Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Monday, May 21, 2018

Reporting on a conference of intellectuals who met at Blackfriars, Oxford, in mid-March, the London Tablet recently (21 March) probed rather deeply into "pressing issues surrounding dignity in suffering at death." The article prompted many questions about the direction in which the world is now headed – definitely but sadly (I might add) away from Athens and ominously toward Sparta redux. The metaphor was borrowed from a past issue of the Vatican journal, L’Osservatore Romano, and it is quite apt, even though not entirely precise, given the Transcendent nature of Christianity.

Athens symbolizes the noblest aspirations of the human spirit as attainable from solid philosophical reasoning. Its glorious achievements are epitomized in three of the most originally profound and creative minds ever: Socrates (d. 399 B.C.); his pupil, Plato (d. 347 B.C.); and his disciple, "the Philosopher" (as St. Thomas Aquinas simply refers to him), the incomparable Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.).

Sparta, on the other hand, symbolizes a city-state reputed to be a war machine, whose men were reared to serve this machine as their priority and whose women were duty-bound to produce warriors brainwashed from birth with the famous counsel, "Return with your shield or on it." Marriage and family were secondary to the military needs of the state; in fact, homosexual practises were encouraged among the military, and women were but servants (or slaves), needed primarily to produce more male warriors.

At Blackfriars, Oxford, the word "dignity," so often used to describe end-of-human-life events, was evidently the object of an intense discussion. "Dignity" actually has been "hijacked" today by many who advocate euthanasia. For one thing, a Swiss group named Dignitas (Latin for "dignity") charges a fee to help individuals commit suicide at home. In Britain, moreover, a pro-euthanasia movement describes itself as "Dignity in Dying." And in Britain’s Parliament, some lawmakers are interpreting "dignity" merely in terms of choosing when and where one dies.

As the Oxford conference progressed, a major research paper by a Professor at a New York City hospital was discussed. Entitled "Dignity is a Useless Concept," it reportedly questions the usual meaning of dignity. (I haven’t read it yet.)

Another paper, also by an academic, bears the title, "Stupidity of Dignity." According to one of the principal participants at the Oxford meeting, this last paper attested to "a dislocation of American culture, exemplified on the one hand by outspoken critics … and by the large Catholic hospital system on the other." However, he added, with the waning influence of Catholic hospitals and the decline of religious congregations to serve these hospitals, as well as (in the Tablet’s words) a "new Washington administration that may well be amenable to the assisted-dying advocates, the impasse might be solved by politics and demographics rather than by coherent and convincing argument."

From the Tablet report, it seems doubtful whether anything substantially meaningful was accomplished at the Oxford session in the way of enlightenment and civilized progress. What it did contribute, nonetheless, is that it cast more light on how far the road from Athens to Sparta already has been traveled. Yet, as in ancient Sparta, little will be changed unless solid thinking about the nature and nobility of the human being is embraced in our secularistic, materialistic world.

All of which means that we must return to a conviction that every human being is created by God as unique, precious and unrepeatable; indeed, every person is redeemed by the Son of God incarnate and destined to be with him forever. Hamlet’s incomparable words are not empty poetry, but an exercise of reason illumined by Revelation, requiring reverence of the human being from conception to death:

"What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god!" (II, ii)

Shakespeare’s assessment of the human being reflects a Christian view based on reason and creed. But the bases for Christian humanism are grounded in the natural moral law and hence concern all human beings. Such was the conviction, for example, of the great Jewish existentialist, Martin Buber, who developed the thesis that every person is essentially a "Thou," never merely an "it," precisely because he or she is (in Buber’s own phrase) "a glimpse through to the Eternal Thou…"

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of

The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.