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Anton Rauscher

The Christian Roots of Man's Dingnity


From: Kirche in der Welt, Bd. 4, P. 189-197, Würzburg 2006 Echter-Verlag,
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Published in: Ethik der Tugenden. Menschliche Grundhaltungen als unverzichtbarer Bestandteil moralischen Handelns. Festschrift für Joachim Piegsa zum 70. Geburtstag, edited by Clemens Breuer, St. Ottilien 2000, p. 401-408 (Moraltheologische Studien. Systematische Abteilung, volume 26).


What is the human being? This question is asked time and again by all peoples and cultures on the whole world, and it is asked time and again anew. The evidence handed down to us from the early period of mankind suggests that the human beings were aware of their special abilities in comparison with all other living beings, but they were usually not able to articulate, to describe or even to define them, because this presupposes an already broadly developed culture of reflection and writing.

In Europe above all the Greek philosophers dealt with the different stages of being, and - as far as man is concerned - meditated on reason and freedom of will, on existence and morality, and on the cardinal virtues. The knowledge and awareness of man became quite differentiated; the more so as Aristoteles' studies on man as "zoon politikon" threw light on a substantial, i.e. the social dimension and so also on the question of the social structures.

The attention was above all directed to two social areas in which man's life is embedded from the beginning and without which a surviving was unthinkable. In the first place the family is here to be mentioned. It belongs to the prime experiences of each human being. In antique societies it was the extended family. It was basically constituted by the partnership of the parents with their children, but also the grandparents, other relatives, farm servants and farmhands and even the slaves belonged to it. The family enables the development of the individual person and the development of social relations. In the Greek reflection the "oikos", i.e. the house where the family is "at home" is closely connected with the family. In all cultures family and house belong to the social basic experiences, even if their concrete shape and the functions that are to be fulfilled are - in the context of the historical and cultural development - subjected to a permanent change.



The second area of life is the political state government. The organization and order of the social conditions inwardly as well as the protection and security outwardly had to be guaranteed. It's true though that in the classical antiquity the philosophical reflection did not advance to the insight that the human being is a person and an end in itself. That is also the reason why it was so difficult to define the relationship between individual and community, resp. social circles. The view nevertheless early consolidated that moral qualities, social virtues and behaviours and above all standards which are to be kept by everyone are imperative for the living together of people.


I. The Biblical Conception of Man

Unlike to the Greek tradition strands the insights of which can be found also with other peoples, tribes and cultures, the Jewish-Christian inheritance is deeply determined by God's revelation. The roots until today substantiating the Christian understanding of man are found in the Old Testament in the history of creation, which is fully integrated into Jesus' preaching. God creates man as his "image and likeness" (Gen 1:26ff.). Michelangelo's fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel marvellously depicts the tale of Book Genesis: From God the life spark flashes to the first human being, so that Adam opens his eyes and recognizes his Creator, as whose image and likeness he is created.

Man excels the different levels of inorganic and organic beings, of plants and animals. For he is called into existence by God, endowed with reason and liberty and bears responsibility. The anthropology of the Old Testament is reflected in the knowledge of the psalmist that God made man only a little lower than Himself, although the infinite distance between the origin of life and the created man is by no means ideologically covered up. Each human being is an "image of God" and excels all other beings of the world. With it already that reality comes into the field of vision which is meant by the term "dignity"

The privileged position of man in the cosmos must certainly not be interpreted so as if man did not belong to nature and could control and exploit it for his purposes. Carl Amery has interpreted God's order to man, "Be fertile and increase, populate the earth, subject it to you and prevail over the fishes of the sea,



over the birds of the sky, and over all animals that move on earth" in that way. {1} But the Biblical "prevailing" is embedded in man's responsibility before God. Man cannot do as he pleases. He must guard and maintain the earth and give account of the creation entrusted to him. The reproach that Christianity is chiefly to blame for the modern environmental misery should actually be directed against the detachment of political rule from ethics, as it is the basis of Machiavelli's conception that poisoned the political thinking of the modern times. Here man appears as the absolute sovereign who determines the do's and don'ts just to his liking and owes account to nobody.

In exactly the same way it would be problematic to eliminate man's difference to "nature", as it usually happens in times of a trivial naturalism. The divine vital spark is, as it were, faded out, and the mental-moral nature of man in its uniqueness and creativity is denied or understood as threat to nature and to the natural cycles. It is typical for such an attitude that certain terms which basically make only sense with regard to human beings and to the culture developed by them are also used for animals. To speak of "rights" which are due to animals is a grotesque blunder. Here man does no longer want to know who he is.

The life of every human being is - and that is important - also after the Fall of Man under God's protection. When Kain killed his brother Abel it is God Himself who called Kain to account when he evasively answered "Am I the guardian of my brother?" God is the guarantor of the life of every human being and condemns murder as a crime that is crying shame. This report takes however a surprising turn. Kain is moved by the fear that he had incurred revenge now and had become outlawed. But God warns everyone who would like to kill Kain and answers also for the life of the murderer. The life of every human being is in God's hand; it is "holy" and taboo. The Fifth Commandment: "Thou shalt not murder!" belongs to the roots of the Jewish-Christian moral {2} that rejects also suicide as human arrogance against God.



The discovery that man is the "image of God", and has by his mental-moral being a dignity that originates not in this created world, is the foundation of the view that understands human beings as persons {3}. Not mankind or "grand people" are entitled to dignity, as Plato fancied it, but every individual human being. With it any kind of collective interpretation of the human being and of social life is blocked. Every human being has (got) dignity, independent of sex, race, origin, colour, health, financial position. Dignity is also not a theological category, so as if it primarily only applied to the members of the people Israel. On the contrary, the Biblical understanding of man has an original universal dimension, quite in the sense of the natural law that is embodied in the order of creation.

Man's likeness to God is also the reason for the equality of all human beings before God, in order to state a further topos of the Christian conception of man. It is not only about that equality of all before the law that is a precondition for the constitutional state founded on the rule of law. It is rather the equality in being, because all people are called into being as God's image and likeness and have therefore the same dignity, although everyone in his/her own way. The many human beings reflect God's infinity in the finiteness of the created reality.


II. The Social Character of Man

This insight is also connected with the social dimension of man. The Tale of Creation records that God created man as man and woman. With it is expressed that the original community is not simply formed by two human beings but that these two are different in their gender, their talents and abilities, and that they only together realize the tasks and aims assigned to them. Just because people are different they can establish communities where their social dimension unfolds as giving and receiving.



Man is no individual but is created by God as social being. The dignity which every human being owes extends also to the human community, that's why we speak of a "society fit for human beings". With it a society is meant where the dignity of all people and of every individual is ensured. The social dimension does not restrict and limit the freedom of the individual, in order to realize a higher profit, and then to enjoy it. The social dimension means creatively to develop one's freedom in the meeting with others, in the exchange of people with their different abilities and gifts, and in building the human society and culture. That is also the core of the Solidarism, as it has been developed by Heinrich Pesch and deepened by Gustav Gundlach by his conception of the social structures of the human society as a union of persons, and as it became effective in the social teachings of Pius XII. {4}

Why did it last so long until the insight of man as person, of his dignity, fundamental rights and liabilities, of solidarity and the subsidiary character of social life were clearly recognized and got their way in the cultural process of mankind? Even for the great medieval theologians it was not at all so easy to advance to the core of those Christian roots. There is, admittedly, the famous place in Thomas of Aquin's Summa Contra Gentiles according to which the person is the most perfect being in the whole nature. But in the Summa Theologiae the usual conception of the world prevails. It reaches from the Creation as a whole over large communities like cities and families up to the individual human being, which is less seen in its creative freedom and responsibility than in its being included in social orders.

To that view the idea was adapted that emperors and kings got their authorization, as it were, from God. It's true though - and here Christianity differs from other views - that the rulers were not God-similar figures; emperors and kings too were bound to the common weal. They had to render account before God whether they used their power in the service of right and justice toward their subjects.



Only in the modern society the way opens for the realization and acknowledgment of the inalienable dignity of man, of his rights and obligations as person, which are now also called "human rights" or "fundamental rights". It is now also generally accepted that society and state are upheld and determined by people who are no longer subjects of authorities but "citizens". All social circles and also the state have a serving function, namely to protect and promote the dignity and fundamental rights of every human being.

But while the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in the year 1776 acknowledged that these rights are given to every human being by its Creator, in Europe a quite different development took place. The human rights, as they were announced by the French Revolution, are not founded on God the Creator but are the result of the emancipation of society and state from the supremacy of religion and church. Now society and state are seen as secular affairs, as mere worldly matter. The terms God and Creation are pushed to the margin, as a result of which the way for a lay view of world, man and society is favoured.

There is by no means brought up yet the dignity of man. The human rights are seen as result of an inner-worldly progress and enlightened emancipation from the claws of a transcendental orientation and relation of man as well as every social and political power. In contrast to the USA, in Europe the idea does not develop that society and state are at the service of mankind, the democratic-republican state rather turns out to be "sovereign", i.e. it assigns rights and obligations to its citizen and is no longer obliged to a universal common weal that includes all political entities. In that situation the nation then became, as we know from painful experiences, a destructive driving force of Europe's political development.

In the 19th century science, technology and the belief in progress were so distinct that one was convinced sooner or later to be able to master and solve all problems. That applied also to the "social" question, which became more and more critical with the industrialization. Contrary to the hopes and the slogans of liberty and equality for all citizens the situation of the workers visibly worsened.



I dare say, it is amazing how little the sciences recognized the causes of the labour question and its social consequences, how the politicians completely insufficiently reacted to it {5}. "The greatest fortune of the largest number" was the formula that was to obscure the misery of large parts of the workers and their families. The human rights did obviously not apply to that part of society.

The mere inner-worldly understanding of the human rights and the refusal of the Christian view of the creation order made it for a long time difficult, yes, impossible for the church to adopt that interpretation {6}. Leo XIII strove to bridge the gap between church and modern society not by taking over the explanation patterns of Enlightenment and philosophical liberalism, so to speak, by baptizing them, but by the attempt to differentiate between the things which within the old orders had been arranged by man and were historically conditioned, and those which were founded in God's creation order and in natural law. With the first social encyclical letter Rerum novarum Leo XIII met the furious protests of the liberals and progressive-minded. His argumentation, which demanded justice for the workers, relied on the creation order and the Christian view of man and his dignity.

The disasters into which we were led by the collectivist ideologies of National Socialism and fascism on the right and of communism on the left, as well as by their totalitarian power systems, caused a mental turn after 1945 and again after 1989/90. How was it possible that - in contrast to the far-reaching expectations of modernity - Europe could become a heap of ruins and a mental-moral-cultural desert? The question: What is man? had to be answered anew. The inner-worldly drafts had proved to be illusions and utopias, above all with regard to the acknowledgment of and the arguments for human dignity and human rights. The Declaration on Human Rights of the United Nations in December 1948 took this into account.



It's true though that one failed in attributing the human rights - as it is the case in the American Declaration of Independence - to God as Creator of man. But one agreed at least on the qualification of the human rights as "inalienable". That is, these fundamental rights are granted to man neither by the state nor by society. They are not created by an inner-worldly instance, and are - in the full sense of the word - "present" already. Also political powers, parties and parliaments must respect and acknowledge the fundamental rights; they must not abolish them, change them in their contents and their meaning or differently "interpret" them, in short, they must not "touch" them.

Under those circumstances it is not surprising that the Catholic social teachings - since Leo XIII based on the Christian anthropology from which the basic standards of the social order are derived - became quite attractive. Many people wondered - first in the western and later also in the eastern countries - whether these social teachings offer those orientations which are so urgently needed for the building of a human and just society. The Christian roots of human dignity became interesting for many people, although after a short phase of renewal in most of Europe's countries the Christian faith lost - under the barrage of the new mass media - in internal power and the churches got into great difficulties.

In this situation we will do well to call to mind the words which the poet Friedrich Schiller made us take to heart: We will only retain the inheritance when every generation discovers it anew for itself and decides in favour of it. In Europe we will only retain the value orientation to which we are enabled by the creation order, if we succeed in convincingly opening it for the next generations. We will only be able to learn from the terrible experiences, i.e. to what heinous deeds human beings and peoples are able, if we time and again call to mind the dignity of man, its fundamental rights and obligations, the citizens' relation to society and state, and if we all, and not only by some pious people in time, argumentatively and decidedly face the doubts and suspicions directed against the Christian anthropology and the Catholic social teachings.

Today the threat to human dignity proceeds from the idea of the feasibility of man, which is especially supported by medicine and gene research. That idea passed in the meantime also into philosophy, when the Karlsruh philosopher



Peter Sloterdijk speaks of the riot in the "people park", and wants to shift no longer anthropology but anthropo-technics into the centre {7}. With it new dangers and arguments are looming, which in their perspectives and possible consequences for human beings and society were no less dire than the ideologies and systems overcome in the meantime. The Christians and the churches have a special responsibility that the Christian roots of human dignity remain alive in the awareness of mankind.



{1} C. Amery, Das Ende der Vorsehung. Die gnadenlosen Folgen des Christentums, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1972, p. 16.

{2} With good reason E. Schockenhoff points to the incomparable historical effect of the Ten Commandments as link of a general human moral - as well within Judaism and the ecumenism of the Christian churches as outside of the Jewish-Christian tradition: Naturrecht und Menschenwürde. Universale Ethik in einer geschichtlichen Welt, Mainz 1996, p. 247.

{3} From the moral-theological view J. Piegsa discusses the importance which the human dignity has for the right on life, and on its protection: Der Mensch - Das moralische Lebewesen, volume 3, St. Ottilien 1998, p. 133ff.

{4} See A. Rauscher, Personalität, Solidarität, Subsidiarität, in: the same, Kirche in der Welt. Beiträge zur christlichen Gesellschaftsverantwortung, volume 1, Würzburg 1988, p. 253 ff.

{5} There is a very informative contribution of L. Roos in: Der soziale und politische Katholizismus. Entwicklungslinien in Deutschland 1803-1963, edited by von A. Rauscher, volume 2, München 1982, p. 52ff.

{6} See J. Punt, Die Idee der Menschenrechte. Ihre geschichtliche Entwicklung und ihre Rezeption durch die moderne katholische Sozialverkündigung, Paderborn-München-Wien-Zürich 1987.

{7} P. Sloterdijk, Regeln für den Menschenpark, in: Die Zeit No. 38, 16 September 1999, p. 15ff.