The Church maintains that society must uphold the dignity of the human person who is made in the image and likeness of God. Individuals are not meant to live in isolation. To that end, Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Encyclical Rerum Novarum called owners and employers “to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character” (paragraph 20) because “No man may with impunity outrage that human dignity which God Himself treats with great reverence, nor stand in the way of that higher life which is the preparation of the eternal life of heaven” (40). Pope Leo said that labor was both personal and necessary (cf 44), each individual having a “natural right to procure what is required in order to live, [the poor having] no other way than by what they can earn through their work” (44). Consequently, he condemned both unrestricted capitalism, stating “some opportune remedy must be found…for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on [most] of the working class” (3), and the socialism which was a response to it (cf 15).
The Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes (GS), though not directly concerned with the labor issues which inspired Rerum Novarum, nevertheless spends a lot of time on “the dignity proper to individuals and…societies” (9), cherishing “a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history” (1). First, GS lays out some basic principles. It states that “sacred Scripture teaches…man was created ‘to the image of God” (12) and his dignity “lies in observing [the law God inscribed in his heart]” (16), which “requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within…not by blind impulses in himself or…mere external constraint” (17) serving “evil inclinations of his heart” (14). As to society, it says, “God did not create man a solitary being. From the beginning ‘male and female he created them’…by his innermost nature man is a social being; and if he [doesn’t] enter into relations with others he can neither live nor develop his gifts” (12). Because of advancements in science and technology without concurrent spiritual development, our modern world is beset by imbalances at the personal, family and racial/social class levels [cf 8]. These manifest in incongruities such as those of economic health vs. hunger and extreme poverty, “a keen sense of freedom [vs.] new forms of slavery in living and thinking” (4), greater commitment to faith vs. “greater numbers…falling away from…religion” (7), etc. And, the “increase in power is not always accompanied by control of that power for the benefit of man” (4). As a result, industrialization, urbanization, mass media and emigration have multiplied social bonds without strengthening interpersonal development and relationships (cf 6).
Thus, the Church “offers to co-operate unreservedly with mankind in fostering a sense of brotherhood to correspond to [its noble] destiny]” (3). She strongly condemns atheism “as one of the most serious problems of our times” (19) in all its forms, whether denying God’s existence, explaining everything by science, exaggerating affirmations of humanity, faulty notions of God, lack of inquiry on God, systematic atheism or other permutations (cf 19). To counter this, GS holds that acknowledging God doesn’t oppose man’s dignity since it’s grounded and perfected in God who put man in society, adding that hope in eternal life doesn’t detract from earthly life but gives new motives for its corresponding duties (cf 21). And, the Church “proclaims…all…who believe as well as those who do not, should help to establish right order in this world where all live together” (cf 21).
So, society’s material progress must be matched by spiritual progress, all the while maintaining the dignity of individuals and society. It implies that whatever progress society makes that does not respect human dignity is not real progress but must be rejected because it does not accord with human nature which images God. It means that what does not uphold human dignity does not enrich society but rather degrades and poisons it like a cancer from within. In listing crimes against human nature such as abortion, genocide, euthanasia, mutilation, torture, slavery, prostitution, degrading working conditions, etc. (cf 27), it foretold evils that have become an immoral pandemic in modern society, a society which was meant to be a reflection of Trinitarian love. When we celebrate this Labor Day in the United States, let us be conscious of and reaffirm our commitment to uphold and promote the dignity of every person…for Christ is present there no matter what the disguise. How we do this might be something good to look at during spiritual direction.
TRADUCCION DEL ARTICULO EN ESPAÑOL (Translation of this article into Spanish)
Art for this post on laboring to image God: The fern gatherer, Charles Sillem Lidderdale, 1877, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.