Catholic Dignitarianism

In case you didn’t know what Pope Benedict thinks of gay marriage, and indeed of people simply “living together” without being married by the Church, he has now made it clear.

“Today’s various forms of dissolution of marriage, free unions, trial marriages as well as the pseudo-matrimonies between people of the same sex are instead expressions of anarchic freedom which falsely tries to pass itself off as the true liberation of man” said the Pope.

He added that “pseudo freedoms” such as gay marriages were based on what he called the “banalisation of the human body” and of man himself

Now, this might make no sense at all to you.

If it seems like rambing nonsense, this is because you have been raised in the liberal tradition, in which freedom relates to choice, the absence of coercive interference and self-ownership.

The Pope, however, is speaking from within the “dignitarian” tradition, which is the latest manifestation of Catholic “natural law” philosophy, championed by Professor John Finnis of Oxford. The most prominent Catholic “dignitarian” philosopher is Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard, an extreme social reactionary who last year was appointed to head the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, which produces research to help the church establish its social policy. This is how Catholic Dignitarians understand freedom:

“Dignitarian personhood also pays tribute to the uniqueness of each individual, but recognizes that we are constituted in important ways by and through our relations to others… Given the connection between freedom and truth, it is evident that freedom will not be used responsibly if it is detached from truth. … Unless the quest for freedom is grounded in a continuous search for truth, it becomes impossible to discuss the human future intelligibly… It is the recognition of a common humanity, of a common moral order that enables us to reflect and deliberate about the human future. … As the Pope put it: “The universal moral law written on the human heart is precisely that kind of ‘grammar’ which is needed if the world is to engage [in] this discussion of its future.” ”

Translated into English, this means that the Pope is the arbiter of acceptable uses of freedom and the guardian of human “dignity”. To put it another way, it means that anything that the Pope disagrees with, can and should be banned, in the name of protecting human “dignity”.

The objection to the sort of rubbish philosophy is that it seeks to provide a spurious justification for the Church’s attempts to shape public policy. It involves a sleight of hand, by which attempts to enact the authoritarian moral views of extreme religious conservatives are dressed up in the language of “dignity”. When rights are denied to social groups, when coercive laws are supported which punish minorities for conduct which causes no harm, Catholic dignitarians are able to argue that they have acted only to protect the innate dignity of those individuals.

People who are Catholics should feel free to accept or reject this nonsense. In fact, Glendon is regarded as an extremist by liberal Catholic theologians and thinkers: who incidentally, are in the process of being purged by the Pope from their positions.

Non Catholics and dissenting Catholics, by contrast, should be astute to detect and debunk “dignitarian” arguments and expose them for what they are: an attempt to present a narrow, religious, and often repressive conception of human rights as a universal doctrine of freedom.