From Gaudium et spes to Pope Francis: The Unity of Church Teaching on Human Life and Dignity

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, a key document from Vatican II. It is a truly extraordinary document, offering wisdom on a wide-range of subjects. Rereading this week, I was struck by the unity of Catholic moral and social teaching—the way Church teaching on solidarity, social justice, human dignity, the sanctity of human life, and the commitment to the poor are bound together. While this is often associated with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and the consistent life ethic, this recognition of the fundamental link between defending both human life and human dignity is present in Gaudium et spes:

Coming down to practical and particularly urgent consequences, this council lays stress on reverence for man; everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all His life and the means necessary to living it with dignity, so as not to imitate the rich man who had no concern for the poor man Lazarus.

In our times a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception and of actively helping him when he comes across our path, whether he be an old person abandoned by all, a foreign laborer unjustly looked down upon, a refugee, a child born of an unlawful union and wrongly suffering for a sin he did not commit, or a hungry person who disturbs our conscience by recalling the voice of the Lord, “As long as you did it for one of these the least of my brethren, you did it for me” (Matt. 25:40).

Furthermore, 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, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.

Pope Francis has been criticized by some social conservatives for rejecting a culture war approach to issues like abortion and instead placing opposition to abortion within the broader context of pursuing social justice and promoting human rights. But this passage shows that the whole life or seamless garment approach is at the very heart of the faith and the natural response of the Church to injustice in the world.

And this communitarian approach is precisely what is needed today. Men, women, and children are still being bought and sold like inanimate objects; unjust working conditions and the exploitation of workers persist, especially for foreign laborers; loneliness plagues millions of elderly people; and food insecurity remains scandalously high. Abortion kills millions; mass atrocities are committed with impunity; and subhuman living conditions are far too prevalent. For Catholics, the motive for addressing these issues is not enlightened self-interest, but a recognition of universal brotherhood and sisterhood, along with a recognition of the worth and dignity of all. Neither a market mentality nor an obsession with personal autonomy should trump this commitment to human dignity. And indifference to some forms of injustice—whether poverty, abortion, or mass atrocities—due to an ideological commitment to economic, social, or foreign policy libertarianism is inexcusable. There is no small set of nonnegotiable issues or some other shortcut to the hard work of pursuing the common good. Catholics and all people of good will are called to consistently fight for the dignity and flourishing of all. This is Catholic orthodoxy.