The Degradation of the Human Person

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The Church, the State, and the Degradation of the Human Person

by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken

As Pope Benedict XVI begins his Papacy, he is being very much received as one expected to hold closely to the theology and faith of John Paul II. Much has been made of their close working relationship, and even of their shared experience of the Second World War. To be sure, we know that both of them were profoundly affected by the war, for both of them have centered much of their efforts in critiquing modern society around the violence of the twentieth century, and especially around the quintessential institution of the twentieth century, the modern State.

In recent days, as pundits and scholars have begun taking a second look at Benedict XVI’s earlier work on issues of government and the State, we find, similar to John Paul II, that he is careful to circumscribe the legitimate realm of government, and that the State, as an institution that denies any sovereignty other than itself, whether it be the individual, the Church, or even God, is a fundamental component of the violence and the dehumanization of our time. Benedict writes of "the myth of the divine state" and of the state as "a thing" that is "not the whole of human existence." Such a modest appraisal of the legitimacy of the State has hardly been the dominant theme of our time.

While few Americans are aware of the rise of the State as a unique institution, Europeans have long been preoccupied with it, and in the works of scholars as Diverse as Martin van Creveld, Charles Tilly, and Hendrik Spruyt, we find the repeated theme of the State, built on war, and committed to a mission of positioning itself against all other institutions that may provide a substitute for the State. Whether family, Church, God, or the individual himself, in the modern era, the State is always the ultimate sovereign. It is the State from which families, Churches, and individuals are to receive their autonomy (as a gift of the State), and the State, through its coercive power is always free to revoke such autonomy.

The State does not possess its coercive power by magic, but by the consent and support of human beings who have given up on the individual and on God, and have turned to the State for security and salvation. In John Paul II and in Benedict XVI, however, we find critics of an institution they view as profoundly opposed to the ancient institutions of society which Christian civilization has long been founded upon. But, while their critiques of the State are eloquent, we must also know the objective measure of value in human society. If not the State, what? The objective measure is the individual person.

In 1968, while Soviet tanks were crushing the Czech resistance in Prague, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II was writing his own thoughts on the disaster of the 20th century:

"I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the person. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order. To this disintegration planned at times by atheistic ideologies we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of “recapitulation” of the inviolable mystery of the person."

We find in John Paul II’s "inviolable" human person, the objective measure of justice, and finally, in the central problem of the 20th century: the "pulverization" of the dignity of each human person.

Certainly, the 20th century was even more of a tragedy given the recognition of the individual as the primary unit of society for centuries. Since the decline of the profoundly anti-human Imperial Rome, Christianity, scholasticism, and medieval civilization, through their recognition of the objective nature of natural law, had recognized the individual, as possessing "incomparable worth." In John Paul’s encyclical letter, Evangelium Vitae, we find a recapitulation of Christian theology on this subject, and on its proper application in society. The individual must be the fundamental unit of human society, for, as John Paul II tells us "Man, as the living image of God, is willed by his creator to be ruler and lord" and he goes on to quote Saint Gregory of Nyssa of the ancient Church:

"God made man capable of carrying out his role as king of the earth…Man was created in the image of the One who governs the universe. Everything demonstrates that from the beginning man’s nature was marked by royalty…Man is a king. Created to exercise dominion over the world, he was given likeness to the king of the universe; he is the living image who participates by his dignity in the perfection of the divine archetype."

Centuries later, men like Hegel, Marx, and all their ideological brethren would conclude that it is not individual men, but States, nations, and governments, that participate "in the perfection of the divine archetype." In fact, Hegel more or less says exactly this. And today, every time a government offers some kind of new paradise, whether it be some workers’ paradise or some end to injustice through democracy, the outcome will always be the same, the denial of the fundamental lordship of the individual in the name of utopia.

In the analysis of this lordship, it must also be recognized, that all individuals share in this fundamentally. As numerous Christian scholars have noted, when man is given dominion over the earth in Genesis, he is not given dominion over other men. This is because, as John Paul II continues, "man is a ruler and lord not only over things but especially over himself." Thus, any State, any man, and indeed any law, that seeks or grants dominion over this divinely granted self-rule, is fundamentally opposed to the natural law.

It is certainly no coincidence, that in classical liberalism, the political system most devoted to the protection of natural rights, we find its most eloquent defenders declaring as Thomas Jefferson did, that "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” The human exercise of free will is essential in the self-rule of which John Paul speaks, and certainly this self-rule must be recognized by maintaining that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are the natural by-product of the just exercise of free will.

First among these is life. Without life, there can be no property, no pursuit of happiness, and certainly no liberty, for if one has been robbed of his one means of exercising his will in the world, how can he have liberty? This was not lost on the Christian theologians who understood that if one is to pursue virtue, he must be free to do so. Control over either mind or body becomes a grave violation, and we find this reasserted in the writings of John Paul: "Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, [or] attempts to coerce the will itself…are infamies indeed."

Looking back to John Paul’s earlier comments on the "inviolable mystery of the person," it is difficult to see how he could come to any other conclusion. The physical human person, his body and his mind, which Gregory of Nyssa tells us is created in a divine image, is inviolable merely by virtue of being a human being, and cannot be coerced, nor can it be treated in any way contrary to the natural law, thus attempts to "coerce the will itself" are listed as deeds worthy of the same condemnation as murder and torture.

Certainly, human history has been an astonishingly long chronicle of violations of the human person and human dignity. Yet perhaps what is more astonishing are those many instances where human dignity has been preserved, whether we look to the development of just war theory, or of international law, or even of the gradual abolition of slavery in Europe during the middle ages. Such efforts were not undertaken by men because they glorified nations or empires, but because they were centered on protecting the natural rights and dignity of human beings.

By the 20th century, though, the philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa, the philosophy of the human being as one who "was given likeness to the king of the universe," had long been dying. John Paul II did not see this as merely a development of the 20th century, but as a larger symptom of modernity. The modern world, characterized primarily by the dominance of ideologies that deify the State, had nevertheless been witness to many great acts of humanity not because of its break with the medieval tradition, but because of the deeply rooted tradition still lingering where men might still be recognized in their participation in the "divine archetype."

The 20th century would see the virtual end of this lingering tradition. We know from John Paul’s repeated questioning of the tragedy of the 20th century, that to him, the central threat to human dignity in our time has not been the ordinary human weakness that has always afflicted men, but the faith and submission given to the machinery of the State placed in opposition to God as the true vehicle of salvation and justice. It has been States and their myriad of eschatological ideologies, after all, that have been the vanguard of creating what John Paul called "the culture of death." It has been States that have employed on a larger scale than ever before, forced abortions, euthanasia, mass murder, total war, nuclear war, torture, executions, and a host of other violations of the human person and human dignity too numerous to name here.

Even the casual observer can see this in the numerous socialist regimes of the 20th century from Berlin to Moscow to Beijing, but let’s not think that such things are merely the sins of a few mad dictators now long dead. It was in America, let us remember, where the ghastly practice of eugenics enjoyed its greatest following at the close of the 19th century. It was in America where the State forcibly sterilized nearly 50,000 human beings, a particularly grotesque way of being violated. Let’s not forget that it was the American democratic State that holds the honor of being the only government to have dropped nuclear weapons on human beings, not once, but twice. And it was the American State that conducted tests like those endured by the Tuskegee sharecroppers. This is not to claim that Americans are in some way more ghoulish than other peoples, but it most certainly serves to illustrate that the State and its human defenders, apologists, and functionaries can destroy human dignity on a grand scale on any continent in any decade.

And this is the century that the Statemongers among us tell us is the century of progress and enlightenment and reason. Owing to the triumph of messianic ideologies of social gospels and what Pope Benedict XVI calls the "do-it-yourself paradise" ushered in by the State, Americans have been taught to believe that society is progressing toward some kind of ever-improving world of equality and freedom. John Paul II found this idea dangerous at best and totalitarian at worst. If human society is progressing so well, why is it that we find nothing in the annals of ancient or medieval history to compare with the atrocities of the 20th century? The concentration camps, the gulags, the wars, the nuclear wastelands, and the mountains of human corpses — where is the enlightenment and the reason? The truth for John Paul was that as the modern world progressed toward the 20th century, Western civilization was actually regressing toward a degradation of the value of the human person. As he said in his letter of 1968, what is needed is a “u2018recapitulation’ of the inviolable mystery of the person." No century has needed this more than the 20th, and we can only hope that the 21st will be quite different. In the end, if the 21st century is to be a century that proffers the sanctity of the individual over the deification of the State, it will be because men and women have rejected the ideologies that made the 20th century a century of death.

This is the mission of all human beings who value natural rights and the free will of men. To hold up the dignity of the human individual against the dehumanizing of the State, to embrace a culture of life and indeed proceed against "every form of tyranny over the mind of man." If we are going to succeed in the recapitulation of the inviolable nature of the individual, it will require a true rejection of the errors of our time, and we may find wisdom in the words of Saint Augustine, speaking in similar circumstances 1600 years ago: "You say the times are troublesome, the times are burdensome, the times are miserable. Live rightly and you will change the times. The times have never hurt anyone. Those who are hurt are human beings; those by whom they are hurt are also human beings. So, change human beings and the times will be changed."

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] is a former lobbyist, an occasional college instructor, and a regular columnist for

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