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Vatican II’s Confusing Counsel on Conscience and Human Dignity

The Dubious Consciousness of Contemporary Man

The modern doctrine on the dignitatis humanae, or dignity of man, has encouraged and even ensured the laïcité, or secularization of the political sphere. The Second Vatican Council’s Dignatis Humanae at first approaches this doctrine in a descriptive manner, noting that “[a] sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty.” Dignity, the document goes on to suggest, demands that the powers of government do not encroach upon the rightful freedom of persons and associations. Dignity, therefore, demands constitutional limits, and other laws ensuring freedom — particularly the free quest for “values proper to the human spirit.”

By the end of its very first paragraph, however, Dignitatis Humanae moves from description to condoning: “This Vatican Council takes careful note of these desires in the minds of men. It proposes to declare them to be greatly in accord with truth and justice.” The Council, Dignitatis proclaims, will search “sacred tradition” and doctrine to bring forth things that will harmonize the Church with this developing consciousness of human dignity. We shall see that this attempt at harmonization has left the Church with only a hull of that deep dignity that the rational, political, and eternal nature of man demands. Man has crippled himself through this modern consciousness and is now kept barely alive in a field hospital of the secular state. Treatment after treatment has only worsened the illness. The Church must again proclaim a definition of man that does justice to human dignity, which in large part means giving God His due.

Dignitatis Humanae and the Divine Revelation of Dignity

When Dignitatis Humanae searches the treasury of the Church, it seems to find little that accords with “contemporary man’s” sense of human dignity. The document argues that human dignity is known “through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.” Human beings have dignity, it goes on, because they “are endowed with reason and free will,” capacities that obligate the search for truth. But, and here Dignitatis proffers premises straight from the dense pages of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, men cannot undertake the search “in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom.” Thus, again, we see an intrinsic link between dignity and liberty. As yet, however, though we have been given a tacit Kantian emphasis on self-determination, we have not been shown with any clarity the link between sacred tradition and doctrine and contemporary man’s sense of human dignity. In addition, we learn that the demands that have developed on account of the “the dignity of the human person … are fully known to human reason through centuries of experience.”

Importantly, Dignitatis goes on to insist that the “doctrine of freedom has roots in divine revelation.” In the very next sentence, though, we read that “[r]evelation does not indeed affirm in so many words the right of man to immunity from external coercion in matters religious,” but it does “disclose the dignity of the human person in its full dimensions.” This disclosure takes the form of Christ’s respect for the freedom with which mankind must come to belief in God.

At last, then, the document gives us divine revelation’s full disclosure of the dignity of the human person. First, one of Catholic doctrine’s major tenets is that man’s response to God must be reasonable and free. Second, Christ came in meekness, refusing “to be a political messiah, ruling by force.” Finally, his apostles strove to convert not by coercion, but through the power of the word of God.

Considering all of this, in supporting “the principle of religious freedom as befitting the dignity of man,” the Church is merely being faithful “to the truth of the Gospel.” At this point in the document, the authors seem to make a dubious claim concerning the consonance between the deepening consciousness of contemporary man and divine revelation. For, because “the leaven of the Gospel has long been about its quiet work in the minds of men … to it is due in great measure the fact that … in the course of time men have come more widely to recognize their dignity as persons, and the conviction has grown stronger that the person in society is to be kept free from all manner of coercion in matters religious.”

Contemporary Dignity, Kantian Conscience

It is most correct to trace the origins of “contemporary dignity” not to the leaven of the Gospel, but to the Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant. Pierre Manent, in his A World Beyond Politics?, writes, “If for Thomas Aquinas human dignity consists in freely obeying the natural and divine law, for Kant it consists in obeying the law that human beings give to themselves.” The Catholic tradition, then, argues that any human dignity that exists comes as given, as gift, from God — for only God is capable of granting them power to follow their own counsel. For Kant, “the difference is both radical and subtle, to be human is a dignity.” Kant famously taught that human beings can never be instrumentalized, which is to say we can never treat another human person as means to accomplish an aim outside of or beyond that person. A human person, Kant claims, is an end in and of himself. Humanity “alone has dignity,” Kant contends, because humanity alone is capable of autonomy — the ability to choose our own actions. In other words, for Kant, humans have dignity not because they are made in God’s image, but because they are incarnations of autonomy.

For Kant, as for Dignitatis, a person’s dignity is manifest only insofar as that person is self-determining; he must be independent of the mere natural causal order. This Kant names negative freedom. In addition, one has dignity only insofar as he is his own master; only when the will is a law unto itself is it self-determining. In a remarkable passage Kant, writes that when, in freedom, man determines his own moral ideals, we can see that “a human being is indeed unholy enough but the humanity in his person must be holy to him.” Dignity easily devolves into deification.

The Dumb Ox’s Dignity

Although St. Thomas Aquinas is careful to qualify Boethius’s definition of “person,” he agrees with the latter’s definition of a person as “an individual substance of a rational nature.” By nature, a person has powers of intellect, self-movement, and choice. According to this initial definition, then, though we can make real and important distinctions between the two, Aquinas’s rational person is not incongruous with Kant’s exploration of the nature of human dignity.

However, Aquinas does not stop here, and what he adds to this initial definition of human nature places the Catholic understanding of the person out of Kant’s reach — and into the hands of God. He writes, “Now it is manifest that in man there is some likeness to God, copied from God as from an exemplar; yet this likeness is not one of equality, for such an exemplar infinitely excels its copy. Therefore there is in man a likeness to God; not, indeed, a perfect likeness, but imperfect.” Man does not have dignity as man. We might say man has dignity as imago Dei, but, as Aquinas’s exigencies enunciate, this is not a cause for gloating, as the likeness is imperfect to the point that God’s nature infinitely excels ours.

We find other contingencies. For Kant, man’s dignity depends upon his autonomy and self-determination. For Aquinas, man’s dignity depends upon his telos, his natural end, which is union with God. It is in this end, not in his self-mastery, that human dignity finds its fulfillment.

Gaudium’s Corrective?

Under the heading “The Dignity of Man,” Gaudium et Spes strives to root human dignity in God, noting that “man was created ‘to the image of God’” and thus “is capable of knowing and loving his Creator.” Gaudium et Spes goes even farther, insisting that “[t]he Church holds that the recognition of God is in no way hostile to man’s dignity, since this dignity is rooted and perfected in God. For man was made an intelligent and free member of society by God Who created him, but even more important, he is called as a son to commune with God and share in His happiness.” Indeed, the pastoral constitution makes an even bolder proclamation, one that at first glance seems to be a direct repudiation of Kant’s conception of dignity: “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience.”

Whereas Kant’s man’s dignity necessitates only that he obey laws he himself authors, the conscience in the heart of man is “a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.” Here again Gaudium et Spes seems to make important strides in distinguishing Catholic dignity from the dignity of “contemporary man,” which finds its most intelligible expression in Kant. To obey God is the very dignity of man.

Regrettably, this would be a misreading. What the pastoral constitution says is that the dignity of man is found in obedience to conscience. This distinction may seem minor, but upon it we see drawn a rift that has torn the Church from within.

Modernism’s Bad Faith in Man’s Conscience

If we search for other uses of the word “conscience” in Gaudium et Spes, a number of instances would seem to be occasion for grave concern. Consider the following:

In the conscience of many arises an increasing concern that the rights of minorities be recognized, without any neglect for their duties toward the political community. In addition, there is a steadily growing respect for men of other opinions or other religions.

And elsewhere, in regard to war:

Man’s conscience itself gives ever more emphatic voice to these principles …

As in the first paragraph of Dignitatis Humanae, the voice sounds somewhat descriptive, as though the constitution is simply documenting the shifting opinions of the times in which it was written. Yet there is no subsequent language that distinguishes this description from the Church’s own proclamation on the matter. For this reason, it would be easily to read the passage as applauding such a “development of conscience.” Further, here we see the curious use of the singular “conscience of many.” The ambiguous, sometimes painfully dubious language of Dignitatis casts back upon the far more lucid language of Pope St. Pius X’s Pascendi, in which he writes that for the Modernists, the Church is “the product of the collective conscience, that is to say of the society of individual consciences which by virtue of the principle of vital permanence, all depend on one first believer, who for Catholics is Christ.” The passage from Gaudium, appealing to the singular “conscience of many,” seems similar to the Modernist collective conscience. Elsewhere, Pope St. Pius X clarifies that for the Modernists, “[a]ll Christian consciences were, they affirm, in a manner virtually included in the conscience of Christ as the plant is included in the seed.” The Modernist remaking of Christ, then, elevates the importance of His conscience, and, by extension, the consciences of Christians. This increase in the value of interior conscience has stunning ramifications for the external magisterium, which, for the Modernist, springs “from the individual consciences and possesses its mandate of public utility for their benefit.” From this premise “it follows that the ecclesiastical magisterium must be subordinate to them, and should therefore take democratic forms.” Indeed, were the magisterium to “prevent individual consciences from revealing freely and openly the impulses they feel,” or to protect dogmas from their “necessary evolution” — such would be, for the Modernist, a grave abuse of power.

Although, then, Gaudium et Spes does root its understanding of conscience in the law of God written on the human heart, it nonetheless includes indefinite passages on conscience that leave abundant room for Modernist interpretations. Further, in positing the very dignity of man in his conscience, the constitution offers a reductive analysis of the dignity of man. Yes, elsewhere Gaudium says, “The root reason for human dignity lies in man’s call to communion with God,” but it would be easy to conclude, based on the tenor and tenets of the constitution, that this communion comes through conscience above all else, or at least to the neglect of submission to external laws formed by right reason and due obedience to the magisterium.

In Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Pope St. Pius X observes that for the Modernist, “every phenomenon of conscience proceeds from man as man. The rigorous conclusion from this is the identity of man with God.”

I do not wish to contend that the understanding of the dignity of man and the attendant understanding of conscience that the aforementioned Vatican II documents include are outright collusions with Modernism. It is clear, however, that these documents contain stunning points of continuity with both Kantian and Modernist doctrines. It seems, in fact, that at the very least, the aforementioned documents of the Second Vatican Council give evidence of a certain capitulation to the trends of Kantianism and Modernism, which have as their end an atheistic humanism.


Religious Freedom Dignified

St. Thomas’s delineation of the dignity of man does justice to the human person as God created him. For man is an image whose Exemplar ever enunciates the fact that man’s dignity is contingent upon his submission to rightly ordered civil laws as well as the magisterium of the Church, through whom he will find salvation. Remember that, for Aquinas, human dignity consists of man’s intellectual nature; his ability to choose; and his final end, which is union with God. Out of the first two parts we can deduce that, in addition to conscience, man’s dignity can be fulfilled only insofar as he can promulgate and obey laws in accordance with both reason and the eternal law. In this way, the limited dignity man can enact in the limited sphere of “religious freedom” as outlined in Dignitatis Humanae is made clear. For, as Pope Leo XIII wrote in Libertas Humana, “The true liberty of human society does not consist in every man doing what he pleases, for this would simply end in turmoil and confusion, and bring on the overthrow of the State: but rather in this, that through the injunctions of the civil law all may more easily conform to the prescriptions of the eternal law.”

In practice if not in proclamation, “contemporary man’s” consciousness of his own dignity has led him to identify Man, on the throne of the Secular State, as Emperor of the Earth.

Desperate and embarrassed efforts to preserve religious freedom may indeed result in some practical goods, even in civil laws, which accord with the eternal. But a hermeneutic of continuity that searches the Church’s magisterium over the centuries provides us with the only relation between Church and State that will ensure both the kingship of Christ and the dignity of man. Pope St. Pius X makes this clear in his encyclical Vehementer Nos, where he indicates that the separation of State and Church is not a prerequisite for human dignity. “That the State must be separated from the Church” is “absolutely false, a most pernicious error.” Pope St. Pius X knows not to hope that men of good will might be able to preserve human society with laws that they dictate to themselves in full freedom. He shows us that “the principle that the State must not recognize any religious cult” is “guilty of a great injustice to God; for the Creator of man is also the Founder of human societies, and preserves their existence as He preserves our own.” God, not Man, is the Founder of human societies, and thus — and are we not witnessing this in our times? — the State that tries to preserve itself by its own pretentions to self-derived authority and power inevitably contains the seeds of its own poisonous flowering.

Further, this “obvious negation of the supernatural order” strips man of his deepest dignity, whatever the consciousness of contemporary man may claim. For subjection of the Church to the State, the seemingly inevitable result of the aforementioned separation, “limits the action of the State to the pursuit of public prosperity during this life only.” In place of “eternal happiness,” which is man’s ultimate object, and the only destiny that grants him true dignity, the separated State limits its action “to the pursuit of public prosperity during this life only.”

Beyond Conscientious Autonomy: Catholic Dignity’s Dues to God

Modern man’s consciousness calls out for a human dignity that requires autonomous self-determination, demands obedience only to those laws man himself freely authors, and insists upon the supremacy of conscience. None of this changes the fact that Christ is our King. As Pope St. Pius X writes, this means that “we owe Him, therefore, not only a private cult, but a public and social worship to honor Him.” Preparations for the restored kingship of Christ will undoubtedly be many years, decades, perhaps even centuries in the making. In the meantime, we cannot deny that the Second Vatican Council’s attempt to “brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old” resulted in the burial of demanding yet dignifying old things in the face of the dubious new.

It can be distracting to speak of things merely in terms of old and new. Perhaps it is best to speak of what is true. Countenancing a Roman Empire that would have relished his retreat into private worship in the freedom of his own self-determined domus, St. Paul announced the truth that “[t]here is no power but from God” (Romans 13:1). We must not be afraid to teach and to persuade that “all public power must proceed from God.” With Pope Leo XIII, we must remember and reclaim the recognition that “God alone is the true and supreme Lord of the World. Everything without exception must be subject to Him, and must serve Him, so that whosoever holds the right to govern, holds it from one sole and single source, namely, God.”

This may be an affront to the consciousness of modern man, grating, as it does, against the primacy of conscience and the dignity of self-determination. Yet can we continue to rest satisfied with the relativism that has only increased since the Church strove to harmonize itself with contemporary man and his dignified demand for religious freedom? For although Dignitatis Humanae’s protections of man’s singularly contemporary dignity were purportedly designed to foster his free pursuit of truth, in practice, the social order premised upon this dignity has put such a search, so to speak, in parentheses. How, in good conscience, can we continue to dignify modern consciousness’s deliverance of man from the purportedly coercive power of God’s magisterium?

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