Catholic Social Teaching is a major part of my religiosity and spirituality. I continue to find myself floored whenever I consider the amazing and simple fact that every human person has inherent human dignity, which is the first tenant of Catholic Social thought. The roots of this tenet can be found in Genesis, the first book of the bible, which talks about how woman and man are created in the image and likeness of God and are called to be in right relationship with the world (Genesis 1:26-28). God creates every person in God’s image and bestows on each of us the wonderful gifts of this world. Thus, we must recognize the common humanity that exists among every person.
We live during a time where we are made to believe that our individuality must be valued above everything else. Our vision of the world has been increasingly diminished by the shade of disparate images of personhood painted by the words of those trying to influence society for personal gain. “Advocating for the poor and marginalized will encroach on my rights as a person who has worked for my wealth,” one might say. “I cannot bring myself to support the health care of those who cannot afford it because I don’t want to use my money to subsidize health care for others. They should support themselves,” says another. This line of thinking creates one-dimensional images of people. It does not acknowledge the rights of the other and fails to dignify the common humanity that he or she possesses as well.
I think truly believing in inherent human dignity challenges us to encounter others as they are in their particular context. This encounter is scary because it causes us to enter into new relationships and make new connections with the other in a way that draws us out of our own comfort zone. It thrusts us into a new reality that we cannot control or make claims on unless we dare to discover more about the others whom we encounter. In relationship, then, we can begin creating new understandings, new contexts, and new ways to foster the inherent human dignity that exists for everyone.
There have been a string of online publications since Pope Francis’ arrival in the United States that recoil at Pope Francis’ pastoral style and attitude towards others. In one op-ed from the Washington Post, George Will characterizes Pope Francis as a pontiff whose hyperbole ignores the cold-hard facts that our world is better than it used to be. Ann Coulter tweeted that because of Pope Francis’ remarks, she understands why the founders of the United States didn’t trust Catholics and so didn’t make them citizens. Other specifically conservative voices are aligning the Pope with left-leaning policies and politics, even though he mentioned that he would not consider himself leftist during a press conference on the plane ride from Cuba to Washington, D.C.
In my opinion, the commentators above are responding to Pope Francis’ tenacious belief in the inherent human dignity of every person and the practice of encountering the other. These parts of Francis’ pastoral style are frightening because they operate with the understanding that there is more beyond our own individual selves, and that we are required to discover that “more” through dialogue and cooperation. This belief and practice are not content with individualism, but rejoice in reciprocal respect and mutual love. It is a challenge, but one that I believe is worthy of our consideration. I pray that all of us might join together with Francis in encountering the other with dignity and love, so that we might come closer to creating a more just and peaceful world.