natural dignity of the human person with the actual exercise of one of our personal capacities, such as reasoning, verbal communication, or free choice. To be sure, the actual exercise of these capacities is a manifestation of our natural dignity. Yet, they are not the root of it. Our dignity is found beyond the level of activity. It belongs to our being, to our rational nature, and the level to which such nature participates in God’s own being.
Of course, we must distinguish our natural dignity from the dignity that we acquire when we grow in God’s image and likeness. Indeed, saints resemble God more than sinners. Mother Teresa of Calcutta looks more like God than Adolf Hitler. In this sense, although both have the same natural and inalienable dignity, saints have a greater acquired or moral dignity. The latter can be lost through mortal sin during our earthly pilgrimage. However, once we are in heaven, that acquired dignity will be ours for all eternity. Ware created for this fullness of being and we should not settle for less.
The Gospel of God’s love for the human person is also present and at work in our day and age. Indeed, nothing escapes God’s power, not even a pandemic. Because of our personal dignity, we are called to freely cooperate with Him. Good things are positively willed by the Lord in view of His glory and our own good. Evil things are allowed by God, also in view of His glory and our good. For this reason, Saint Paul declares that, “in all things God is at work for the good of those who love Him” (Rom 8:28).
Nowadays, we need to remember that because of our dignity, we are created for heaven. There is a hierarchy of goods. To be sure, our life is a good that needs to be treasured, but the health of our soul is far more important. We can also sacrifice the health of our own body for the good of the souls of others.
As Christ said, no one has greater love than the one who lays down his life for his friends (cf. Jn. 15:13). These challenging times are also a call from God to treat others as God’s friends. If necessary, we are also to lay down our lives for them, following the example of Jesus. This is also why, as St. John Paul II reminds us, “the Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel” (EV, 2).