I agree, Jody, that there is an interesting and important connection between the division in the Church over liturgy and the division in the Church over moral issues, and that it’s no accident that those who support traditional morality also support the traditional liturgy while those who support moral innovations also support liturgical innovations.

The connection is not, in my view, the one Professor Stith points out . I have not read the paper to which he refers , and so perhaps I’m getting him quite wrong, but I think Professor Stith misreads the situation when explains it by saying that there is a “common lack of perception for dignity of sacredness and with it the loss of respect or reverence for life, on the one hand, and for the Host on the other.” It’s much more complicated than that.

“Dignity,” without more, is an entirely empty moral concept—it’s no better than “goodness” or “moral rectitude” until you explain what you mean by it.

Such an explanation has to include either some deep meta-ethical premises that spell out what it means to say that human beings have dignity and in what that dignity consists (e.g., as in Kant, a human being is a morally autonomous subject and so should act only on those maxims that he or she can consistently will everyone act on, etc.), or else, at the very least, a set of particular moral norms that spell out what “treating a person in a way that respects his dignity” actually means in practice (e.g., that you shouldn’t kill innocent human beings, etc.). Ideally, an account of dignity should include both. If we have neither, then dignity (or any other supposedly foundational moral concept) is just an empty placeholder into which we pour our antecedently held and as yet unjustified moral beliefs.

Hence, if I were on the other side of the debate here, I would be quite offended at the notion that I lacked respect for dignity or the sacred. I would say that I have great respect for the dignity of the human person—so much so that I don’t think I’m entitled to coerce their beliefs and behavior when, for instance, it comes to making choices like those related to abortion.

In fact, this is exactly what many abortion-rights advocates do say. And they’re perfectly right to say this—given their concept of dignity but not the one usually employed in the Catholic tradition. We can’t win an argument with such people by saying that they have an inadequate perception of dignity. We have to get beyond that word, dig down into the meta-ethical premises being used to define it, and argue over which such premises are true or justified.

Articles by Robert T. Miller