Even prior to his pontificate, John Paul II saw a link in these themes, which he expressed in his poetry and theatrical writings. As George Weigel observed in Witness to Hope, “He was making an important point, ultimately theological in import…your lives, which seem like so many other lives, are in fact caught up in a great drama of sin and redemption. In that drama, human love will yield to the ‘pressure of reality’ and crumble unless it is completed and perfected in being conformed to a Love that is capable of fulfilling love’s longing for absolute fulfillment. The human drama ‘plays’, as it were, within the divine drama, a play of which God himself is both author and protagonist, creator and redeemer.” (Weigel, p. 117).
The definition of human dignity is somewhat complex. The foundation of the dignity of the human person first arises from the fact that he is the only of God’s creations to have been created entirely for Himself. Humanity is created in the very image and likeness of God and was given the great gift of free will; that being the ability to choose to accept or reject the love of God. It is within this power to choose the good that man finds his inherent dignity, and discovers his ability to transcend his own condition and will in favor of a true gift of self to God. However, it is within the dimension of love that this dignity is fully realized and understood. “Human nature, by the very fact that it was assumed, not absorbed, in Him, has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare.” (RH, 8). As humanity was created by love, for love, we find in John Paul II’s writings that it is impossible to comprehend the amazement of humanity without the consideration of the dimension of love and how it is actually love that is the very foundation of human dignity.
In the Garden of Eden, man’s dignity was lost through original sin; that being distrust of God and the willful and conscious rejection of His love. That is not to say that dignity was fully lost; rather, man’s understanding of the meaning of his life was lost and with that, the understanding of his inherent worth and dignity.
One of the defining elements of human dignity is human freedom. In Redemptor hominis , John Paul II declares, “…freedom…is the condition and basis for the human person’s true dignity.” (RH, 12). It is this very freedom, that when abused, undermines dignity for abuse of freedom is a rejection of God’s love and God’s will. John Paul II develops this theme throughout his texts and underscores the idea that sin is, at its foundation, a rupture in the relationship between God and man, which is why it offends man’s dignity. “As a rupture with God, sin is an act of disobedience by a creature who rejects, at least implicitly, the very one from whom he cam and who sustains him in life….Since by sinning man refuses to submit to God, his internal balance is also destroyed and it is precisely within himself that contradictions and conflicts arise.” (RP, 1). Sin has two elements, that being personal and social, and the social arises from the personal as it begins to impact the larger society. John Paul II discusses this at length in Redemptor hominis and how society itself, when it is not working within the boundaries established by God and guided by a moral conscience, ends up in conflict with human life and suppresses man’s realization of himself according to God’s will.
Dignity is inherently linked to moral conscience, for this is what separates man from all other created beings in that it allows him to recognize his sin and thus willingly choose to transcend his disobedience and cooperate with God in the restoration of the relationship that has been ruptured. “The conscience…is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what it evil. Rather there is profoundly imprinted upon it a principle of obedience vis-à-vis the objective norm which establishes and conditions the correspondence of its decisions with the commands and prohibitions which are at the basis of human behavior…” (DeV, 43).
Conscience is a divine gift within man, that voice of God, so to say, in a sense a recognition that if there is a Creator, there is an objective reference in order to determine good from evil.
John Paul II goes into great depth to explain how the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who dwells within man, knows him to his depths and “convinces concerning sin”. He draws the connection to the judgment that has already taken place for the “father of lies”, giving a reference point to this final judgment, while pointing man to what is good and holy. “By becoming the ‘light of hearts’, that is the say the light of consciences, the Holy Spirit ‘convinces concerning sin,’ which is to say, he makes man realize his own evil and at the same time directs him toward what is good.” (DeV, 42). Through this intervention of the Holy Spirit, man learns to call good and evil by their proper names, and thus begins the moral tug of war as man must seek to overcome the evil that disrupts his relationship with God.
In both Redemptor hominis and Dominium et vivificantem, John Paul II discusses the words expressed by St. Paul, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.” (Rom 7:14-16). This constant interior struggle is understood against the entire history of man, with reference to his very origins and linked always to the Cross of Christ. For it is Jesus Christ who, through his sacrifice and perfect obedience who demonstrated the Truth as the living Word, proving the objective norm to which man constantly strives to emulate. This objective norm, lived out on the Cross, provides in full relief the objective evil, leading to conversion, within which man turns from evil and seeks to restore his relationship with God. It is a gift of divine grace, requiring the cooperation of man who, even when convinced of sin, has the freedom to continue to reject God’s love or accept it, and as in the story of the Prodigal Son, return his love in a spirit of humility and repentance. It is here that we see the link to the Cross and how conscience must be linked to redemption. “Christ, precisely as the crucified one, is the word that does not pass away, and he is the one who stands at the door and knocks at the heart of every man, without restricting his freedom, but instead seeking to draw from this very freedom love, which is not only an act of solidarity with the suffering Son of Man, but also a kind of ‘mercy’ shown by each one of us to the Son of the eternal Father.” (DIM, 87).
Mercy is, at its heart, a fundamental concept with regard to moral conscience, redemption, and human dignity. Because it was a severing of the relationship with God at the core of the fall from grace, John Paul II demonstrates that it is mercy that acts to restore that relationship and thus, dignity. It can be further noted that the foundation of mercy is love, for love is the dimension that manifests mercy. In Dives en miseriacordia, this theme is developed in great detail through an exploration of the story of the Prodigal Son. We see how the father, in faithfulness to himself, is focused not on how the son had offended him and squandered his inheritance, but how his son could be restored to him. He was, “…totally concentrated upon the humanity of his lost son, upon his dignity.” (DIM, 57). It was the moral conscience of the Prodigal Son that made him aware of his sin, his offense against his father, and the rupture in their relationship, and as he returned to the father, he appealed to his mercy, somewhat defined as, “…a special power of love, which prevails over the sin and infidelity…” (DIM, 27).
John Paul II further addresses that this concept of mercy may seem to some to be damaging to dignity, however it is quite the contrary for, it is mercy that is the link from moral conscience to redemption. As we become convinced of our sin and aware of the harm caused through our own free will choices, we have the opportunity to approach the Father once again and appeal to His love for us. Just as the father of the prodigal son is faithful to himself, so is God faithful to himself, ready to restore the dignity of his creation. “This love is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin. When this happens, the person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather found again and ‘restored to value’” (DIM, 59).
It is through mercy that we meet the concept of redemption, which is “overcoming evil” (TMA, 7), the ultimate restoration of the dignity of man. The redemption that took place on the Cross redeemed us in an act of supreme justice, in expiation for our sins, for as St. Paul stated so simply, Jesus was “made to be sin, who knew now sin.” (2 Cor: 5:21). John Paul II explains that our redemption does not arise only out of the actions of Jesus Christ, but requires us also to cooperate with God, which itself is the definition of conversion. Just as it was free will that caused the fall from grace, so it is also free will that, choosing consciously to cooperate with God, restores our dignity. None of this can be understood apart from the mystery of the redemption, for it Jesus’ death and resurrection, “by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” (GS, 22). Jesus reveals through love the objective good, revealing our true dignity and calling to holiness in eternal union with the Father. We see, finally, following John Paul II’s thought process, that human dignity is lost through abuse of our freedom, restored through correct understanding of our freedom (moral conscience), and that it cannot be understood without reference to the sacrifice of love through Jesus Christ in the mystery of our Redemption.
Initials followed by a number correspond to the title of a document and the paragraph referenced.
RH, 12, for example, is Redemptor hominis, paragraph 12. I did not link to scriptural passages or references.
DIM: Dives in miseriacordia, Rich in Mercy (Encyclical)
DeV: Dominum et vivicantem, On the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church (Encyclical)
GS: Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, (Vatican II Document, Pastoral Constitution)
RH: Redemptor Hominis, the Redeemer of Man (Encyclical)
RP: Reconciliatio et paenitentia: On Reconciliation and Penance (Apostolic Exhortation)
TIM: Tertio millennio adveniente: As the Third Millennium Draws Near (Apostolic Letter)