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January 3, 2012

The implications of human dignity for happiness -
Why human dignity is a pivotal doctrine -
The well-being of the environment and human dignity

In this edition:
1. The pivotal doctrine of human dignity.
2. Why knowing our own worth is important.
3. Christmas revisited: Every person's value.
4. Quotes to ponder: ins and outs of human dignity.
5. Protecting the environment, protecting human dignity.
6. Pope Benedict: The environment and life.
7. Southwest bishop reflects on his local church.

1. The Pivotal Doctrine of Human Dignity

Because of the doctrine of the human person's dignity, "the church is into affirming, not denouncing; raising up, not putting down; encouraging, not condemning," Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York said in a speech Dec. 6 at the University of Notre Dame. He delivered the inaugural lecture for the Indiana university's new Project on Human Dignity.

What the church teaches about human dignity ought to result in respect for all life and should shape the way others are treated and addressed, Archbishop Dolan indicated. This should be the case whether those others are alcoholics encountered in the sacrament of reconciliation or homosexual persons protesting the church's defense of traditional marriage. He insisted that the doctrine of human dignity constitutes "a moral imperative."

"When we list the Catholic doctrines, we usually mention the Trinity, the incarnation, the redemption, the Eucharist," Archbishop Dolan observed. But he wondered "why we never include the doctrine of the dignity of the human person" - a doctrine, he added, that "is pivotal."

In his view, "the doctrine of the dignity of the human person should be taught our children along with the sign of the cross, for it is at the very essence of our Catholic faith."

He said, "A faith that has as one of its primary tenets that every individual is a reflection of the divine" and "that every human life beams with the transcendent and hints at the beyond, is a faith that affirms everything that is decent, noble and uplifting in the human drama."

A "caricature of the church" depicts it being "dragged kicking and screaming into the noble enterprise of defending human rights," Archbishop Dolan said. But he insisted the truth is that "the Catholic doctrine of the dignity of the human person prompts a thumping yes to whatever affirms the truth, beauty and goodness inherent in us and in our world."

Archbishop Dolan said that because "we are 'divinized,' reflections of God, created in his image and likeness," we should "treat ourselves and others only with respect, love, honor and care." This includes a preborn baby in the womb, whose "life ought to be cherished and protected." This also includes death-row inmates, each of whom is a human person, a reality "that cannot be erased even by beastly crimes he may have committed."

And this, the archbishop said, includes the new immigrant from Mexico, who "is a child of God, worth the price of the life of God's only begotten son." Thus, the immigrant should be greeted with "honor and a welcome, not a roar of hate, clenched fists and gritted teeth in response to the latest campaign slogan from a candidate appealing to the nativistic side of our nature."

In light of the church's teaching on human dignity, no one's identity depends upon his or her sexual orientation, or race, or religion, gender, social status, bank account, passport or health insurance, Archbishop Dolan said. Thus, he commented:

"To the recovering alcoholic crying in the confessional at St. Patrick's Cathedral, after a two-day binge back in Manhattan, 'I am a hopeless drunk,' we reply, 'No, you are a child of God, made in his likeness, loved passionately and personally by a God who claims you as his own, but who happens to have an addiction to alcohol.'

"To the protesters outside St. Patrick's, who -- disagreeing with the church's defense of traditional marriage -- yell at me, 'I am gay, why do you hate me?' we respond: 'Nice to meet you. As a matter of fact, I love you; you are God's work of art -- the apple of his eye, embraced by a God who passionately loves you -- who happens to have a same-sex attraction."

2. Why Knowing Our Worth Is Important

It is good for us to recognize our own worth, and it is good to help others realize that their lives are valuable. People need to know definitively that it is good that they exist, according to Pope Benedict XVI.

The pope focused on these points in part of his annual speech to the Roman Curia, given Dec. 22. He asked, "Where does [joy] come from?" He responded that "there are many factors at work" when joy is given birth. But he said that "the crucial one" in his view is found in the "certainty" that "I am wanted; I have a task in history; I am accepted; I am loved."

The point the pope made is that people only can accept themselves when they are certain they are accepted by another. He observed that "this sense of being accepted comes in the first instance from other human beings." However, the problem is that "all human acceptance is fragile."

What ultimately is needed is "a sense of being accepted unconditionally," Pope Benedict said. And "only if God accepts me and I become convinced of this do I know definitively [that] it is good that I exist; it is good to be a human being."

The pope suggested that when the sense of being worthwhile in God's eyes is lost broadly within society, "then there is no longer any answer to the question whether to be a human being is good at all." And the pope commented:

"When doubt over God becomes prevalent, then doubt over humanity follows inevitably. We see today how widely this doubt is spreading. We see it in the joylessness, in the inner sadness that can be read on so many human faces."

Faith, said the pope, is a source of happiness "from deep within" because it gives people "the conviction" that it is good that they exist, that "it is good to be a human being, even in hard times."

In his homily for the 2011 Midnight Mass at St. Peter's Basilica, Pope Benedict made some similar points in accenting Christmas as "an epiphany" in which "the kindness and love" of the saving God were revealed.

There were those in ancient times "whose response to the terrors and contradictions of the world was to fear that God himself might not be good either, that he too might well be cruel and arbitrary," according to the pope. Against that background, he said the real epiphany of Christmas is that "God is pure goodness."

3. Christmas Revisited: Every Person's Value

"Love means to become myself completely," Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle said in a Dec. 22 column reflecting on the meaning of Christmas. "We know intuitively, from the tips of our toes to the tops of our heads, that ultimately everything is about love" and that "nothing else will fulfill us or make us whole," he wrote.

He described love as the "deepest expression" of who people are, and he stressed hat "we ourselves are expressions of God's love" and "proofs that God is love."

At the same time, Archbishop Sartain offered this observation:

"Every once in a while, we might wonder, 'I know God's love is great and I believe that he sent his Son among us as Savior. But does God have enough love left for me?"

The archbishop recalled something said in the 12th century by a French monk, William of St. Thierry, who "composed a prayer that captures the meaning of Christmas: "[O God], you first loved us so that we might love you - not because you needed our love, but because we could not be what you created us to be except by loving you."

If love originated in human beings, "it would indeed be finite, and we would have reason to fear that there would not be enough to go around," Archbishop Sartain said. However, he concluded, "because all love has its origin in God, the only limit is set by our selfishness."

God, who "loves us into life at every moment," sent his Son on the first Christmas so that "our love might expand in him and so that we might know from the tips of our toes to the tops or our heads that we are loved by him," Archbishop Sartain wrote. He said:

"Prophets and angels made it very clear that the Savior has come for 'us.'"

4. Quotes to Ponder on Human Dignity

Human Dignity, Basic to the Common Good: "The principle of the common good requires that the essential dignity of every human life is upheld because our life is not our property to dispose of but a gift to treasure. When this principle is abandoned, then a zero has been introduced into the calculation of the common good." (From a March 2010 statement on the common good by the Catholic bishops of England and Wales)

Marveling at Life: "Taking time to be with others -- holding a newborn baby and marveling at the miracle of life, having coffee with a friend, taking time to be with someone in the cancer ward or prison cell -- such fundamental encounters can be a reminder of the dignity and sacredness of the human person." (From a May 2011 pastoral letter by Canadian Bishop Donald Bolen of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on how Catholics can communicate Christian hope)

World of Compassion, World of Human Dignity: "As Catholics who are pro-life from conception to natural death, we concern ourselves with all issues that have a bearing on the dignity of human life, we promote justice for the oppressed and -- moved to compassion -- we cross the road to serve our neighbor even when it is unpopular or uncomfortable." (From an April 2010 column by Bishop Joseph Galante of Camden, N.J., in the diocese's newspaper, the Catholic Star Herald)

The Dignity of Those Whose Beliefs Are Different: "We recognize that people of other religious traditions and also people who do not share a belief in God also face criticism and bias in the larger society for their beliefs. It is the duty of the church to urge all people of good will to avoid all forms of religious bigotry, bias and hateful words that injure the dignity of persons and disrespect their religious convictions. We remain firmly committed to the defense of religious liberty for all -- not just for Catholics -- because our commitment is based on our concern for the dignity of each and every human person." (From March 2011 testimony by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, during a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the civil rights of American Muslims)

Workplaces and Human Dignity: "By virtue of human dignity, all persons have a right to a safe work environment and one in which unsafe conditions can be reported without fear of blacklisting or loss of one's job. Workers have a right to a living wage and to reasonable work hours. The church has long recognized and supported workers' rights to organize. In the coalfields such organization has had measurable benefits in terms of safety." (From a May 2010 pastoral letter on mine safety by Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, W. Va.)

5. Protecting the Environment, Protecting Human Dignity

Protecting the environment is linked with protecting human dignity and life, including the lives of children inside and outside the womb, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, discussed these concerns in Nov. 7 remarks to the interfaith Festival of Faiths conference in Louisville, Ky.

Policymakers should be urged in discussions of the environment to move beyond a "cost-benefit analysis and consider the common good," Bishop Blaire said. He commented on the role people of faith might play in discussions of the environment:

"As people of faith we bring a moral voice to often contentious debates about environmental concerns such as air pollution. Those debates frequently focus solely on costs and benefits. People of faith bring a unique and important message: about the care of God's gift of creation, about those most vulnerable to environmental injustice -- those on the margins of our societies and those with fewest resources to protect themselves or advocate on their own behalf."

It has become "common knowledge, although denied by some, that excess greenhouse gases -- primarily from the burning of fossil fuels -- are seriously impacting our climate with significant consequences for humanity," he said.

An effort under way in the Stockton Diocese links "environmental justice to our consistently pro-life concerns," Bishop Blaire said. "We remind Catholics in our parishes that the protection of the environment is vital, as it is the envelope in which all life is contained."

Air pollution, notably its effects on children's health, was a special focus of the bishop's presentation. "It is hard," he said, "to imagine a situation that so clearly illustrates this link between the environment and life issues as the impact of mercury and other toxic air pollution on children's health."

The bishop explained that "children, inside and outside the womb, are uniquely vulnerable to environmental hazards and exposure to toxic pollutants in the environment. Their bodies, behaviors and size leave them more exposed than adults to such health hazards."

Bishop Blaire's comments on children echoed concerns he expressed last June in a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. His letter said that the U.S. bishops' "general support for a national standard to reduce hazardous air pollution from power plants is guided by Catholic teaching, which calls us to care for God's creation and protect the common good and the life and dignity of human persons, especially the poor and vulnerable, from conception until natural death."

It is well know, the bishop said, that "power plants are the largest source of mercury and other toxic air pollution" in the U.S. But "in addition to mercury and arsenic, power plants emit lead, other heavy metals, dioxins and acid gases."

And "it is reported that even in small amounts these harmful air pollutants in the environment are linked to health problems, particularly in children before and after birth, the poor and the elderly," said Bishop Blaire. He added that "these problems apparently include asthma, cancer, heart disease, learning disabilities, brain damage and other illnesses that adversely affect childhood development."

The bishop's letter insisted that "poor and vulnerable people and their communities must not be asked to bear a disproportionate share of the effects of toxic air pollution."

In his Louisville speech, Bishop Blaire said scientists hold "that mercury from power plants is contaminating our lakes, streams, rivers and fish. This is of great concern for pregnant women and their unborn and newborn children, since mercury exposure can interfere with children's developing nervous systems, impairing their ability to think and learn."

He said that according to reports, this means that as many as "one in six babies are now born with harmful levels of mercury in their blood." (Bishop Blaire's Louisville address appeared in Origins, CNS Documentary Service, the edition dated Dec. 29, 2011)

6. Pope Benedict: The Environment and Life

The environment was a concern addressed by Pope Benedict XVI in the apostolic exhortation titled "The Commitment of Africa" that he signed in Benin Nov. 19 during a visit to the African nation. (See the Dec. 1 edition of this newsletter for a report on the apostolic exhortation.)

"Some businessmen and women, governments and financial groups are involved in programs of exploitation that pollute the environment and cause unprecedented desertification," the pope observed. In this way, he said, "serious damage is done to nature, to the forests, to flora and fauna, and countless species risk extinction."

He added that "all of this threatens the entire ecosystem and consequently the survival of humanity." He called upon the church in Africa "to encourage political leaders to protect such fundamental goods as land and water for the human life of present and future generations, and for peace between peoples."

The exploitation of the earth's resources for the human gain of only a few was a concern for the pope. He asked all members of the church "to work and speak out in favor of an economy that cares for the poor and is resolutely opposed to an unjust order which, under the pretext of reducing poverty, has often helped to aggravate it."

God gave Africa "important natural resources," Pope Benedict noted. Yet, the continent's people suffer chronic poverty due to "the effects of exploitation and embezzlement of funds both locally and abroad." All the while, "the opulence of certain groups shocks the human conscience," he said.

Certain groups -- "organized for the creation of wealth in their homelands, and not infrequently with the complicity of those in power in Africa" - seek to "ensure their own prosperity at the expense of the well-being of the local population," Pope Benedict said. He urged the church, acting in concert with civil society, to speak out against this kind of exploitation.

7. Southwest Bishop Reflects on His Local Church

If the faith is to be handed on to future generations, certain things are "key," Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M., said in a recent reflection on his three decades as the diocese's first bishop. The bishop, who turned 75 in September, said:

"We must provide a worship experience that is beautiful and engaging. The music and preaching have to be good. Our preaching lacks a lot! We need to enhance preaching in our seminaries and among ordained priests. We can't be mediocre in anything."

Bishop Ramirez's reflection, posted on the diocesan website, said there were times after he first arrived in Las Cruces in 1982 when he thought he "would have to give this diocese back to the pope." For, in those early days "we weren't getting the vocations, we didn't have money and we didn't have enough priests."

Yet, "somehow, the prayers of the people and their deep faith brought us to a point where we knew we would survive," he said. And today "we are a unique local church that has its own identity, its own gifts and its own challenges."

Bishop Ramirez said he is "amazed by the generosity that continues in our church. Despite all the events that have occurred in recent years, people are in love with the church. People are generous with the church."

He noted that "more and more people want to be involved in ministries, more men want to be permanent deacons and many dedicated lay people are providing Catholic ministry in prisons and hospitals." The bishop said he sees "more young people interested in their faith and attracted to ministries."

Moreover, the bishop said he is "inspired by people's love of the liturgy. People want to sing in the choirs. The more they know of the liturgy, the more engaged they become" in it.

The need to care for immigrants was accented by Bishop Ramirez. He said, "They are so strong in their faith and come with hopes and dreams. The first place they go is the church because that makes them feel at home. The church has to welcome and involve them."

Bishop Ramirez is known as a defender of immigrants in the U.S. In a Sept. 10 speech to a conference on justice and peace sponsored by the Diocese of Arlington, Va., Bishop Ramirez insisted that "we simply have to do a better job of educating our communities to be more embracing of those who are different." He suggested that --

"Within a parish, for example, those who always attend Mass in English may want to meet with those who attend Mass in Spanish or some other language. Among parishes, a parish made up mostly of Euro-Americans could twin with a Latino parish, plan and have evenings or retreats together, to exchange their stories."

Bishop Ramirez's topic in his September speech was religious freedom. However, he tied church teaching on religious freedom to respect for human differences of various kinds. "Religious liberty calls us to a renewed respect not only for religious differences but also for racial, ethnic, cultural, ideological and political differences," he said.

Cautioning that "presently, the ugly face of racism and intolerance of differences has shown itself" more greatly, the bishop said:

"Among those who suffer discrimination and intolerance are immigrants to our land. We Americans hold as a national tradition the virtue of hospitality and welcoming the stranger. As the history of salvation unfolds in sacred Scripture, when hospitality is offered wonderful things happen. In fact salvation history begins with the hospitality of Abraham."