Infinite Dignity

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is often called Good Shepherd Sunday. The gospel reading in each of the three lectionary cycles is taken from Chapter 10 of John wherein Jesus refers to himself as the good shepherd.

“I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

We are familiar with these words which we hold with deep reverence and awe, coming as they are from the divine lips of the Lord. But if these words were uttered by someone else, we would think him insane. What man would exchange his life for an animal’s? Yet come to think of it, such insanity is infinitely greater in the case of God who dies for man, a mere creature of his and so sinful at that. Indeed, what greater madness is there than this? What drives God to such extreme madness?

St. Paul gives an answer, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Rm 5:8) That is how God is so madly in love with us! As St. John puts it, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” (Jn 3:16)

Two weeks ago, the Vatican published a document on human dignity, entitled Dignitas Infinita (Infinite Dignity). As the world commemorates the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the Church reaffirms her own conviction on human rights and articulates their foundation from the perspective of Revelation.

Human rights flow from human dignity. Human dignity is not only great but infinite. It is as infinite as God himself, who is its foundation. “The Church… proclaim[s] anew its conviction that all human beings – created by God and redeemed by Christ – must be recognized and treated with respect and love due to their inalienable dignity.” (Dignitas Infinita, 2)

Therein lies the foundation of human dignity. Man is created in the image and likeness of God. Thus, man is always precious in God’s eyes – so infinitely precious that when man was lost, God redeemed him with the blood of his own Son.

The document provides an excellent catechesis on human dignity. Because of the varied interpretations of human dignity and the many confusions and contradictions they cause, the document recognizes the possibility of a fourfold distinction of the concept of dignity, namely, ontological dignity, moral dignity, social dignity, and existential dignity.

Ontological (big word, but don’t mind it) dignity refers to what “belongs to the person as such simply because he or she exists and is willed, created, and loved by God. Ontological dignity is indelible and remains valid beyond any circumstances in which the person may find themselves.” (DI, 7)

Moral dignity refers to how people exercise freedom. A person who misuses his freedom and becomes so depraved by his unspeakable crimes can make us wonder whether there is still a trace of humanity and dignity left in him. Extra-judicial killings and operation Tokhang are justified by this kind of thinking. While a person can lose his moral dignity altogether, he can never lose his ontological dignity. Don’t be scandalized if I say that God loves Hitler just as much as he loves you and me. That is why “God does not take any pleasure in the death of the wicked… but rather that he would turn from his ways and live.” (Ez 18:23)

Social dignity refers to the quality of a person’s living conditions. While adverse situations, like extreme poverty, may force a person to live an undignified life, his ontological dignity as a child of God is never lost in him. Hence, the Church’s preferential love for the poor and the marginalized.

Existential dignity refers to the ever-increasing discussion about a “dignified” life and one that is “not dignified.” One of our workers vehemently defied the doctors when they advised his wife to abort her child who was doomed to be grossly abnormal if brought to birth. She did give birth to a diminutive twisted body of a child who is mute and blind. The parents did not regret their decision. They lavish their child with special love for they see behind his physical deformity his ontological value and dignity. It is this light that we deal with difficult situations and issues like serious illnesses, euthanasia, old age, violent family environments, pathological addictions, etc.

Among many other issues, the document also takes the opportunity to make clear the Church’s teaching on gender theory. The Church wishes, first of all, “to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence. For this reason, it should be denounced as contrary to human dignity the fact that, in some places, not a few people are imprisoned, tortured, and even deprived of the good of life solely because of their sexual orientation.” (DI, 55)

At the same time, the Church reiterates “that human life in all its dimensions, both physical and spiritual, is a gift from God. This gift is to be accepted with gratitude and placed at the service of the good. Desiring a personal self-determination, as gender theory prescribes, apart from this fundamental truth that human life is a gift, amounts to a concession to the age-old temptation to make oneself God, entering into competition with the true God of love revealed to us in the Gospel.” (DI, 57)

Whatever our situation and condition may be, we are always precious in God’s eyes for he sees in us his own image. It is for this reason why God sent his only Son to shepherd us and to lay down his life for our salvation.

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