Samstag, 29. Juni 2002

Image of Man and How to Shape Society - Orientations in the Social Teaching of the Church - Prof. Dr. Marianne Heimbach-Steins

Europäisches Laienforum in Erfurt vom 28.6. - 3.7.2002
Our modern societies in Europe convey an ambivalent feeling of being alive: on the one hand, for many individuals they offer a multitude of possibilities how to organise their lives as has never been existent before in the history of human mankind: economic prosperity and a good provision of basic social welfare, respect of fundamental rights, democracy and co-determination to a large extent, world-wide mobility, information and communication facili-ties. On the other hand, we observe a deepening rift between the well-off and those living in poverty - not only on a world-wide scale but also in our own societies. We are facing a time where social standards are being challenged which have been established in our societies in the course of the 20th century. Recently, we observe an increasing preparedness to tolerate infringements of fundamental freedoms in favour of actual or supposed security interests. And we are part of a process of growing general uncertainty: ethnic, religious, ideological plurali-zation is no longer seen only as a gain, but frequently and with priority it is experienced even as a threat to one's own security and identity triggering a reaction of disapproval of every-thing which is alien, sometimes even a certain willingness to use violence.

In this paper, I intend to formulate four statements describing a horizon of problems and questions to foster reflections about the image of Man and human dignity as well as about the force of orientation provided by social teaching of the church.

Challenges for Society Pressing for an Answer: Introductory Statements

I intend to start by looking at the crisis scenarios of our society by outlining four statements:

1. The diverse threats to peace and the manifest war scenarios displayed in many world regions are currently among the profoundest sources of concern and uncertainty for individuals and entire societies all over the globe. Even us, living in Germany and Europe, do not remain unaffected by the disruptions in the Middle East, in Afghani-stan, in the Kashmir region, to only name a few examples. Our concern centred on a just peace in the world must therefore form the crucial factor for all reflections and forms of political acting: it is this concern which forces us into a clear discernment of the dramatic inequalities in opportunities in life and the trend towards increased injus-tice. The gap between (absolute) poverty and immense wealth is widening. This is a continuous elementary offence against human dignity of the poor and a source for conflict and violence: There is a link between propensity to violence and world-wide fighting related to the allocation of land, vital goods, economic and political power. This results into the question as to which philosophy of succeeding human life and peace is the basis for our way of acting.



2. Currently in many Western-European countries, there seems to be a crisis of the democratic culture. It manifests itself among others in a clear political shift to the right. This development is probably linked to the afore mentioned general uncertainty and fear of the diverse elements which are alien to us and which we view as a threat. The underlying reason, however, is a profound problem of culture and education with manifold consequences: in an open society, security cannot be gained on a permanent basis by blocking oneself off against the outer world, nor can it be achieved by calling for measures in the sector of the police and security forces. It is essential to form and foster firm cultural, ideological and religious identities; they are an indispensable prerequisite for a peaceful co-existence where individuals live together, meet and bring about integration in an open pluralistic society. The question as to the ideal situation of living-together of human beings, of the philosophy of a just society needs to be discussed.

2. For many people, just another source of uncertainty lies in the reduction of social standards of the welfare state which becomes visible in many highly-developed so-cieties. Economic interests and the demand to strengthen the individual sense of re-sponsibility of the people are arguments brought forward to support this development. It is of course of vital importance to support each and every individual's strife to act as mature citizen able to assume responsibility for his/her own matters. This, however, leads into conflicts if, due to a loss of social stability, the perception of responsibility is not supported but impeded. It is the reason why the gap between those people in our societies who are well-off and those who are in need is further widening. This area of conflicts and problems brings us to the issue as to how to define the relationship be-tween the individual and society.

3. A fourth area of conflict relates to the increasing discrepancy between the expectations and the esteem shown vis-à-vis human life. We are faced with immense and rapid development processes in the medical-technical capabilities to perfect human life. This does not only apply to opportunities in the treatment and care of diseases, but also to the early diagnosis of disabilities and diseases in the prenatal stage. And yet, this up-ward trend in the scope of capabilities also presents a dangerous backside. The conviction that the value of human life is not based on factors such as good health, disease or special needs is not generally shared. The pressure exerted on parents to only give birth to healthy and fit babies is increasing. In the same way, there is a rising trend to put pressure on elderly people to finish their lives if they are no longer capable of meeting certain standards of social usefulness or "normality". Often, this pressure is hidden behind an apparently very humane face, the call for the right to determine one's moment of death. All of these trends show an insidious way of challenging the right to life at the beginning and at the end, a risk to the most fundamental of all hu-man rights, and in the end a breach of one of the pivotal foundations of a European culture which is marked by Christian values and ideas. The questions which spring to mind immediately are questions referring to the image of Man and to the basis of hu-man dignity.

These issues are the starting point for the following reflections:

The "Christian Image of Man" as a Possible Means for Interpretation and Orientation


Part of the fundamental orientations of every moral code is the idea of the human being as a subject of actions reflecting high moral standards and as an individual assuming moral re-sponsibility. Christians therefore continue to refer to the "Christian image of Man". Yet, the formula as such reveals little about the special character of the image of Man. It is necessary to take a closer look at the points of orientation which can be identified in this image. But we should bear in mind that there is nothing like a catalogue of predefined contents from which certain elements can be retrieved, but only certain points of reference which can be used.

An image of Man - just like a portrait painting - is no "true-to-life reproduction". Nor does it contain a "once and for ever" clear statement as to the innate character of the individual. It rather offers scope for interpretation. It is marked by certain patterns pertaining to a perception of the world, by religious or philosophical beliefs and by historical experience. Therefore, there is nothing like the Christian image of Man in general. There are, however, manifold attempts to discern, against the background and in the light of Christian fundamental experience and beliefs, what makes up human dignity and being a human individual. Thus, a horizon of elements is opened up, enabling the development of forms of human life in society and challenging these developments by taking a critical standpoint. Supportive factors are a number of fundamental coordinates which can be derived from the biblical-Christian belief in God and from the world experience reflected in the bible. They are coining Christian images related to human beings. I would like to describe them in five tension curves between the poles of which human life attempts to find its interpretation and meaning. To keep this tension at the same level of intensity without dissolving or losing it to one side or the other can be seen as the criterion of orientation pertaining to the Christian image of Man.

1. Pending between owing thanks as creature and being autonomous

In the biblical-Christian horizon of interpretation, it can be inferred from the relationship with the creative God what it means to be a human being: As a creature, the human being has not simply been "thrown" into its being, but it is held up and supported in the entire variety of its existence by a originator, who, kindly disposed towards his creation, accompanies it on its way. This sets a pre-sign for all further elements of interpretation. Such a way of coming into being, which involves a sense of owing thanks as creature, is an empowerment to being autonomous and able to assume responsibility. It confronts the individual with the challenge to shape his/her world actively and in a responsible manner, to take one's life into one's hands and to lead it in the sense of one's best capabilities and in relation to other individuals.

2. Pending between individualism and integration into a social context

According to the Christian belief, every human life is unique and distinctive. At the same time, it is integrated into and dependent on a human community and society. This tension is part of the structuring basic features of the notion of person as interpreted in a Christian way. The "notion of person" is a central instrument for the social teaching of the church in order to describe the Christian image of Man. It is based on the idea of everything coming from the same origin and the continuous tension between individualism and integration into a social context. Thereby, any attempts of interpretation which either reduce the human existence into individuality, at the expense of the capacity to enter into relationship, or which restrain it to mere collectivism, at the expense of individuality and autonomy of Man, have to be rejected. This implies consequences for the interpretation of the classical social principles of subsidiarity and solidarity as well as for their mutual assignment. Any biased determinations of the relations have to be criticised right from the outset. This is as much true for the principle of solidarity which demands social justice, as for the principle of subsidiarity which mainly serves to guarantee freedom.

3. Pending between capability to form relations and need to form relations

In the idea of the social character of human existence as such, an additional tension becomes tangible. Human beings are capable of forming inter-personal relationships and of building up societies jointly. On the other hand, they are equally dependent on experiencing inter-personal and social support. Both notions are closely linked to the fact that the individual consists not only of mind, but also of body. This presents a boundary, but also an opportunity to the human being. It would be short-sighted to interpret the social sphere only as a form of need, as a compensation for human imperfection or weakness. Such a perspective would allow for a certain level of dependency to be admissible for children, persons with diseases or special needs, the elderly and the weak. However, the ideal and objective of all human development and education would then be "autonomy", seen as total independence of all other individuals.

Whoever takes the message that God has become human being - flesh - as a starting point, would not stay with such a deficit-oriented (and individualistic) interpretation. Beside the de-pendency on others, experienced by every human being from their birth onwards, there is the equally essential experience related to the capability of forming inter-personal relationships which needs to be cultivated. This is one of the crucial consequences derived from the tension between individuality and the fact of being bound into a social context, both based on the idea of everything coming from the same origin. It contains a significant option of value for the interpretation of the social principle of solidarity. For debates related to the future of social security systems and for the ethical evaluation of the principle of the welfare state, this presents an important means of orientation.

4. Pending between responsible freedom and propensity to become guilty

In all three spheres of tension outlined above, the polarity between reasonable and responsible freedom and propensity to become guilty, of capability to be guilty and to make mistakes becomes visible. It is one of the factors shaping human life. The empowerment to freedom opens up space and scope for action and manoeuvre having an impact on the world. It challenges us to assume responsibility, to proceed to decision-making processes based on dialogue and reflective considerations in order to set the main directions for our own life and for processes within society. All this, though, is influenced by the ambivalence of possible failure. Human motivations and intentions are not always pure by nature. They are likely to be subject to negative influences, and corruptible. Any Christian understanding of the individual is a realistic one. It departs from the idea that this propensity cannot be overcome in our earthly life. This is the underlying meaning of the theological theory of the original sin. In particular in regard to social, scientific and political developments of far-reaching importance - such as for ex. in the field of bio-technology - it is helpful to bear this recognition in mind. Because it can encourage us to proceed cautiously and to chose options presenting less risk potential.

5. Pending between self-transcendence and mortality

Each human life approaches death. Any Christian understanding interposes the experience of finiteness and mortality with the capability of transcendence and the hope for redemption in a context of tension. The skill to become sufficiently detached from oneself and not to literally exhaust oneself in the daily activities and duties has always been characterised by the omen of the perspective of death valid for every human life. The Christian faith, however, can take up the first basic context of tension between owing thanks as creature and being autonomous which exists in human life. The belief in a good Creator-God does not only make superfluous the question as to the "why" of the experience of suffering and death. There is no easy answer to this question under the vast horizon of meanings of biblical experience of God and their Christian interpretations. Rather is it kept unanswered under lamentations in the hope to reach this God who has made himself common with the human experience of suffering and death. God does not interfere as a force putting us off. Literally everything within our means rather has to be done on his behalf in order to overcome any injustice which causes misery. At the same time, however, every individual which is suffering must absolutely be protected and promoted in his inalienable human dignity.

Conclusion: Human dignity as a means of orientation

There is a deeper meaning of the abstract term of "human dignity", seen against the back-ground of a Christian interpretation, shimmering through these different contexts of tension. The term, used like a burning glass, concentrates various perspectives. Being a human being means to lead an existence which is owing thanks as creature, which has been freed into autonomous and self-responsible acting, but which is also finite and endangered. Due to the fact that this existence is owing thanks and accepted by God despite its propensity to become guilty, it, in the end, withdraws from the final availability by us, the human beings them-selves. This is the reason why dignity of human beings is inalienable.

But: can such a way of interpreting human existence contribute to moral mutual understanding in a pluralistic society? The Christian image of Man has been shaped by strong prerequisites which are by far not shared by all members of our societies. Contents such as the destiny of the individual as a creature disclose themselves only against the horizon of the biblical be-lief in God. In no means do they become manifest just "by themselves". And yet, there are points of reference available even for those individuals who feel indifferent towards the Christian denomination. Because even in the Christian image of Man some general and fundamental human forms of experience (for ex. capability to form inter-personal relations and the inter-dependence between human beings, a propensity to become guilty, mortality) are taken up in an interpretative manner. They are considered to be essential when fighting the risk of seeing the definition and interpretation of human beings and human dignity in a simplifying way. There are good arguments for this even without any religious rooting. For ex-ample, one could argue: The right to life of those who are suffering, who are ill or who have special needs must not been challenged. Because on grounds of general experience these dimensions of life are indisputably part of all human beings in such an elementary way that each and every one of us has to reckon to find himself/herself in a similar situation sooner or later. And who does not want to be assured, in particular in a situation of weakness and threat to one's life, that there is a guarantee of the society to protect his/her life even in such a situation, or even more so, in an unconditional way? This shows that reasonable arguments for the protection of human life are quite accessible, and they can be linked to a Christian perspective of the situation.

The Christian model of interpretation, though, goes one step further, and that makes up for its provocative character: the absolute unsettable character of human existence, or in other words: unavailable and inalienable human dignity is anchored in a reality which, by nature, goes far beyond the individual and which is therefore out of reach of the individual's avail-ability. The individual is not the last, but "only" the second but last stage. The unavailability of human dignity has been preserved even in modern legal systems as a basis of common consensus. Developments such as the one outlined above, however, display the fragility and vulnerability of the consensus in an all too clear manner. Against this background, many approaches such as the line of arguments based on the Christian understanding of man may ap-pear to be somewhat old-fashioned, but gain indeed a highly up-to-date, and even prophetic, meaning: they can help to secure standards of humanity. Notwithstanding this recognition, rhetoric conjurations alone will not suffice. All talking has to be ratified by means of the cor-responding practical application!

The context of tensions between the requirements of a mutual agreement about social values under general conditions of pluralism and a strong ideological-religious position as represented by referring to the "Christian image of Man" can therefore not be denied. Despite that, this understanding has got the chance to become effective, as long as it proves to be reason-able. It is true, this is not possible by solely using theoretical lines of arguments. It may reveal to be more important to guarantee that all priorities with regard to values anchored in the im-age of Man become effective in the societal-social acts of Christians. It will be decisive whether it can be achieved to turn the orientation towards a "Christian image of Man" into an everyday practice (of players on the church, society, political level) which serves the vital interests in life of all individuals. If that can be achieved, even the religious line of arguments, which is so full of prerequisites, will find recognition as a serious option, or even as a necessary provocation. We would then find that its lack would have to mean a loss of humanity in modern society.

3. Socio-Ethical Perspectives for the Shaping of Society

Referring to the "Christian image of Man" thus releases indeed certain orientations of political relevance - although it does not by itself suggest solutions to practical problems. This means that even on this basis debates still have to be led and struggles fought. In doing this, the image of Man and its context of tensions can be taken as an assessment criterion for possible initiatives leading to a resolution of the problems, and as a corrective tool used to exclude certain options of manoeuvre as being incompatible. It is a regulative idea, not a standard for action. It is the task of all Christians and their churches to include this regulative idea into the public debate in such a way that its force of orientation can be perceived as useful for current debates. The social teaching of the church offers valuable assistance in this respect.

Based on the statements I have used in the first part of my talk in order to outline a scenario of current socio-political challenges we have come up with four fundamental questions:

1. The question as to which philosophy of succeeding human life and of peace serves as an orientation for our way of acting.

2. The question as to the idea of a just society.

3. The question as to how to determine the relationship between the individual and soci-ety.

4. The question as to the image of man and to the basis of human dignity.

In the second part of my talk I have tried to illustrate an answer to the last of these questions by having recourse to biblical and Christian-socio-ethical orientations. This now enables us to draw up perspectives for responses also for the first three questions.

About the relationship between the individual and society:

In the light of Christian understanding of human kind and its dignity, the idea of individuality and dependency on a social context as being of the same origin has been revealed. This view incorporates a critical meaning vis-à-vis various conceptions of society and political strategies. This is true in a two-fold respect:

Un unbalanced relation between individuality and sociality may favour unilateral individualistic and liberalistic political concepts and has the power of fostering a minimalist interpretation of solidarity exclusively as giving "assistance to those who are weak". As a consequence, we are facing a considerable reduction of social obligations formerly taken over by the welfare state, and a deepening rift between the wealthy and the poor. Such a strategy is incompatible with the idea of the Christian image of Man. On the other hand, any over-stressing of sociality can result into a situation where low regard is expressed for individual freedom and responsibility, can take away rights from independent citizens and undermine the principle of subsidiarity. This is the risk of a welfare state which gets out of hand, which takes care about the citizens in a paternalistic way, and which simultaneously deeply interferes with individual privacy and freedoms. The capability of each individual to autonomously control their affairs, to make preventive provisions and to design their life would inevitably be wasted away under such circumstances. What would also be wasted away in a parallel process are the capability and willingness to commit oneself to the entire whole of society, and to perceive the joint future as a task and obligation of each individual.

In face of these two threats the social teaching of the church emphasises: Not only is solidarity to be interpreted in the light of subsidiarity, but also against the "ineradicable misunderstanding" [...], the community were allowed to intervene, temporarily or as an alternative, only where the forces of the individual fail", it has to be guaranteed that "long before [...] the community [has] to perform pre-services by which it only creates the prerequisite for a situation in which the individual (or the inner community) can subsist or become active." This is an essential orientation for the future of any model presented by the social state for our societies as well as in the field of foreign assistance and development co-operation.

About the idea of a just society

In the framework of the social teaching of the church the idea of a just society is expressed in the idea of social justice. The pivotal point here is the relation between just economic allocation and socio-political participation. One criterion which can be derived from this for a pol-icy of social justice is the demand not to play off justice of allocation against justice of participation, but to combine them with each other in a constructive relation. In most societies there is a considerable unevenness in the allocation of material resources. This clearly shows that it remains necessary to point to justice of allocation as a normative demand for achieving social justice which cannot be abandoned. This does not only refer to the allocation of in-come, but also to the even less balanced distribution of wealth.

At the same time, justice of participation must be perceived as an independent aspect in the model of social justice. This concept stresses "that the people are obliged to contribute actively and productively to the life of society, and that the society is responsible for providing them with the opportunity of such a participation." That is the way how the economic pastoral published by the U.S American bishops has formulated it. In this pastoral, the aspect of justice of participation has been particularly stressed. This means: the demand for justice of participation emphasises the necessary mutual relation between the responsibility of the individual person to take part in the shaping of processes and decision-making within society, and the responsibility of the community to enable such participation in freedom.

Furthermore, it is part of the destination of social justice and its impact as a principle of shaping society to take into consideration the rights and opportunities of the subsequent generations. The rights and obligations of those who, in the future, will be affected by decisions which are taken in present time must be represented in the current political process by appropriate representatives. Again and again "the question needs to be raised to what extent the individuals affected are present during the negotiations. Because the structural balance of power is mirrored in terms of rights of participation".

Social justice aims at the realization of the public interest. The public interest asks for the best possible realization of those social framework conditions which enable all members of a society to pursue a development of their individual personality together with the other members of the society. This means that, as a further criterion for any adequate understanding of social justice, the question as to the addressees needs to be put forward. Responsibility for the public interest is indisputably the central task of the state which, in the end, bases its legitimacy on this factor according to the understanding of Christian social teaching of the church. In the same way, it must be insisted that the demand for social justice does by no means only put challenges to the state, but that it places obligations and duties individually and equally onto the available forces of society and onto the individual citizens of a community.

About the idea of succeeding human life and peace

Part of a succeeding human life are also all possibilities to satisfy basic needs and to develop individual skills. These are demands of justice. If these demands are violated in a lasting and serious way, it means that respect of human dignity is missing, and a source for conflict and violence is opened. If those in need do not get what they are entitled to in the name of justice in terms of goods and rights of participation, they will take it by force, if necessary. This consideration shows: the threat to peace is no natural disaster, but has always got to do with situations of injustice created by humans. Conflict does not only start where war brakes out. And the other way around: there is no peace yet only because the guns have fallen silent. A "just peace" as a final perspective, a theory which has been formulated in very clear terms by the social doctrine namely recently, demands a lot more:

Peace between peoples, between groups and ethnic entities cannot be brought about and maintained lastingly (solely) with military means. In order to achieve this objective all sources nourishing a potential of a propensity to use force have to be dried up. Misery and distress, extreme economic and political inequalities, chronic violation and/or disrespect of human dignity and fundamental human rights of individual persons, groups of persons or en-tire peoples, the destruction of self-esteem and identity - all situations and ways of conduct which deprive any person profoundly and lastingly of their elementary rights of life and development of their individual skills - are forms of violence by nature and sources of conflict which must be combatted if there is to be a peaceful co-existence and a cheerful future worth-while living in.

The social preaching of the church and the Christian social ethics therefore repeatedly emphasize that any development policy, any strives for a just wo

Prof. Dr. Marianne Heimbach-Steins