November 10, 2023

Christ the Cornerstone

Made in God’s image, we all share an inherent value and dignity

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“Christian, remember your dignity, and know that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition.” (St. Leo the Great)

The publication date for this column is Friday, Nov. 10, the memorial of St. Leo the Great. Leo was elected pope in 440 and was a prolific writer and teacher. His contributions to the Council of Chalcedon, which in 451 affirmed the unity of Christ’s two natures in one person, set the standard for authoritative Catholic teaching on human dignity.

One of St. Leo’s most popular Christmas sermons reminds baptized Christians that we share in God’s own nature and, therefore, possess a dignity that is the foundation for all human rights.

We frequently hear it said that we are “made in the image and likeness of God.” This truth lies at the heart of Catholic social teaching. Because every man, woman and child (born and unborn) reflects the face of God, everyone has inherent value and inalienable rights regardless of his or her race, ethnicity, religious, economic or social position.

As I noted in 2018 in “We Are One in Christ: A Pastoral Letter on Christian Anthropology”:

The first key principle of Catholic social teaching is respect for the dignity of each and every human person—regardless of race, sex, nationality, economic or social status, educational background, political affiliation or sexual orientation—as created in the image and likeness of God. All are equal in dignity. No one is “better” than anyone else. All deserve respect. All share basic human rights. No one is exempt from the responsibility to support and assist fellow human beings—whether they are from the same family/community, or they are strangers who are foreign to us in some way. Every human person, as created in the image of God, is a member of God’s family. For Christians, this also means that we are sisters and brothers of Christ and each other.

Respect for human dignity is paramount in the struggle for peace, justice, equality and compassion among individuals and communities. Today there would be no wars in Ukraine, the Holy Land, regions of Africa or other parts of the world if the rights and dignity of all were recognized and respected.

In my pastoral letter, I also observed:

All sins against the dignity of persons, including the taking of a human life, sexual abuse and sexual harassment, rape, racism, sexism, nativism and homophobia, are violations of this fundamental principle. We can (and sometimes must) disapprove of the behavior of others, but we may never belittle, disrespect or abuse others simply because of our differences, no matter how serious.

As St. Leo the Great says, we “share in God’s own nature.” This means that every human person is worthy of reverence and respect. No one is “less than” anyone else. No one deserves to be belittled or abused, regardless of their beliefs or actions, no matter how much we disagree with them.

True and lasting peace will only come when individuals, families, communities and nations learn to respect each other despite their differences. Violence and hatred are incompatible with respect for human dignity. They poison human hearts and, as St. Leo the Great says, “they return us by sin to our former base condition”—the state humankind was in following our first parents’ refusal to accept the dignity originally bestowed on them by God.

The incomparable worth and dignity of every human person was revealed to us when God’s only Son became a human being in the womb of his Blessed Mother Mary. Taking on our human nature, Jesus showed us that we who are his brothers and sisters share in the divine nature of the Holy Trinity.

We are not accidents in a random evolutionary process. Still less are any of us superior by birth, social position or religious tradition to any other person or group. We have legitimate differences and disagreements, but these should be settled in respectful and dignified ways, certainly not by war or oppression.

In my pastoral letter on our unity in Christ, I observe:

In every social situation, there exists the presence of evil both in the form of individual sinful actions and in the corrupt social structures that have been allowed to develop and become institutionalized in society. What is needed to overcome evil in all its forms is the love of Christ—pure, unselfish, compassionate, merciful and transformational.

Love overcomes sin and death. It has the power to transform the hearts and actions of individuals and societies, to break down barriers and build bridges, and to overcome anything that undermines the dignity that all persons possess in Christ the God-man. †

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