A radical understanding of human freedom and dignity

A radical understanding of human freedom and dignity
Fr Donald Keefe, SJ and Pope

What is the foundation for human dignity? For many in our secular and post-modern society  the foundation is gone, and so there is questioning or outright denial of the very notion of human dignity. So too is the notion of freedom cheapened by the lack of a standard for authentic use of freedom. The capacity for truth (intellect) and a capacity for self-determination (will) provide a philosophical foundation for human dignity. The spirituality of the human soul is the root of human dignity. But when truth is denied and deconstructed at such time human dignity is obscured and lost; when the reality of love is denied or distorted at such time human dignity becomes hollow. How do we retain the notion of human dignity when the philosophy is eroded? We can argue ourselves or others back to the beginning points of personal existence — but the arguments become tedious or gratuitously denied. The effacement of reality of personal existence (knowledge of truth/God and fulfillment in love) cannot be brought back by argument alone. This is in part because personal existence requires the habit of social practice and a lived truth. The radical source of human dignity is the Christian response to the sacrifice of Christ. It is lived in worship. I learned this approach from Father Donal Keefe.

In response to the Marxist attempts at a liberation theology, generating human dignity and freedom from political action, Rev Donald J. Keefe, SJ formulated a profound argument for the priority of the gift. It is found in his “Liberation and the Catholic Church: The Illusion and the Reality” Center Journal, Winter 1981, pp. 45-63. [It is found on our website here] He says that the despair over the lack of human worth and dignity is a pagan perspective that has been “pushed back” over the centuries by Eucharistic worship. But the pagan despair is reclaiming society. Here is a key passage from his article:

A Christian and Catholic political theology can have no other foundation than the social reality which is the worship of the Lord of history. Only this is responsive to the reality of or human existence — for our existence is in Christ, as Paul insists. We must take this fact with absolute and literal seriousness.  The only meaning which freedom and justice and dignity have is that which they have in Christ, and this they have, not in clear and distinct ideas, but in sign and sacrament. . . . the justice and peace and the freedom of the children of God are present in this world only sacramentally, in the worship of the Church. But that fulfillment for which we long  is actual and real with the reality of the risen Christ, the reality of the Eucharist, by which our historical existence in Christ is sustained in Christ. This is a sustenance in truth, in freedom, indignity, in justice; it is the single source of our legitimacy; it is the gift of a future which fulfills and does not nullify the present and past.

This gift has caused and causes the radical human community which is the Church. It makes to be present in the world the freedom without which the Church cannot worship, cannot exist. Out of that worship, in which the gift is appropriated by the people of God, a new understanding of the dignity and meaning of our humanity has entered the world, against an enormous resistance — the resistance which is our fallenness, our fear and dread of our own reality, our own history, our own freedom and responsibility

Over the nineteen hundred and fifty years of this eucharistic worship, the pagan despair of human worth has been pushed back, not by theory, not by law, not by charismatic leadership, but by the continual and cumulative appropriation by the people in the pews of the reality which is given them in this worship. It is this dawning consciousness of the reality of dignity and freedom which has been and continues to be the one principle of novelty and ferment in the world: it is this which church doctrine and law and mission articulate and defend and propagate, but do not create.  This slow, often hesitant, often betrayed but finally irreversible and indefeasible history of our common salvation is at the same time the entry of every human being informed by that worship into that realm of responsibility for a uniquely personal concreation of the kingdom of Christ; it is an acceptance of personal responsibility for the future which bars as sinful, as a rejection of the good creation, every resubmergence of that individual into the anonymity of a faceless mass and a featureless, meaningless present.

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