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.