Human Dignity and the Occupy Movement (CST & OWS, pt 1)
by MT Dávila
The ability of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) to respond clearly to critical moments in history and offer words of prophetic hope and imagination to address basic threats to life in society hinges on the central principle of the inviolable dignity of every human being. The comprehensive scope of this principle includes the person individually as bearer of the image of God, and in community or corporately as this image is of God understood as triune, in loving communion within itself. Grounded on the Genesis prescription that every person bears the image of God in them, and in the central narrative of the incarnation of God with us in Jesus the Christ, the documents of the Church’s social tradition continually affirm the centrality of the integrity and dignity of the person as God-given and irrevocable by any human action. This means that no condition of birth, social, economic, ethnic, or racial category, difference of creed, status in the journey of life, mental ability, or crime committed alters the condition of the person as child of God and bearer of God’s image to the world.
The state of the integrity of the person from conception to natural death isconsidered to be the measure of any government, economic system, cultural trend, and other forces that strongly affect the destiny of the human family. All the other principles of CST flow from the dignity of the person and whether social conditions threaten or nourish the integrity of the person and the community. When human dignity is threatened in any way the Church feels it is its responsibility to come to the defense of the person and communities, to speak for those things that support human integrity and against dehumanizing conditions:
“All offenses against life itself… all violations of the integrity of the human person…all offenses against human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where men are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons: all these and the like are criminal: they poison civilization… and militate against the honor of the creator.”
Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes – 1965), no. 27
So very many situations around the globe confront us with the reality of dehumanization, conditions and situations that threaten human life at every level. Life is threatened in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the famine in Somalia and other places, where women and children are trafficked, in the U.S./Mexico border where gang life, drugs and unjust immigration policies threaten communities with continued violence and social disintegration. And, yes, life is threatened where greed, unbridled consumption, and the quest for more possessions and money erode the environment, threaten financial systems and our ability to care for the marginalized in our nation, breach the contracts homeowners have made with their lenders, and force entire segments of our population into untenable labor conditions.
The Occupy Movement has been labeled as having no clear goals or set of demands, or no reasonable platform. And yet, theirs is the clamor of those who find life under threat on many fronts. Many of the statements from the general assemblies highlight how the current economic system in which we participate promote unjust financial relationships that are harmful to the environment, encourage a culture of violence to promote our interests, place the majority (99%) in fragile economic positions, threaten our jobs, lift protections from our homes and other sources of generational wealth, and make it almost impossible to be economically responsible for ourselves and those we love and the generations to come. Deeper still, many have reached the realization that these are not simply economic concerns but questions about the core of our human experience and dignity, about who we are as persons and as a society, and whether we value the common good and promote conditions that respect the dignity and integrity of every member of our society and the human family globally. In short, I find that the Occupy movement is promoting a moral re-development program, an awakening to the ways in which the economic practices of the past century violate our ability to relate to ourselves, to others, to our communities, and our world in ways that promote human dignity.
I find the synergy between the Occupy movement and the principles of Catholic Social Teaching promising for promoting the conscientization of Christians in the U.S. into a new social and economic reality that holds human dignity, being and not having (as John Paul II and now Benedict XVI promote in their discussions on capitalism) at the center of all we do. I encourage you to take the reflections that follow in this series as study guides, conversation starters, resources for preaching, or personal meditation to examine the interplay between our nation’s conscience, the Occupy Movement, and the life of Christian discipleship.
MT Dávila is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School. This is the first of a series of ten posts, which currently includes: the Introduction and “Human Dignity and the Occupy Movement.”