by Aaron Matthew Weldon

February 21, 2018

Church teaching can be deceptively simple.  When moral theologian David Cloutier talked about Catholic social teaching for our podcast, he mentioned that human dignity, along with the common good, is a key principle of the Church's social doctrine.  It's easy to hear that and say, "Of course.  Who doesn't think human dignity is important?"

Indeed, human dignity is a powerful principle.  It drives many important social movements today, across the political spectrum.  Many recognize that African-Americans, immigrants, Muslims, and others are treated in ways that do not befit human dignity.  Many recognize that pornography is a scourge that degrades everyone involved, and that our pornified culture is not conducive to fostering human dignity.  People of good will want to uphold human dignity.

Rights of conscience are integral to human dignity.  Conscience is the act by which a person comes to understand how to do the right thing in a particular situation.  Bl. John Henry Newman teaches that to judge with a good conscience is to act with an undivided heart—that is, to live with integrity.  Our judgments of conscience can be mistaken at times.  To act in good conscience doesn't mean that one is perfect, but it does mean that one is seeking to do good with all of one's mind and heart.  A good conscience directs us to try to live rightly before God in all that we do.

Clearly, then, an authority figure that forces someone to violate his or her conscience violates human dignity.  The authority is effectively saying, "I am using my power to make you commit an injustice, to violate God's commandments, to harm others."  The basic lack of respect for another person in such a situation is truly stunning.

Consider a nurse who believes that direct abortion is the unjust killing of another human being.  She has trained to become a medical professional in order to bring healing to those who are suffering.  A supervisor at work forces her to choose between participating in an abortion and facing severe discipline.  She can either consent to committing a terrible injustice, or perhaps lose her ability to continue in her healing ministry.  How can she act with integrity?  How can she choose with an undivided heart?  Forcing a medical professional into this situation is an affront to human dignity.  The government ought to protect her.

We live in a pluralistic society, where people have different visions of what it means to do good.  If people with deep disagreements are to peacefully coexist, we need to avoid forcing people to violate their core convictions.  Certainly, conscience rights are not absolute.  For example, my conscience does not allow me to demand that others facilitate my activities.  But immunity from coercion is simply a minimum requirement for any society that respects human dignity.

At a time when some advocacy groups are working to impose a single, secular moral vision on our country, our work to ensure conscience protections for people who are vulnerable to coercion, such as medical professionals, is vital to the health of our nation. The Conscience Protection Act protects human dignity by protecting the conscience rights of nurses and others with respect to abortion.  Learn more about efforts to protect conscience rights and human dignity today.

Aaron Matthew Weldon is Program Specialist for the Office of Religious Liberty.

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