Dignity, Community, and Activity: Rooted in Christ, Fulfilled by Christ

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By Ben Duphiney, The Catholic University of America

God calls humanity in every breath of existence. This calling is more than what one does; rather, it is who one is. Gaudium et Spes reminds mankind that this calling — or destiny (vocatio) — is fundamental because we are “created ‘to the image of God,’ able to know and love [our] creator.”[1] Because we are made in God’s image, that changes how we live our lives daily. One of my favorite quotes that perfectly summarizes our vocation is from the Broadway musical Les Misérables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Such a call to holiness is twofold, namely our ultimate Trinitarian vocation and our vocation to one another. The two are inseparable and each shine light on the great mystery of the Trinity.

The Second Vatican Council chose the title “The Church and Man’s Vocation” for part one of Gaudium et Spes because “God did not create man as a solitary being.”[2] Although we are individual beings, we are members of the larger Body of Christ. It is through solidarity that humanity catches a glimpse of heaven on earth because “man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself.”[3] Gaudium et Spes reminds us that, “man was created ‘to the image of God,’ as able to know and love his creator.”[4] The knowledge that man is the image of God is foundational to everything; therefore, each human being has an intrinsic dignity from God alone. Allowing us to participate in Trinitarian love, God “did not create man [as] a solidary human being.”[5] Man and woman are able to enter into communion with one another as a fulfilment of love. Similarly, humanity was created for communion, for if man “does not enter into relations with others, he can neither live nor develop his gifts.”[6] Humans are made for communion, but sin has perverted this gift from God.

Just as Eve reached for the fruit and grasped it, man continually mirrors the Fall by “[looking] into his own heart…refusing to acknowledge God as his source…therefore […dividing] himself.”[7] When man sins, he quite literally falls away from God. Sin, a deprivation of love, centers man on himself––taking his gaze off the creator. Because of this deprivation of unity, man repeatedly struggles with himself and his community. There is hope because the “Lord himself came to free and strengthen man, renewing him inwardly and casting out ‘the price of this world.’”[8] Man is restored through the mystery of the Incarnation––the mystery of Christ.

God is unity itself; man, who is “made of body and soul, is a unity.”[9] The very nature of man, which is God himself, is manifested in unity. Often the soul alone is regarded as holy or pure, whereas the body may seem to be extra or nonessential, but this is not true. Both the body (material) and soul (immaterial) are called to participate in the unity of God. “Wounded by sin, […man…] finds that his body is in revolt.”[10] God calls man to use his body as a means of holiness. Through the power of Christ, man is able to “rise above the whole universe of mere objects” and transcend the material world.[11]

The modern world reduces man to a material being (i.e. what a man looks like, what he can do, what he can make, etc.). Many people have forgotten that God calls man to transcend the material world in finding his identity in God himself. This is a result of misunderstanding freedom. The world tells man that freedom is the ability to choose whatever he so pleases; freedom gives man reign over himself, others, the world, even the universe. However, true freedom is man’s ability to “turn…towards what is good.”[12] Man is to act in accordance with the “law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey…[the voice calls] him to love and do what is good and to avoid evil” (GS, 16). Freedom comes from God and is ordered by our conscience. Man’s “dignity lies in observing this law” and is able to flourish because God pulls man out of himself and draws man’s gaze back on Himself.[13] Yet man is bound to the limits of this world; only God is eternal. Rather than looking at death through a negative lens––which is how the world sees it––death allows man to fulfill his final end: “to cleave with all his being to [God] in sharing…a life that is divine and free from all decay.”[14] Death is an end to man’s pilgrimage and is to be rejoiced because after death, man finds “true life with God.”[15] Through the Incarnation, Christ has revealed himself to mankind and reveals “the riddle of suffering and death which, apart from his Gospel, overwhelms us.”[16] It is only through the cross of Christ that mankind will be able to make sense and understand how suffering and death play a part in God’s call of mankind.

In understanding the intrinsic dignity of oneself, we are able to form one family and deal with each other in a “spirit of brotherhood (fraternitas animo).”[17] Humans are “destined to the very same end, namely God himself” and this is fulfilled in the words of Jesus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself…therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”[18] With this law, man is not only able to love God and himself, but his neighbor as well. The role of the common good must not be overlooked because it is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people…to reach their fulfilment more fully and easily.”[19] The common good is man’s duty to himself and his neighbor because it quiets a man’s restless heart; it is stilled by God’s goodness. The Gospel message of love “continues to arouse in the hearts of men an unquenchable thirst for human dignity.”[20] Although the thirst is unquenchable because only God can satiate, treating one’s neighbor with respect elevates the body and soul.

Gaudium et Spes urges humanity to “look upon [their] neighbor (without an exception) as another self, bearing in mind above all his life and the means necessary for living in a dignified way.”[21] The emphasis without any exception is powerful, as it urges mankind to respect non-believers, the unborn, the elderly, the sick, and enemies. This bar is set extremely high because the Church stresses the “respect for human person” because humans are made in the image and likeness of God, made by God for God.[22] This radical love echoes the words of Jesus, “love your enemies, do good to them that hate you; and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you.”[23] Because all life is sacred, the Church condemns murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, deportation, slavery, prostitution, human trafficking, and many other crimes that disrespect and dispose of life.

The high standard of saints does not only urge man to avoid evil, but encourages man to promote peace and justice. The standards are seemingly possible, especially in a world of individualism and indifference––the great enemies of love. Man is called to transcend this self-centered way of living; this journey of love and justice is manifested in contributing “to the common good according to one’s means and the needs of others, even to the point of fostering…private and public organizations [to better] the conditions of life.”[24] “Solidarity must be increased until that day when it will be brought to fulfilment,” when man will look at his father, mother, child, brother, sister, elder, stranger, enemy––and only see the face of God.[25]

Man’s entire life changes when he orients himself, his community, and his activity around the Creator. It is through man’s activity that he “fulfills himself.”[26] However, it is not that simple. The secular world reduces man to his work, his “mastery over nearly all spheres of nature thanks to science and technology.”[27] Multiple world wars, technological advances, and the Sexual Revolution between the First and Second Vatican Council demonstrated the reduction of human life. The evolution of science and technology has allowed man to advance in unimaginable ways. The Church does not think that this is bad, as the evolution of medicine in particular has allowed humans to eradicate certain diseases, cure incurable sickness, and promote the health of the body. If used correctly, “methodical research […that is properly ordered…] can never conflict with faith, because the things of this world and the things of faith derive from the same God.”[28]  If used incorrectly, medical advances lead to mass destruction, crimes against humanity, and other evil practices that do not derive from the natural law (i.e. euthanasia and abortion).

These evolutions in medicine are to be celebrated because of man’s achievements. It is through these works that man finds fulfilment.[29] This work, however, must be properly ordered and reminded that work is sacred and a “fulfillment in history of the divine plan.”[30] All progress and innovation comes from the gift of reason that only God has given humans. It is through Him that man is able to think freely, working with his hands and making new discoveries. In a theological lens, man’s work is not reduced to a mere task, but is an overflow of his identity; man is capable of participating in creation. In fulfilling his vocation by participating in creation as a member of society, man must remember that “without a creator there can be no creation…once God is forgotten, the creature is lost.”[31] God is at the center of man’s work because only God can elevate and perfect man’s activity. Just as God fulfills the overflow of man, God can only purify man’s activity “by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.”[32] Man is a new creation in Christ[33]. It is only after man recognizes his identity and activity in Christ, through the Paschal Mystery, that he can “succeed in achieving his own inner activity.”[34] Everything that man is and does can be used for the kingdom of God on earth because “the kingdom is a mysteriously present” here on earth; “when the Lord comes it will enter into its perfection.”[35]

Founded by Christ, the Church has “a saving and eschatological purpose which can be fully attained only in the next life;” therefore, it is the role of the Church to guide humanity towards eternal life. The Church recognizes the dignity of each human person and does not suppress anyone; rather the Church restores and consolidates the autonomy of humanity.[36] The Church calls human activity to a higher standard. It is man’s task “to cultivate a properly informed conscience and to impress the divine law on the affairs of the earthly city.”[37] This task can be carried out in any career or walk of life, especially the laity.[38] Examples of this are married couples who raise their children in the faith, college students who dive intellectually deeper into their faith, and elderly people who fervently pray for the future generations. The family welcomes life, sustains life, and prepares life for the kingdom.

Part one of Gaudium et Spes lays the foundation for part two: marriage, proper development of culture, economic and social living, and the political and national community of the world. While the following chapters dive into the details of the role of the Church in the modern world, the foundation should never be overlooked. The dignity of the human person is the most important treasure to protect. Humanity is made for Trinitarian love with God. This love is the law of man’s heart “which [man] has not laid upon himself but must obey…[being called] to love and to do what is good and avoid evil.”[39] Man must constantly look to the mystery of the Incarnation––the image of Christ––to understand himself more fully. Humanity is united in Christ because He is “the focal point of the desires of history and civilization, the center of mankind, the joy of all hearts, and the fulfillment of all aspirations.”[40] Christ is the answer, foundation, and guide for understanding the dignity, call to communion, and activity of man. Man must “love Christ totally, who gave Himself totally for [our] love.”[41] The Cross brings new life forth, thus purifying and perfecting our love. It is only through the Cross––and now in the mystery of the Eucharist––that humans know the perfect example of love, sacrifice, solidarity, and perfection. As individual members of the living body of Christ, humans are called to follow Christ, led by the Holy Spirit, to bring the kingdom of heaven wherever they go.

Bibliography

Austin Flannery, O.P., ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, New Revised Edition (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014; 1st publ., 1996). [Gaudium et Spes]

The New Oxford Annotated Bible (5th Edition); NRSV


[1]Gaudium et Spes, no. 12

[2]Ibid.

[3]Gaudium et Spes, no. 24

[4]Gaudium et Spes, no. 12

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Gaudium et Spes, no. 13

[8]Gaudium et Spes, no. 13; cf. John 12:31

[9]Gaudium et Spes, no. 14

[10]Ibid.

[11]Ibid.

[12]Gaudium et Spes, no. 17

[13]Gaudium et Spes, no. 16

[14]Gaudium et Spes, no. 18

[15]Ibid.

[16]Gaudium et Spes, no. 22

[17]Gaudium et Spes, no. 24

[18]Gaudium et Spes, no. 24; cf. Romans 13:9-10 and 1 John 4:20

[19]Gaudium et Spes, no. 26

[20]Ibid.

[21]Gaudium et Spes, no. 27

[22]Ibid.

[23]Matthew 5:43-44

[24]Gaudium et Spes, no. 30

[25]Gaudium et Spes, no. 32

[26]Gaudium et Spes, no. 35

[27]Gaudium et Spes, no. 33

[28]Gaudium et Spes, no. 36

[29]cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 35

[30]Gaudium et Spes, no. 35

[31]Gaudium et Spes, no. 36

[32]Gaudium et Spes, no. 37

[33]cf. 1 Corinthians 2:22-23

[34]Gaudium et Spes, no. 37

[35]Gaudium et Spes, no. 39

[36]cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 41

[37]Gaudium et Spes, no. 43

[38]cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 43; Mater et Magistra

[39]Gaudium et Spes, no. 16

[40]Gaudium et Spes, no. 45

[41]St. Clare of Assisi

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