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“The dignity of the person must be recognized…”

All human beings once conceived, however close to birth they come before dying because of natural or human interference, are created with the same dignity.

(Image: Liane Metzler/

Editor’s note: The following sermon was given by the late Fr. Schall at the Right to Life Mass at Dalghren Chapel, Georgetown University, January 20, 2009.


“Thy hands made and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn thy commandments.” — Psalm 119:73

The first sentence of Dignitas Personae, the (September 8, 2008) document of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, reads: “The dignity of the person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death.” I might add: this dignity must likewise be recognized in every human being from conception to unnatural death by whatever physical or human agency.

Our dignity begins with what we are; something we do not give ourselves but receive from whatever it is that causes us to be. No one gives himself what he already is in his coming to be. What we are given is completed, on our part, by what we choose to do with what we already are.

On God’s part, as the Creed tells us, our lives are completed by the judgment of “the living and the dead.” Here it is finally set down whether or not each person chooses to live his life in the dignity originally intended for him. Without this latter judgment, no human life is complete for the purpose for which he was created. This purpose was that he should, on living well, receive eternal life at his completion in death in this world.

In an early Peanuts (1952), Charlie Brown is sitting on a stool impatiently listening to Lucy telling him, “And then I dreamed I was climbing a stairway….” In the next scene, she continues: “But I suddenly began to fall….” To this boring information, Charlie complains: “I can’t stand people who tell me their dreams.”

But Lucy is undeterred: “And then before I knew it, I was in this garden….” Charlie frowns: “Why do they always have to go into details?” Finally, Lucy asks: “Do you suppose all that means anything, Charlie Brown?” A disgusted Charlie turns away, with these last incisive metaphysical words: “Absolutely! It means you were asleep.”

From this little scene, I want to take several themes: that of being asleep, that of things that have meaning, and even of dreams that are at best totally unordered in reality, but, as Aristotle said, they are often filled with familiar things.

Let us ask ourselves this evening: “Are we awake to what it means to possess human dignity?” I will sketch two narratives, that, I think, compliment each other. One is a top-down account, and the other is a bottom-up approach. I will conclude these narratives by placing them within the context of what Benedict XVI said in Spe Salvi concerning the phrase of the Creed that reads: “He will come to judge the living and the dead.” Judgment is a theme that we already find in another form in Plato.

The first narrative begins with the citation from Psalm 119. It says, “Thy hands made and fashioned me, give me understanding that I may learn thy commandments.” We did not make or fashion ourselves to be ourselves. What it is to be a human being, to be this particular self, is not itself an object of the human practical intellect, which, with our hands, is the source of our capacity to make things.

The doctor’s craft, as Aristotle says, is limited by what it is to be healthy, something the doctor does not himself constitute but only serves. As doctor, he only aids the body to restore what it is missing. What it is to be healthy and happy, to be complete, does not, as such, fall under the medical craft. but the knowledge and carrying out of our purpose is the most important thing about us.

We are, moreover, given intelligence to know the commandments, to know what we are. Leon Kass gave a lecture the other day on “Why even atheists find the ten commandments useful.” Try to imagine life in a world in which but no one obeys any of the commandments.

What are we then? On the basis of the proposition that human dignity passes from conception to natural death, we recall that even natural death is both a penalty and a blessing to us. Natural death makes possible new generations. It also indicates that, with the fall, we are “born to die,” even though death was not intended from the beginning.

We are not created for this world, though we are created in this world where we are to increase, multiply, and have dominion. From the beginning, however, we were created for a life that is more than human. Deathless life in this world is a curse, not a blessing, as many novelists and scientists have realized and the present pope has emphasized.

What is the scheme and scope of our being in this world as persons with dignity? Historians of population estimate that perhaps a hundred billion human persons have lived on this planet. Some seven billion of us are still alive for a while. Without the dead having gone before us, we would not or could not exist. We know of the vastness of the physical universe and the relative tininess of our planet and of ourselves within it.

But we are not to forget that the remarkable complexity of any of us equals and probably surpasses that of the rest of the universe itself. Chesterton said that we are not to allow mere size to diminish spirit, what it is that makes us unique, our rational nature and soul.

The cosmos, its levels of being, its size, its differing natures—including particularly our own—can itself be confused with its very origin. All pantheists postulate this identity between the world and God. But we suspect that this origin is greater than and apart from what it has caused to be.

What I want to suggest here is that each of the some hundred billion human beings who have in fact existed have done so not as forms or abstractions but as living beings who die. They exist for a purpose. Indeed, their purpose is rather the cause of the universe, not the other way around.

In the beginning there was only God, a Trinitarian God, complete in Himself who did not need any universe, natural, rational, or angelic, to be what He is. The Trinitarian life of God is a complete life. It requires nothing but itself. If anything besides God exists, it does so not because God needed it. God plus the universe does not constitute more God.

Why then is there something rather than nothing, something other than God? This is where we come in. If we know why each human being who ever lived exists, we understand his dignity. We will understand the great Socratic principle that “It is never right to do wrong.” God did not first create a universe, then, on looking the empty property over one fine sidereal day, busied Himself with what best to do with it.

Rather, in the beginning, God decided to associate other free and rational beings, who were not gods, with His inner life. It is for this reason that each rational being exists. The cosmos itself exists so a finite life that is not God might be possible. There is an inner worldly purpose that does not run against the ultimate purpose. Each person exists that he might receive eternal life with god. This purpose is the basis of our dignity. It is also its driving force, the longing that we find inciting us ever on to achieve what in fact is this happiness.

Indeed, it is within this world that we are given the freedom and space to decide what we choose to be. The relative autonomy of the temporal order, the order we know of the polities in this world, is there in order that something beyond it might occur. In this sense, the completion of the dignity of each person is carried out in all times and places where there are human beings, whatever their worldly condition.

Let me now go to the bottom-up consideration. We are all realists enough to know that human life, over the course of its history on earth, is also a vale of tears. The history of our kind, and of our times, is filled with natural and human disasters, with disorders that we cannot help but know. Still, we can ask: “What is the best circumstance in which an actual human person, with this transcendent dignity, should be conceived and born in the world?”

The answer, no doubt, is that each person should be conceived, born, and raised in a family consisting of a man and a woman joined together for life. The document, Dignitas Personae, that I cited above, puts it succinctly:

The human embryo has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person. Respect for that dignity is owed to every human being because each one carries in an indelible way his own dignity and value. The origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and in the family, where it is generated through an act which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman. procreation which is truly responsible vis-à-vis the child to be born ‘must be the fruit of marriage’ (#5-6).

We all know, of course, that this sort of happy birth into a functioning family of man and woman and their children does not always or often happen.

Still, it is worth noting clearly what ought to be. The dignity of the child, of course, remains no matter how it is begotten. Sin is in the sinner, not in its results. One of the great problems in all families and polities is what to do when this natural basis does not in fact function. Often, we know legislation itself promotes this malfunctioning of the family in various ways based on counter assumptions about what the dignity of the person is.

The whole scope of reason and what Christians call charity, in fact, is called into play in order to repair or deal with disorders put into the world in violation of this given dignity. But, as I say, it is worthwhile to know what in is best even if we do not bring it about.

In the context, I want to return to something that I said in the beginning. All human beings once conceived, however close to birth they come before dying because of natural or human interference, are created with the same dignity.

This purpose implies that God’s purpose in creating each of us for eternal life is not as such obviated by the violations and harms imposed to our kind by our own actions in preventing or killing human lives in early stages. Put in other terms, human beings responsible for the killing or maltreatment of other human beings thrust acts into the world that disorder their own souls and terminate or derange the lives of others.

We know that the forgiveness of sins— even the worst ones— is possible. But we also know that the world, with human beings destined for eternal life in it, is created in a justice that includes our acts in respect to ourselves and others. Plato in his great reflection in the Republic reminded us that in no existing political order are all the good things properly rewarded, nor are all the evil things properly punished.

Benedict XVI takes up this theme in Spe Salvi. He is very precise. He addresses the much neglected question of the temporal and eternal punishment due to our sins. In short, God does take His initial intention in creation seriously. He has given us the means and desire to achieve our transcendent end, but only if we freely choose it once offered to us. Our choices are worked out in our relation to others of our kind whose good we are to know and foster. The first principle is “Do no harm,” as the famous oath stated.

In the light of reason and of the graphic insistence of the Church on the dignity of the person from the moment of conception to natural death, it seems evident that the killing of such human beings, that not providing them with the love and home in which they can properly flourish, is a grave violation of the love God intended for each person He has created.

Today, many of us are perplexed almost to the limit that these disorders of soul against our kind continue and indeed are fostered in an ever more sophisticated manner in our politics and culture. Looking at these and other great crimes against our kind, Benedict wanted to know if the world could be complete if what was evil among us were not properly punished. He has the same thought that Plato did, namely, that without the immortality of the soul, most of these crimes would in fact go unpunished and the world would not be just. Then Benedict adds, following two famous Marxist philosophers whom he cites, that the only way the world could be just was if there was a resurrection of the body in which the persons who actually committed the crimes would be judged.

This resurrection of the body, as the Creed indicated, makes possible a judgment of each life in order that that life be complete in its truth. The truth is whether it, having been initially called to eternal life, actually, in its own deeds, chooses what is good. With the help or rejection of grace, was it worthy of that eternal life to which it is called from its beginning?

In other words, as we gather at this Mass, there is something momentous in the realization that human life is transcendent from the moment of its conception. We are responsible for it even to the judgment of our own deeds and the consequences that follow what they are. Let us not be asleep or merely dream about the important things. The commandment is spelled out for us and we are judged by it

To conclude, we read in Hebrews: “Not a creature exists that is hidden from him, but all things lie bare and exposed before the eyes of him with whom we have to reckon” (4:13). We remain sober before the ever growing violations of human dignity of which we here in this place and in this time cannot but be aware.

The careful words of Benedict in Spe Salvi, that the world is also made in justice, stand as both a warning and a consolation to each of us. The pope continues: “Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at the table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened.”

Benedict then, as he often does, cites Plato who “expressed the truth with an unambiguous clarity, saying that in the end souls will stand naked before the judge. It no longer matters what they once were in history, but only what they are in truth.”

“Thy hands made and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn thy commandments.”

“The dignity of the person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death.”

“Not a creature exists that is hidden from him, but all things lie bare and exposed before the eyes of him with whom we have to reckon.”

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).


  1. It’s ironic, but the church did a better job of upholding human dignity back in the day when it wasn’t constantly obsessing about human dignity, but was more focused on the life, death, resurrection, and second coming of Jesus Christ. Funny how that works.

    • “Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at the table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened.” This simply makes sense. It holds me accountable for recognizing the dignity of those among whom I find myself daily; and it gives my life dignity in making my behavior meaningful.

  2. Fr. James Schall explains this subject so well, in such great detail, I might add—and good for that, as it would be the perfect exposition to send to our USA Supreme Court Justices. Now I hope the USA Catholic Bishops will write thus about the recognition of the dignity of the person.

    Furthermore, this would be an excellent informational for high school students as well as marriage preparation for engaged couple.

    Not only should the judiciary receive copies of this wonderful exposition by Fr Schall SJ, but so also should the “catholic” president Biden. Problem is, however, he probably wouldn’t understand it and see enough votes in adopting its principles.

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