In our lives each of us is faced with the eternal questions regarding the mystery of life: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? and Where am I going?
Saint John Paul II wrote in his Encyclical Letter, Faith and Reason, “As the Constitution Gaudium et Spes puts it, ‘only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light’. (12) Seen in any other terms, the mystery of personal existence remains an insoluble riddle. . . . In short, the knowledge proper to faith does not destroy the mystery; it only reveals it the more, showing how necessary it is for people’s lives: Christ the Lord ‘in revealing the mystery of the Father and his love fully reveals man to himself and makes clear his supreme calling’, (18) which is to share in the divine mystery of the life of the Trinity.” (19).
So, the answer to the eternal questions are that I am a child of God, created by him and called, to know, love and serve him and to share in his divine life. Or, as Saint John Paul II wrote in his encyclical, “The ultimate purpose of personal existence, then, is the theme of philosophy and theology alike. For all their difference of method and content, both disciplines point to that “path of life” (Ps 16:11) which, as faith tells us, leads in the end to the full and lasting joy of the contemplation of the Triune God.” As children of God, we are endowed by him with innate human dignity, from which springs our natural human rights.
Saint John Paul II wrote a letter to the Italian Catholic Doctors’ Association on October 11, 2004 regarding the nature of man and his dignity. He wrote, “Medicine cannot do without an attentive reflection on the very nature of man, created by God in his image and likeness. The dignity of man finds its foundation not only in the mystery of creation, but also in the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ.”
“If the origin of man is in itself the foundation of his dignity, so is his end: Man is called to be a ‘son in the Son’ and a living temple of the Spirit, in the perspective of eternal life of beatifying communion with God,” John Paul II wrote.
“Man is the center and culmination of everything that exists on earth. No other visible being possesses his same dignity,” and as “a conscious and free subject he can never be reduced to a simple instrument,” he continued.
Thus, “the inviolable dignity of the person must be affirmed with force and consistency today more than ever,” the Pope added. “One cannot speak of human beings who are no longer persons or who have yet to become persons. Personal dignity belongs radically to each human being and no disparity is acceptable or justifiable.”
Reminding doctors of the ethical principles whose roots are in the Hippocratic Oath itself, the Pope emphasized that “there are no lives that are not worthy of being lived,” or sufferings “that can justify the suppression of a life,” or reasons “that make plausible the ‘creation’ of human beings destined to be used and destroyed.”
“May you always be inspired in your options by the conviction that life must be promoted and defended from its conception to its natural end,” he exhorted. “What will make you be recognized as Catholic doctors will be, precisely, the defense of the inviolable dignity of every human person.”
Natural Rights and the American Declaration of Independence
The American Founding Fathers teachings in the Declaration of Independence that natural rights are endowed by God agree with the teachings of the Church. These rights are not granted by the state but granted by God. They include the rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the freedoms of free exercise of religion, speech press and assembly.
These rights are bestowed upon us by God and inherent in the nature of all human persons, dignified by creation in His image. We have mortal bodies and immortal spiritual souls that He endowed with intellects to know the truth and free wills to do good and avoid evil in order to reach our end of happiness with Him. These rights, as the Founders said in the Declaration are “inalienable” as a requirement of the dignity of the human person and must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order. We are called to freely exercise these rights in the pursuit of eternal happiness with God in heaven.
America’s Founding Fathers believed in objective truth and the natural law. They believed that truth came from God and that He gave us rights arising from our human dignity as children of God made in his image with free will to do the good and an intellect to know the truth. The Founding Fathers’ truth conforms to Catholic truth.
In the Declaration of Independence the Founding Fathers stated:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . .
We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare.
That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States. . . .
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
The Constitution of the United States
Our Founding Fathers established the Constitution of the United States to secure the God-given rights that they had recognized in the Declaration of Independence. At the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin said, “God governs the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? I firmly believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in our task no better than the Builders of Babel.” The Constitution says, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is crucial. The Declaration is the “why” of American government, while the Constitution is the “how.” Each of them should be read and interpreted in the light of the other.
The rights recognized in each document are endowed by God, inherent in human nature and inalienable. The state does not bestow them; God does by virtue of our humanity because we are created in His image and likeness. Because God is perfectly free, he has instilled in us all the natural rights of freedom so that we can reach our end in happiness with Him. We have freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and freedom of association.
These individual rights recognized in these documents agree with Catholic truth. These rights should be protected by the state to enable the individual to express all of his God-given talents to worship, create and achieve, free from unjust government restraint.
The Founding Fathers’ recognition that the individual is greater than the state and has natural rights enabled America’s successes in education, business, industry and the arts. The exercise of these rights enabled individual initiative and the protection of individual liberty.
Saint John Paul II met with President George W. Bush and later said:
In my recent meeting with President Bush I emphasized my deep esteem for the rich patrimony of human, religious and moral values which have historically shaped the American character. I expressed the conviction that America’s continued moral leadership in the world depends on her fidelity to her founding principles. Underlying your nation’s commitment to freedom, self-determination and equal opportunity are universal truths inherited from its religious roots. From these spring respect for the sanctity of life and the dignity of each human person made in the image and likeness of the Creator; shared responsibility for the common good; concern for the education of young people and for the future of society; and the need for wise stewardship of the natural resources so freely bestowed by a bounteous God. . . .