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Starting Point

Pondering the sublime dignity of all humans


Gathered in a university classroom, considering the place of Christian social thought in the lives of individual Christians, in the Body of Christ and in Chicago, a group of students considered the proposal that direct involvement with the poor, among other things, ought to make us cry out to God ever more urgently to show mercy to the oppressed by changing the hearts of their oppressors.

One of the students, a police officer with over two decades’ experience on the force, wondered aloud why we would pray “for those pieces of s***!” He was invited by professor and fellow students to answer the question himself.

He did so remarkably well, beginning by tracing the path of his recent class work. His effort is of special note in that he made careful use of both scripture and church documents in answering a question, crafting his own developing opinion in light of those sources.

He immediately put aside his initial vulgarism, and began with Gaudium et Spes, “The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” which insists that the human person has sublime dignity. He noted that the adjective sublime, which finds its roots in the Latin for “high or elevated,” means (a) lofty, grand or exalted in thought, expression or manner, or (b) of outstanding spiritual, intellectual or moral worth, and (c) tending to inspire awe usually because of elevated quality (as of beauty, nobility or grandeur) or transcendent excellence. If God has given that awesome dignity to humankind, it has been given to each man and every woman. No one is left out. Though some may choose to act in ways that seem not in keeping with sublime dignity, the dignity is there by virtue of birth. Leo XII noted, in Rerum Novarum, that the state cannot take away rights that humans have had since before the state existed. If the state cannot take away one’s human rights, then one individual may not take away another’s rights either, including human dignity and the respect that such dignity commands. God’s gift of dignity, which can be squandered, must not be disrespected by any other individual.

But in a follow-up, he was asked where the fathers of Vatican II found their inspiration to craft such a document. Were they pointy-hatted intellectuals or vestment-clad children of the ’60s? Were their assertions born in that moment or of reliable roots?

On a roll, the officer paused, flipped open his Bible, and made specific reference to the creation stories in which God decides to make humankind in the divine image, after which “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Not yet ready to stop, he made reference then to Psalm 8, in which the singer lauds God for having made humans “a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.” Who can disrespect such a creation?

How do hearts become hardened, and how does one become an oppressor, and why? Who knows? But such hardness is an abomination in the eyes of God, he asserted, pointing next to Psalm 95 in which God warns, “Do not harden your hearts.” Psalm 95 says those “whose hearts go astray,” and who do not regard God’s ways are to hear the warning: “They shall not enter my rest.”

Christian charity calls the prayerful, suggested the officer, to pray for those whose hearts are hard, asking that hearts of stone be changed by God’s grace into hearts of flesh. Only then can the world be transformed into the fullness of God’s reign. Thus there is urgency to the task and to the prayer; we cannot delay even an hour or a day.

All of these scriptural considerations, he asserted, must have been the inspiration of the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins when he wrote of the Just One, who “Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is --/Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”

With such an attitude both in prayer and in good works, the officer said, overwhelming problems will seem more approachable. We will be quickened both in hope and in perseverance to work for a transformed society. And this, he concluded, is our role and our duty as members of the Body of Christ. One cannot argue with such airtight logic or so inspired a presentation.

Onward, then, and upward, with an officer as companion and guide.

Fr. William C. Graham is working on a book titled Clothed in Christ: A Spirituality for Lay Ministry, from which this excerpt is taken. His e-mail address is NCRBkshelf@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2000