In a certain sense I have already addressed the problem at the heart of your question: "What does human dignity mean? What are the human rights?" It is evident that these rights were inscribed by the Creator in the order of creation; so we cannot speak of concessions on the part of human institutions, on the part of states and international organizations. These institutions express no more than what God Himself inscribed in the order He created, what He Himself has inscribed in the moral conscience, or in the human heart, as Saint Paul explains in the Letter to the Romans (cf. Rom 2:15).
The Gospel is the fullest confirmation of all of human rights. Without it we can easily find ourselves far from the truth about man. The Gospel, in fact, confirms the divine rule which upholds the moral order of the universe and confirms it, particularly through the Incarnation itself. Who is man, if the Son took on human nature? Who must this man be, if the Son of God pays the supreme price for his dignity? Every year the Church's liturgy expresses its profound wonder as it contemplates this truth and this mystery, both at Christmas and during the Easter Vigil. "O felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem" ("Oh happy fault, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!" Exultet). The Redeemer confirms human rights simply by restoring the fullness of the dignity man received when God created him in His image and likeness.
Since you have touched upon this problem, let me take advantage of your question to recall how this issue gradually came to be so central for me. In a certain sense it was a great surprise for me to realize that interest in man and in his dignity had become, despite expectations to the contrary, the principal theme of the polemic against Marxism, and this because the Marxists themselves had made the question of man the center of their arguments.
After the war, when the Marxists seized power in Poland and began to control the university curriculum, one might have expected that initially its program of dialectical materialism would be expressed, above all, through natural philosophy. It should be said that the Church in Poland was prepared for this. In the years following the war, I remember what a comfort the writings of Father Kazimierz Klósak-a distinguished professor in the Faculty of Theology in Kraków known for his extraordinary erudition-
represented for Catholic intellectuals. In Klósak's scholarly writings, Marxist natural philosophy was challenged by an innovative approach that allowed for the discovery of the Logos-creative thought and order-in the world. Thus Klósak became a part of the philosophical tradition that started with the Greek thinkers, continued through the quinque viae of Saint Thomas, and even in such contemporary scientists as Alfred North Whitehead.
The visible world, in and of itself, cannot offer a scientific basis for an atheistic interpretation of reality. Instead, honest reflection does find sufficient elements in the world to arrive at the knowledge of God. In this sense the atheistic interpretation of reality is one-sided and tendentious.
I still remember those discussions. I also participated in many meetings with scientists, in particular with physicists, who, after Einstein, were quite open to a theistic interpretation of the world.
But oddly enough, this kind of controversy with Marxism was brief. It soon came about that man himself-and his moral life-was the central problem under discussion. Natural philosophy was, so to speak, put aside. In attempting an apologia of
atheism, the discussion of ethics soon superseded the interpretation of the physical world. When I wrote the book The Acting Person, the first to take notice of it, obviously in order to attack it, were the Marxists. In fact, my book represented an unsettling element in their polemic against religion and the Church.
But, having arrived at this point, I must say that my concern for "the acting person" did not arise from the disputes with Marxism or, at least, not as a direct response to those disputes. I had long been interested in man as person. Perhaps my interest was due to the fact that I had never had a particular predilection for the natural sciences. I was always more fascinated by man. While studying in the Faculty of Literature, man interested me inasmuch as he was a creator of language and a subject of literature; then, when I discovered my priestly vocation, man became the central theme of my pastoral work.
By this point the war had ended and the controversies with Marxism were in full swing. In those years, my greatest involvement was with young people who asked me questions, not so much about the existence of God, but rather about how to live, how to face and resolve problems of love and marriage, not to mention problems related to work. The memory of those young people from the period following the German occupation has always remained with me. In a certain sense, with their doubts and with their questions, they also showed me the way. From our meetings, from my sharing in the problems of their lives, a book was born, the contents of which is summarized in the title Love and Responsibility.
My book on the acting person came later, but it was also born of the same source. In some ways it was inevitable that I would arrive at this theme from the moment I began to deal with questions concerning human existence-questions asked by people not only in our time but in every time. The question of good and evil is always with us, as shown by the young man in the Gospel who asks Jesus: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mk 10:17).
So the development of my studies centered on man-on the human person-can ultimately be explained by my pastoral concern. And it is precisely from a pastoral point of view that, in Love and Responsibility, I formulated the concept of a personalistic principle. This principle is an attempt to translate the commandment of love into the language of philosophical ethics. The person is a being for whom the only suitable dimension is love. We are just to a person if we love him. This is as true for God as it is for man. Love for a person excludes the possibility of treating him as an object of pleasure. This is a principle of Kantian ethics and constitutes his so-called second imperative. This imperative, however, is negative in character and does not exhaust the entire content of the commandment of love. If Kant so strongly emphasized that the person cannot be treated as an object of pleasure, he did so in order to oppose Anglo-Saxon utilitarianism, and from this point of view, he achieved his goal. Nevertheless, Kant did not fully interpret the commandment of love. In fact, the commandment of love is not limited to excluding all behavior that reduces the person to a mere object of pleasure. It requires more; it requires the affirmation of the person as a person.
The true personalistic interpretation of the commandment of love is found in the words of the Council: "When the Lord Jesus prays to the Father so that 'they may be one' (Jn 17:22), He places before us new horizons impervious to human reason and implies a similarity between the union of divine persons and the union of the children of God in truth and charity. This similarity shows how man, who is the only creature on earth that God wanted for his own sake, can fully discover himself only by the sincere giving of himself" (Gaudium et Spes 24). Here we truly have an adequate interpretation of the commandment of love. Above all, the principle that a person has value by the simple fact that he is a person finds very clear expression: man, it is said, "is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for his own sake." At the same time the Council emphasizes that the most important thing about love is the sincere gift of self. In this sense the person is realized through love.
Therefore, these two aspects-the affirmation of the person as a person and the sincere gift of self-not only do not exclude each other, they mutually confirm and complete each other. Man affirms himself most completely by giving of himself. This is the fufillment of the commandment of love. This is also the full truth about man, a truth that Christ taught us by His life, and that the tradition of Christian morality, no less than the tradition of saints and of the many heroes of love of neighbor, took up and lived out in the course of history.
If we deprive human freedom of this possibility, if man does not commit himself to becoming a gift for others, then this freedom can become dangerous. It will become freedom to do what I myself consider as good, what brings me a profit or pleasure, even a sublimated pleasure. If we cannot accept the prospect of giving ourselves as a gift, then the danger of a selfish freedom will always be present. Kant fought against this danger, and along the same line so did Max Scheler and so many after him who shared his ethics of values. But a complete expression of all this is already found in the Gospel. For this very reason, we can find in the Gospel a consistent declaration of all human rights, even those that for various reasons can make us feel uneasy.