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Those who lost their rights but kept their dignity, as John Paul II and the Polish people once did, know the difference between the two. “Of themselves, rights are not enough,” Blessed John Paul insisted. Rights must be grounded in dignity, and the granting of rights in the recognition of dignity, if our culture of rights is to be authentic and durable.

But what is dignity? When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” it acknowledges the priority of that concept. Yet it offers no elaboration. And we must admit, with Mary Ann Glendon, that “it is becoming increasingly difficult to evade the question of whether ‘dignity’ can support the enormous weight it has been asked to carry in moral and political discourse” (May 2011). The assertion of dignity itself requires solid footings if the human-rights edifice is to rest upon it.

John Paul did not labor under the same limitations as did the framers of the Universal Declaration. He was able to identify those footings plainly. Human dignity, whether the inherent dignity that belongs to the human being as such or the ethical dignity that derives from sound human action, is grounded in God himself.

Inherent dignity is pure gift. It distinguishes the human from other creatures through the vocation to know and commune with God, to enjoy forever the love of God. Ethical dignity is both gift and response, grace and gratitude—the dignity that distinguishes those whose choices reflect the fact that they have such a vocation, even if they are but dimly aware of it, from those whose choices do not. Dignity in either sense is grounded in God.

And John Paul knew something else as well. He knew that human dignity is mediated by marriage and the family. He was quick to recognize that the peculiarly modern attacks on marriage and the family are attacks on the fabric of human dignity. He therefore made marriage and the family a focal point of his ministry and pursued this theme in Familiaris Consortio (1981), in his Letter to Families issued during the International Year of the Family (1994), and in many other writings.

The covenant of marriage, he taught, reveals the human calling to make a sincere gift of self, to realize the self as gift—a truly godlike trait. In marriage, that calling extends with and through one’s spouse to mutual acts of co-creation with God in the begetting of children, and so to the establishment of human community at its most fundamental level, where giving and receiving begin to have their humanizing effect.

This truth, already found in nature, is articulated in the fourth commandment: Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you. It is in and through the family, first of all, that honoring one another—recognizing and bestowing dignity—becomes the pillar of a durable rights culture. In such a culture rights and duties are correlative, as are human solidarity and respect for the “uniqueness and unrepeatability” of each person.

In saying such things—under the rubric of personalism, not individualism—John Paul tried to impress upon us that marriage and the family cannot by any means be left out of account by those who desire a society in which the person, qua person, can flourish. Naturally he was well aware of man’s fallenness and of the sorry fact that the home can be the harshest and most dehumanizing place of all. He recognized what Cicero called “the threat from within the walls, the hidden threat from the domestic hearth.” He knew that the corruption of the best is the worst, and what happens when family life becomes a trap, a betrayal of trust, a devastating blow or long series of blows to our sense of dignity. He was equally aware that marriage and the family, partly for that reason, have become the object of sustained attack today.

But he also recognized that this attack is being carried out in the name of rights and of a concept of dignity to which the notions of gift and givenness are foreign. He grasped the theory at work here, one that goes back to the nominalists: a theory of self-will and self-possession, which has deteriorated, absent any corrective reference to the God who is Love, into an alienating theory of self-ownership. And he knew that self-ownership is a lie that goes back to the Father of Lies. Adherence to this lie has not overcome the ancient alienation between the sexes but only deepened it, to the point that we are now confronted with systematic denials of the complementarity of the sexes, or even of the reality that there are two sexes. “Man,” John Paul reiterated, “is created ‘from the very beginning’ as male and female: the life of all humanity—whether of small communities or of society as a whole—is marked by this primordial duality.” But such an assertion, however obvious to countless generations, is condemned as heterosexism, and immense resources are mobilized against it.

Marriage itself is redefined in abstract, ethereal terms as a mere “union of persons”—what sort of union is not at all clear—while these persons are identified not by way of their complementarity—their being for the other, in body and soul, as male or female—but rather by way of their individual sexual desires, which may play out across an indeterminate spectrum of self-constructed genders or gender identities. The family, likewise, becomes a pastiche produced by individual choices and increasingly arbitrary legal fictions. No longer understood as a natural society, its natural rights are stripped from it and transferred to the state, in contravention of the Universal Declaration. Humanity’s most basic institution is becoming conceptually and legally incoherent.

Such choices are always the choices of adults, of course, who increasingly fail to think of themselves as being in any sense for children and who even encourage one another not to produce children. This plays into what John Paul famously called the culture of death, which for four decades has made the gruesome ritual of abortion its fetish. It belongs to the pattern of the Fall that is being traced in the blood of the innocents.

That pattern he courageously exposed: “Unfortunately, various programs backed by very powerful resources nowadays seem to aim at the breakdown of the family,” he wrote in his Letter to Families. “Indeed, they contradict ‘the truth and love’ which should inspire and guide relationships between men and women, thus causing tensions and divisions in families, with grave consequences particularly for children. The moral conscience becomes darkened; what is true, good, and beautiful is deformed; and freedom is replaced by what is actually enslavement.”

Yet such programs are even now being promoted to and by bodies connected to the United Nations. They are working their way into covenants, statutes, and curricula. This only highlights the key fact that he wanted to bring to our attention: that “the history of mankind . . . passes by way of the family,” that the family “is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love.”

Blessed John Paul’s conviction that the family truly matters for everything human motivated his sturdy defense of the rights of the family as first or fundamental rights. “Every effort should be made,” he urged, “so that the family will be recognized as the primordial and, in a certain sense, ‘sovereign’ society!” This Leonine conviction was echoed in the Charter of the Rights of the Family published by the Holy See in 1983.

With the fate of that charter, I believe, the fate of the Universal Declaration itself is bound up. The prospects of both may appear highly precarious, but John Paul was indeed a witness to hope. The affirmation that the family really matters was accompanied by an announcement of good news: “The Church knows the path by which the family can reach the heart of the deepest truth about itself.” How does it know? Because through the Incarnation God “reveals man to himself.” Jesus Christ has disclosed the true nature and purpose of the family by making it the antechamber not only to the dignity of personhood and to a proper culture of rights but to a true “civilization of love.”

Only by considering the relationship between Christ and the Church do we enter the heart of John Paul’s teaching on marriage and the family. For God in Christ has opened the family to a higher reality. He has restored its sacramental potential as the ecclesia domestica: that intimate society in which our vocation to commune with God is first discovered. Thus the pontiff was bold to say: “To the family is entrusted the task of striving, first and foremost, to unleash the forces of good, the source of which is found in Christ the Redeemer of man. Every family unit needs to make these forces their own so that, to use a phrase spoken on the occasion of the Millennium of Christianity in Poland, the family will be ‘strong with the strength of God.’”

We would be sorely mistaken to suppose that all of this amounted to a reactionary, or perhaps merely Romantic, idolization of the family in the face of its inevitable decline in urbanized and technocratic cultures. Catholicism does not idolize the natural family, for the civilization of love at which it aims ultimately transcends the natural family, as did the Holy Family itself.

Rather it reminds us that “the vocation of the human person extends beyond the boundaries of time,” since it is God’s will “to lavish upon man a sharing in his own divine life.” It invites each of us, then, whether in the rigors of faithful celibacy or of faithful marriage and parenthood, to seek on the via crucis the company of the blessed and to hope for the resurrection of the dead, in which (as Jesus said) there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage, but rather men and women whose souls and bodies will be so entirely alive to God and to one another that their communion will completely surpass anything yet known to man.

But, for now, the natural family is indispensable. To dispense with the family, whether in the name of individual rights or of urbanization or in any name whatsoever, is simply to dispense with the human. It is to make nonsense of human dignity. That was Blessed John Paul’s message to us all, and quite specifically to the United Nations. Let us invoke his prayers that it may yet be heeded.

Douglas Farrow is professor of Christian Thought at McGill University in Montreal. “The Dignifying Family” is based on a talk given at the United Nations in honor of John Paul II’s beatification.