The gradations of human dignity: the degradation of vice and the elevation of virtue and grace
Last Sunday I began writing about the dignity of the human person, how it is equal, how it is unequal, how it can never be lost, and in what way it can be diminished or lost.
I explained that fundamental human equality and dignity is found in our rational nature, which makes us to be in the image of God, in which we all share, and which makes us responsible in our relationships to God, ourselves, to others, and to the world around us. This dignity cannot be lost.
Nevertheless, we are personally responsible for what follows upon or what we build upon this fundamental dignity. In this respect we are by no means equal.
First on the natural level there is the dignity of virtue and the degradation of vice.
Through the practice of virtue we learn to use our humanity, shall we say, as it was meant to be used. Once practice produces a firmly established virtuous character we possess the power to use our humanity rightly. That means directing our life, including our interior faculties of imagination and emotion, according to reason and truth, rather than simply following our impulses and passions. Established virtue increases the innate dignity of the human person, making the rational nature to shine forth with a special brilliance.
Contrariwise, vice enslaves a person to one or more disordered passions. The reason is darkened, especially as regards the truth about God and human life, and becomes chained to the service of passion. In the worst cases, the reason is so weakened that a person begins to live more by animal instinct. Vice does not altogether destroy the innate dignity of the person, but it most certainly obscures it. The light of reason is hidden beneath the bushel basket of passion.
To avoid misunderstanding, reason properly speaking is our window on reality; to live by reason means living in the real world. The cold calculating genius, who pursues his own agenda, is akin to the madman in that he does not really live in the real world, but rather refashions whatever small part of the world he can control, to suit his own purposes.
To live in reality a person must have at least some vision of the whole, including God, the Creator of the whole; partial vision, when it is taken for the whole, radically distorts the understanding of reality, cutting the person off from reality.
Because of the inheritance of sin, true natural virtue is nearly impossible to attain, though some people who inherit a good disposition and felicitous circumstances might make some show of it.
There is, however, another level of dignity that belongs to the order of grace, the dignity of the children of God. Here there is the dignity of the baptismal character, the dignity of sanctifying grace (received in baptism), and the dignity of a life of actual faith, hope, and charity, a life of holiness.
In the beginning God created man in his image and likeness. The ‘likeness’ adds to the image, elevates the image, making the man to share in the very life and nature of God. This sharing in the life and nature of God is called sanctifying grace, which was lost to the human race through sin of Adam, won back for us by the death of Christ on the Cross, and given to us personally through faith (at least the faith of the Church and of the parents and godparents) and baptism.
Sanctifying grace can be lost again through sin and regained through confession, but the baptismal character, which marks us as belonging to Christ, can never be lost and, so long as we remain in this life, is a perpetual call to remember the height from which we have fallen and so return to God. (cf. Rev 2:4-5)
As the life of natural virtue makes the light of reason to shine forth in a human life, the life of holiness makes the splendor of reason, raised up to the share the dignity of the children of God, to shine forth.
The baptized Christian who is living in sin, but who still retains the virtues of faith and hope, retains thereby something of the dignity of the children of God. The heretic or apostate has extinguished that light altogether. Even whatever natural virtue he possesses is debased by being turned against Christ.
The supreme dignity of the human person is that of the saints in heaven where star differs from star in glory depending upon the degree of holiness attained during this life. (cf. 1 Cor 15:41) Supreme above the saints is the perfect beauty of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Mother of God.
The dignity of creation in the image of God is a pure gift received that can never be lost; the dignity of sanctifying grace is an incomparably greater gift, but it can be lost; the dignity of heavenly glory is the supreme gift, which can never be lost. Heavenly glory is also the crown of merit, rooted in the gift of grace. Remember: noblesse oblige; dignity brings responsibility; responsibility leads to the true joy of loving service.
Vice diminishes the natural dignity of human nature and mortal sin loses the supernatural dignity of grace. Mortal sin violates and pollutes the temple of God within the soul.
Vice and mortal sin merit punishment, whether in this life or in the next, whether by the judgment of man or of God, whether remedial or eternal.
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