Human Dignity and the Catholic Justices





It’s becoming clearer than ever that allowing God to enter the civic realm is causing a lot of trouble. The separation of church and state has been violated so much that now the President talks about our nation’s “soul” (nation states may have a social context or climate—a climate of injustice—but that does not constitute a soul). Furthermore, our Catholic Supreme Court Justices now seem intent on obeying their version of God’s laws rather than our Civic laws.


Let’s not forget the reason for the separation of church and state. It was to prevent religious wars. Follow whatever religious doctrine you want, but do not use civic laws to force others to agree with you. When our government in the 1950’s defined the fight against Communism as a religious war instead of a conflict between capitalism and socialism, our civic space was compromised. And it’s been downhill from there. The civic realm may be “all too human,” as some lament, but bringing God to the rescue has only made things worse.

This does not mean that religious beliefs cannot be a source of what it means to be human or what we should share. It simply means that a civic view of the human is not bound to some religious ideology although it may be informed by several of them. Because the civic is not created or maintained by the gods, their representatives should not rule the civic, but they may bring enlightenment to the civic. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, believed as a Christian that we are all God’s children, but he did not lead a new Christian movement; he led a civil rights movement.


The title of King’s speech in Memphis in February 1968 was, “All Labor has Dignity.” The background of King’s view of dignity was certainly the Christian religion, but it was also the philosophy of personalism that he studied in graduate school. In any case, the idea of human dignity served as the basis for the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and more recently, has been symbolized by the Lakota woman sculpture in South Dakota. It does seem possible to free the source of dignity from religious beliefs and to ground it in our humanity.


I propose that we can do this. In Chapter 8 on “Our Humanity” in A Climate of Justice, I locate human dignity in our witness to our purposeful vitality, which the neurobiologist, Antonio Damasio, calls the “core self.” Neurons create maps in the brain that then produce mental images of ourselves as living beings. How could it get better than that?


My guess is that most mothers know this. A new born is a sight to behold. As a father, I also know something about this. (I think some other primates do as well.) When I put on my theological hat, I could see where religious language could help to interpret this experience, but I don’t believe it is necessary. Our experience of our bodies reveals on a very simple level a human dignity that brings enjoyment and needs protection.


What I don’t understand are parents who seem to allow their religious beliefs to get in the way of enjoying and honoring not only their body, but also the body of others. In a free country, they may have the right to do so, but they certainly do not have the right in their civic roles to force others to accept their religious beliefs.


As we all know, the Catholic church has a miserable history of oppressing women with their religious beliefs, and other Western religions are not much better. In any case, we now have a Supreme Court dominated by Catholics who seem to follow their religious beliefs about the place and function of women in the world and deny women their fundamental human dignity.


An important tenet of our democracy is the separation of church and state, which has been violated in multiple ways by different groups, but even more fundamental for a sustainable democracy is the protection of each person’s human dignity.


In the coming election, we will not be able to change the Supreme Court, but we can save our democracy, if we want to.

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