Paragraph 1703 of the Catechism is derived entirely from the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (1965). GS is one of the most intriguing of the Council documents. It was the last to be promulgated, and no previous council had issued a declaration quite like this one. Previous Church Councils had addressed errors to be corrected or matters for enrichment or clarification. Even the previous documents of Vatican II had addressed specific issues of potential good, such as a reform of the liturgy, the future of religious life, and the leadership roles of bishops.
Gaudium et Spes, or Joy and Hope in English, steps aside from the traditional teaching mode and “offers the world a gift.” GS is an address to the whole world, not simply professed Catholics’ a universal invitation to a richer way of life. In the process, GS amplifies the nature and identity of all mankind, or as para. 1703 puts it, “the human person is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake.” A being with such an exalted beginning is certainly destined to a potential glorious end, and the Church is inviting all created mankind to full communion of faith. It is not hard to understand why the editors of the Catechism open the morality section with this reminder of mankind’s true nature and destiny, since, in the Catholic idiom, identity is achieved by the very nature of creation and then one’s destiny in the beatific life of the world to come. Morality at its heart is recognition of identity and behaviors consistent with that recognition.
The best definition of original sin is failure to know ourselves. We are made from privilege known to nothing else save God. I saw in the news this weekend that scientists reignited the booster rocket on Pioneer I, the U.S. exploratory spacecraft, for the first time in 37 years. At its present speed Pioneer will pass within one light-year of our closest neighboring star in the year 41,000 A.D. [Don’t wait up.] Grasping a sense of the size of the universe is as good a metaphor as any for the immensity of the world in every sense. When Aristotle wrote of a Prime Mover or First Cause, he probably had little sense of the true dimensions of the cause and its effects.
Our collective sin is a mistaken self-consciousness of ourselves as bit players in a small stakes game. “Low self-esteem” as a term has been relegated to the therapist’s office, but in truth it is easier to ignore our true identity on the basis that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” The most significant gift of Judeo-Christian culture is the worth of a human being. The dividing line between a believer and an atheist comes down to religious anthropology: what is a man, why is his essence so sacred, and what is his final destiny? Catholic teaching holds to the Jewish-Christian Revelation of the Sacred Scripture regarding the nature of man and the One who made him.
The sacredness of human life has been reemphasized as the root principle of morality by Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes a good case in point. It is also the colliding point between faith and secular life, though the battle is fought along an extensive line. The Bible could not be clearer that all are sacred to God because he has created them, notably those having a rough time of it on earth. Matthew 25’s judgment account makes care for the sacredness of the vulnerable and the weak the ultimate determination of eternal reward. For any number of reasons, the universal value of people gets lost in a shuffle of mangled religion, greed, abuse of power, selfishness.
To take one example, the principles of para. 1703 and other sites speak of this divine infusion into human life beginning with conception. “From his conception, he [sic] is destined for eternal beatitude.” Modern reproductive medicine has enabled the Church to understand the timing and process of conception, but from earliest times Tradition has protected the unborn and severely censured abortive acts. The virtue of creating new life destined to share in God’s blessings in this life and in the life to come is acknowledged sacramentally in Church teaching on marriage. While disease may present occasions where the lesser of two evils is adopted with regret by parents and health care providers, (see USCCB instructions on saving a mother’s life here) the deliberate termination of embryonic life is condemned, because no human being has the right to deny another human being communion with God and the blessings that follow.
It is disturbing to see how often the gift of life is overlooked, or in some cases even scorned. In the United States there is a constant and heated conversation over the degrees to which national policy—such as in tax reform—values the worth of some lives over others. Immigration in cases where immigrants came to the United States to escape life-threatening situations or to join family of origin is another. Management of the opioid epidemic is yet another, as is the care of the sick, the aged, and the mentally ill.
When Jesus reminded Peter that forgiveness must be tendered 7 x 70 times [an idiom for infinity], implied in his message is the fact that consciousness of sin and true repentance is a lifelong project. Even the worst of criminals need time to discover their identity as beings created by God for a higher purpose. When we short-circuit the course of life and its quality in any way, the probably cause is identity crisis: we have forgotten who we are, God’s extraordinary hope for us, and our ultimate destiny, of which St. Paul says that “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, what God has prepared for those who love him.”