Two Ways of Being Human

This week we recognize two milestones in American history. On Monday, January 20th, we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. On Wednesday, we confronted the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Each has profound implications for the soul of our nation, for how we understand what it means to be a human being.


There is a naive progressivism that would see these two milestones as parallel. Both would seem to represent a rejection of the past and tradition. Both symbolize a new understanding of freedom and human dignity. But the similarities end there. King grounded his argument for human freedom and equality on the transcendent dignity of the human person, the solidarity of the human race, and the law of love. But when treating abortion, the Supreme Court specifically denied that questions of transcendent human dignity can be decided by reason or by jurisprudence. They recognized only the absolute autonomy of the capricious and arbitrary will to power. These are two very different ways of understanding human freedom. They remain at war in our culture: civilization vs. barbarism.

A year ago in this column, I wrote about “The Catholic Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.” In that article, I did not intend to suggest that Dr. King embraced all things Catholic. He was a Baptist minister, not a Catholic. But I pointed out strong affinities between King’s social vision and the social vision of the Catholic Church. Not the least was Dr. King’s belief in an objective moral order, accessible to reason, which supersedes all particular laws and customs. This is the Natural or Eternal Law affirmed by the Catholic Church, and championed by King in texts like The Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

King affirmed the other pillars of Catholic social teaching. In “The Ethical Demands for Integration” (1962) King spoke of the transcendent dignity of the human person, made in the Image of God. “Man is not a thing,” King said, but “a person sacred in himself . . . a person of sacred worth.” Dr. King called for more than mere desegregation, but for a true integration based on the solidarity of the human race. He decried “physical proximity without spiritual affinity.” And his concerns were universal, not parochial. He sought what the Church calls The Common Good. “At the heart of all that civilization has meant and developed, “King says, “is ‘community’ – the mutually cooperative and voluntary venture of man to assume a semblance or responsibility for his brother.”

Dr. King’s calls for freedom are grounded in this very profound analysis of the human person. In a brilliant passage, King contrasts a proper understanding of freedom from mere freedom of will:

In speaking of freedom at this point I am not talking of the freedom of a thing called the will. The very phrase, freedom of the will, abstracts freedom from the person to make it an object; and an object almost by definition is not free. But freedom cannot thus be abstracted from the person, who is always subject as well as object . . . So I am speaking of the freedom of man, the whole man and not one faculty called the will. Neither am I implying that there are no limits to freedom. Always freedom is within predestined structure . . . Freedom is the chosen fulfillment of our destined nature.

How different is the philosophy embraced by the Supreme Court! In Roe v. Wade (1973), the Court said, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins . . . the judiciary . . is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.” And in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the Court went even farther. J. Kennedy wrote that freedom simply means the right to decide matters of life, death, and human dignity for oneself. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Supreme Court

I need hardly point out that the court’s reasoning flies directly in the face of Dr. King’s philosophy. For the court, there is no human dignity discoverable by reason, no transcendent meaning to human life that norms our behavior. There is only the autonomous will and the absolute right to say for oneself what is or isn’t a human being. The danger inherent in this philosophy should be obvious. If my choices are not bound by reason, then they can be bound only by another’s will. Absolute freedom thus devolves into tyranny.

It is impossible to say how King’s thought might have evolved had he survived. Perhaps, like his niece Dr. Alveda King, he would have recoiled at the logic of Roe v. Wade and subsequent court decisions on abortion. But we can say with certainty that the philosophy of human freedom we find in his writings and speeches runs flat contrary to the absolute autonomy, the tyranny of the unbounded will. And this is incredibly important to remember. Our culture is still shot through with these conflicting approaches to being human. At stake is human dignity and freedom, confronted by “The Dictatorship of Relativism.”

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