The “human person” as standard

Is it true that “the human person … is and ought to be the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions?” [Gaudium et spes, cited in par. 1881 of the Catechism.] In a sense it is, but the formulation can distract attention from the extent to which man becomes what he is by becoming part of things that lie beyond him. For example, the purpose, subject and end

  • Of a research institute ought to be truth.
  • Of an animal shelter ought to be the humane treatment of animals.
  • Of a shrine ought to be the greater glory of God.

And if that’s so, it seems that the the purpose, subject and end of an art museum should be beauty, and the purpose, subject and end of a patriotic observance might well be to memorialize heroism and articulate love of country. Such institutions aren’t all about me. They aren’t even about all of us collectively.

Naturally, one can justify the statements in Gaudium et spes and the Catechism by saying that things that transcend us are part of what makes a fully human life, and when human institutions have to do with such things us it’s because the human person needs to be connected to them. Also, it’s understandable that after experiencing 20th century ideologies that deify the state or a race or class one would want to emphasize that the human person has a value that goes beyond social considerations.

Still, such statements can be misleading. In particular, they can be used to support the sole remaining 20th century ideology, liberalism, which makes use of them in its campaign to do away with whatever transcends human desires. At a time when men judge all things by reference to individual desire, saying that all things should serve the human person is not always helpful, it seems to me.

3 thoughts on “The “human person” as standard”

  1. The difference between a
    The difference between a subject and an object is that a subject makes free choices, acts, creates, and improves the world, whereas an object is passively acted upon and used by others as just another thing. The God-given freedom of being a subject is not based on passions that come and go, but on the ability to do the right thing. Human desires actually tend to make us more like an object, that is controlled by external things. So when the catechism says the human person is the subject of all institutions, it is not giving human desires free reign; quite the contrary, it’s saying that even our human desires should serve us, not control us. Is the company I work for using it’s employees’ desire for money and it’s customers’ desire for stuff to make a profit? Or is it respecting the dignity of those employees and customers that goes beyond what they want at the moment. Indeed “it” is not doing anything—a company is not the subject, it is the object. Ideally, the employees and owners should use the company to work for the good in society; the company does not use the people.

    So to use your examples, a research institute only seeks scientific truth so that it can advance the knowledge of mankind—the material truth it discovers will pass away before we do. As far as an animal shelter and other environmental organizations, the difference between Christian environmentalism and liberal environmentalism is that we believe it is our duty to take care of the world, just as it’s my duty to balance my budget and ensure my children are safe. Liberal environmentalism teaches that humans are just an unneccesary nuisance that has caused more harm that good to the rest of the world that was getting along fine without us. In other words, Christianity keeps the human person as the subject, the actor, the manager, whereas liberalism sees us as just another thing to be controlled. Finally, you have a good point about a shrine being directed toward the greater glory of God. But really that’s exactly the purpose of a human as well. A shrine is only useful if it helps human people fulfill their purpose better.

    Which philosophy would be more likely to support liberalism: one that teaches that we are just a product of our environment, and the best we can do is find our place in the overall society; or a philosophy that says that it’s our duty to exercise control over our world and its institutions, and present them, through ourselves, as a living sacrifice to God.

  2. I agree with what you say
    I agree with what you say about “subject.” So while the principle and end of a research institute is truth, the subject (the moral actor) is the human person.

    As to the principle and end of the institute, though, it still seems to me less confusing to say it’s “truth” rather than “the human person.” I don’t think it’s enough to say “well after all it’s *human* knowledge we’re talking about,” since the knowledge is knowledge of something that does not depend on us and so is not reducible to the human person.

    My complaint is not that the Catechism is wrong, it’s that the language strikes me as confusing at a time when there’s such a strong tendency to say “it’s all about me.”


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