Human Dignity and the Culture of Death

Something Rotten

‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. This is the lament of the bard at the moral and political degradation of society and it is a lament that many proclaim about Western society. We see so many news items, political developments, international developments etc that we can’t help but be led to the conclusion that there is something rotten at the heart of our society and it needs fixed.

There are many diagnoses of what is happening in society and what has gone wrong over the years; indeed a very popular narrative is one that delineates various group identities and holds that society is broken because certain groups are privileged over others, and this creates a state of inequality, with the privileged acting as the de facto oppressors of those not so privileged. When we fix this oppression we will fix society.

The group identity diagnosis may have some appeal to it, but it overlooks a key element of any society, and this is the dignity of the individual person. The group identity narrative overlooks the dignity of the individual and subsumes the individual to the identity of the group. The individual’s dignity and all the rights and freedoms that flow from that don’t matter on this account, but the rights of the group and one attains these rights only when one identifies with the right group (

In order then to overcome this displacement of the individual by the group identity we have to come to terms with what is rotten in society by means of a focus on the person and how our society is so cultured that the person and his dignity have been overlooked. This personalist approach to human dignity was a key feature of the thinking of St John Paul II, and his thought stemming from this on the culture of death can help us to understand what is rotten in our society.

Human Dignity

In previous posts I have focussed on the issue of human dignity, and it will be worthwhile to reiterate the basic principles of dignity before connecting it to the culture of life and death in this post.

Human dignity is rooted in the nature of human beings. We humans are rational animals, and as rational we have intellects which can understand the world and a will by which we can engage and act in the world. Central to having intellect and will is the ability to see a choiceworthy end and to will it for ourselves. As rational beings, we humans are able to determine our ends for ourselves; cabbages or goldfish on the other hand cannot.

So far so good, but where is the moral dimension to this?

The moral dimension follows from the fact that insofar as we are able to determine our ends for ourselves, we ourselves cannot be treated as the means for some other’s end; to do that, i.e. to treat a person as a means and not an end in himself would be to treat him as less than human, as something with no more moral status than a goldfish or cabbage. Human dignity then is based on human nature and its ability to determine its end for itself; any violation of that nature is a violation of human dignity.

Violations of human dignity are easily found in numerous places; we see such violations in abortion, euthanasia, torture, abuse, slavery etc all of which subvert the being of one person to the ends or goals of another.

The Culture of Death

One may think that the culture of death refers to a situation wherein there are violations of human dignity the typical result of which is death, e.g. abortion and euthanasia. But this would be too simplistic an understanding of the culture of death. One could have a culture wherein there is no abortion or euthanasia and it could still be legitimately called a culture of death. And here is why.

We noted that when we violate human dignity, we make use of humans for our own purposes and do not respect their dignity as ends in themselves. Thus, human dignity is violated when humans have only a use but not a value. Now think of things that we use; things which have a use are made use of for the purpose of some goal, e.g. money is used to buy food which is used to preserve life. The means themselves have no value except for bringing us to the goal – the means have only instrumental value. Money and food are valued in this instance because they go to preserve life, whereas the life that is being preserved has a value in itself (otherwise we wouldn’t give up our money or use food in order to preserve it).

Things that are only of use but not of value are deemed valueless and only have value in the measure that they can lead to or preserve what we value. When we use things to achieve our ends we finish with them when our ends have been achieved; hence they are now valueless, dead. So for example, when food is taken to preserve our lives, we take from it what we need and the rest is waste; as waste it is of no value to us as food and is therefore valueless. A culture wherein everything is of use and nothing is of value is a culture of death; for once something has been used up, it no longer has any significance. A culture that does not respect human dignity, doesn’t value humans and has no problem with subverting their use to the ends of others. Once used, humans then are dead, valueless, to those who use them. So even though a culture may not adopt practices that result in the death of those that we use, it can still be a culture of death insofar as it envisages humans as things of use.

Promoting a Culture of Life

A culture of life is a culture which values human beings for the dignified creatures that they are. In being able to consider and determine choiceworthy ends, human beings resist being objects of use in their very nature. Humans are not usable things, and to make use of a human for one’s own end is to treat him as less than human. Hence, human nature resists being used. The only appropriate stance that one ought to take to a fellow human being is one of love.

Now, talk of promoting a culture of life is often taken as promoting the eradication of practices that undermine life, e.g. campaigning against abortion. What we are effectively doing in this regard is seeking to promote a culture wherein human beings are not seen as legitimate objects of use for others, but loved as ends in themselves. Unless a society can be formed in which human beings are treated as objects of love rather than of use there will always be something ‘rotten in the state of Denmark’. So we may not have practices such as abortion and euthanasia which lead to death, but we may still have a culture wherein people are worth nothing more than as instruments for the goals of others, e.g. when big business uses but does not value its lowest paid, when men and women use but do not value each other in sexual relations, when government uses but does not value its citizens. When such devaluation occurs, the people involved are dehumanised and not loved for the dignified beings that they are. Only when we love our fellow humans as they are meant to be loved will we have a genuine culture of life.

Dr Gaven Kerr


Repugnant abortion drugs should not be legalised or normalised in Northern Ireland

Today’s abortion pill judicial review backed by Amnesty international and other pro-choice lobby groups is part of an ongoing and relentless campaign to undermine Northern Ireland’s abortion law. This case being heard in the High Court today involves a challenge to the decision by Northern Ireland’s public prosecution service to prosecute a mother for procuring illegal abortion pills for her 15 year old daughter. The focus of this court case should not be Northern Ireland’s life-saving abortion laws, but the technical details surrounding the PPS decision to prosecute.

This is a deeply saddening case. It is well known that these powerful and potent drugs designed to end the life of a newly developing baby up until twelve weeks gestation (WHO guidelines) present serious physical and mental health risks to pregnant women. There is a host of known serious side-effects for use of the abortion pill drugs: misoprostol, mifepristone, and methotrexate including ruptured uterus, haemorrhaging, hepatotoxicity (liver damage) for the mothers, and cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease and malformation for their babies if the baby survives.

The French National Agency for medicines and Health Products Safety [ANSM] issued warnings about the gynaecological risks of Cytotec [misoprostol] in 2001 and 2013.The French national authority for health issued recommendations along similar lines in 2008 and 2015. French doctors continued to ignore these warnings and in March this year the drug was eventually banned in France.

In the United States the Federal drug agency states no data is yet available on the safety and efficacy of mifepristone in women with chronic medical conditions, and states women who are more than 35 years of age and who also smoke 10 or more cigarettes per day should be treated with caution because such patients were generally excluded from clinical trials of mifepristone.

The pro-choice lobby in their crusade to undermine Northern Ireland’s abortion law by legalising and normalising the use of these abortion drugs at home are doing women a great disservice. Not only do they ignore the new human life that is ended but also the trauma involved for women in delivering and then disposing off the remains of this new human life.

The repugnant reality of these drugs is that often the recognisable developing baby that is delivered is  disposed of along with other waste materials eventually ending up in the sewage system. The fact that a fifteen year old girl supported by her mother has undergone this tragic course of action is incredibly disturbing. How on earth can this ever be described as compassionate and progressive care?

Women in Northern Ireland facing unplanned pregnancies deserve genuinely life affirming quality support and care. In 2018 no woman should ever feel forced to take this drastic course of action. Our laws here in Northern Ireland should continue to carefully uphold the life health, dignity and well-being of both mothers and unborn babies.

Tracy Harkin


The Price of Peace

Friday 21st September marks the international day of peace which is a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace amongst all nations and peoples. 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document which appeared just after the second world war and almost half a century of warfare. It is thus prudent to reflect on peace in relation to the universal declaration.

The opening line of the preamble to the UDHR attributes peace in the world to recognition of the inherent dignity of all humans. Now, for those without a background in philosophy, the recognition of dignity and its association with peace may appear as a platitude with no substance to it. But there are genuine reasons, reasons familiar to drafters of the UDHR such as Charles Malik, for affirming human dignity and connecting it with peace. What then is human dignity and how does its recognition foster peace?

Human Dignity

Humans are rational substances, i.e. they are the kinds of things that are rational. In being rational, humans have an intellect and will. As so constituted, human beings can determine ends for themselves and pursue those ends. To treat a human being as an instrument for the pursuit of one’s own ends is to treat him or her as less than human; and this is because when we use a human for one’s own ends we undermine that very capacity which is essential to their humanity.

No human then ought to be treated as a means to an end but only as an end in itself.

Now, something very significant follows from this, and it is that the only attitude that we ought to have to other human beings is one of love. This is because, to treat someone as an end requires willing their good for themselves and not subverting them to our own good. But to will the good of another is to love the other. Hence it follows that the only appropriate response to another human person is to love that person.


By stressing the recognition of human dignity in the first line of the preamble to the UDHR the authors have latched onto a very important feature of human nature and relations: if we do not treat other people with the dignity that they deserve, i.e. if we do not give to others the love that is their due, then we are maltreating our fellow humans. This maltreatment divides humans from each other and from it war and division emerge. Hence to avoid such division we must recognise the dignity of every human being.

Thus, peace flows from the recognition of human dignity; for when we genuinely recognise the dignity of another person, i.e. that he or she is to be treated as an end, an object of love, and not a means, an item for use, there is fostered unity between persons.

The price of peace then is the recognition of human dignity.

The Challenge of Peace

It is not always easy to recognise human dignity. In the world right now many human beings are not being treated as ends in themselves, as objects of love. Rather they are being treated as objects of use for the ends of others. We need only look at the high abortion rates in many parts of the western world where it is often looked upon as a right to pass over the dignity of a high number of our fellow humans. In countries where euthanasia is legal and widely practised fully mature humans are being treated as a means to others’ ends, hence their dignity is being overlooked. And there are of course all the other states of affairs which fail to recognise human dignity, e.g. torture, slavery, abuse, domestic violence etc.

All of these divide humans from each other and undermine peace in the world and amongst our fellow humans.

Aside from these cases there is a prevailing ideology in the world which historically stands contrary to human dignity and which indeed drives the aforementioned cases of lack of recognition of dignity. This ideology is one which stresses the importance of group identity over the dignity of the individual, so that so long as the identity of some privileged group is recognised/upheld/lauded etc, we have a just and equitable society. It is this stress on group identity, to the detriment of the dignity of the individual, which drives totalitarian regimes and abuses of humanity. The 20th Century is replete with examples where the individual was sacrificed for the good of the group; one need only look to the Nazi and communist regimes for particularly horrific examples of this. Effectively, the identity of the group, characterised by its particular ideology and dogmas, subsumes the identity of the individual so that the individual has no dignity or worth except for the value he or she has to the group. Nazism and communism are particularly extreme examples of this, but the philosophy which informs it is common to all social movements which hold that certain individuals do not matter, have no dignity, or have no rights simply because they are not part of or do not contribute to the privileged group.

The challenge of peace then is to avoid the constant temptation to put all our faith in an ideology which characterises the group, but to focus on the dignity of the human individual before us, and affirm that regardless of age, ability, disability, gender, sexual orientation etc, every human individual is a being worthy of love and whose dignity ought to be affirmed. When we do this we foster a relationship between humans which is the foundation of peace.

Dr Gaven Kerr


What about the children?

The campaign for same sex marriage in N.I. and other countries is loud, persistent, and extremely well funded. It is supported by an ever increasing array of public representatives, businesses and corporations. This is hardly surprising considering it is always framed in terms of ‘marriage equality’ ‘positive social change’ and even ‘human rights’. Those that are against ‘marriage equality’ are portrayed as religious fundamentalists, homophobic, or both. This frame perpetuated unquestioningly by our media only serves to  create an us and them mentality. Imagine what it feels like to be gay and to be repeatedly told that those who oppose gay marriage despise you and want to deny you equality! Homophobia like sectarianism, racism, and other hate filled attitudes, exists and it is indeed possible that some people who are opposed to SSM fall into this category. It is however incredibly misleading and insulting to portray  those opposed to redefining marriage as anti-equality and homophobic (otherwise in France alone for example, the over one million brought out by Le Manif pour Tous would every one of them have to be deemed homophobic:

Considering how the debate is currently framed by the media, it is actually surprising that only 25 out of 195 countries worldwide have so far legalised same sex marriage.

Any discussion surrounding redefining marriage by the state therefore should have at its core three simple questions: What is marriage?  Why unlike every other human relationship is it regulated by the state and has the status of an institution?  Who does this institution benefit and why?

Marriage has always been understood to be a sexual (conjugal) union involving one man and one woman naturally ordered to be procreative. Unlike all other human relationships this sexual union is one which brings new life into the world. We know through anthropological study that before the creation of church or state marriage existed in some primitive form and had some form of regulation by those in authority. The main reason for this is obvious but increasingly needs to be pointed out in today’s culture and that is children! The state has a vested interest in the wellbeing of the next generation and it was seen as an unquestionable good for children to be raised by their own biological parents where at all possible. The development of marriage and its status in countries worldwide as an institution, making it the recipient of certain rights and benefits, was society’s way of acknowledging that mothers and father matter especially to children.

Does this mean that children who are and always have been reared in all types of different situations either by single parents, grandparents, or same sex couples, are less than any other child? Of course not! But we can all agree that  every child ever conceived has a mum or dad and when circumstances such as death, separation, poor mental health, etc, prevent that child from being raised by that parent, this is usually understood as being a loss to the child.

Marriage is the institution in society that encourages the natural ties between children and their parents. The desire to know our identity is rooted in each one of us. In the Irish language the terms ‘Mac’ and ‘Ní’, ‘son of’ and ‘daughter of’ reflect this reality. What has happened in countries like Ireland and the UK following the legalisation of gay marriage should be of concern to anyone genuinely interested in the wellbeing of children. When marriage is redefined children’s rights are redefined. Two men cannot make a baby and neither can two women. Following the legalisation of gay marriage there is an increased demand by same sex couples for egg or sperm donation. These are generally sourced from European sperm banks. In the UK two parents of the same sex can now legally appear on a child’s birth certificate and the Republic of Ireland seems set to follow suit. Children can now be deliberately deprived of even knowing the identity of their biological parents. How is this progressive or in the interests of children?

Modern marriage of course is not only about children. It is about love, commitment, and wanting to have your love publicly recognised. Some couples cannot have or choose not to have children. But the fact remains that the vast majority of couples who marry will have at least one child together and children are the main reason that marriage ever became regulated by the state in the first place. If marriage is simply to become a romantic relationship with no relation to children, why should the state bother to regulate for it at all? And why should those in romantic or sexual unions have special status as opposed to two siblings living together or two friends? In Columbia, less than a year after gay marriage was legalised, the state legally recognised a three man union (throuple). In the United states there is currently a movement underway to legalise polygamy. In the Republic of Ireland to men married to avoid inheritance tax. Marriage is being redefined out of existence.

The reality is that we live in a pluralist society where people can live whatever way they want. Retaining marriage as it is in law and practice does not in any way prevent same sex couples from living together and rearing children together. Civil partnership laws grant couples in this position all necessary rights, given that in the UK there are no substantive legal differences between civil partnerships and marriages. By retaining marriage law as it is states are recognising the huge (and well documented) benefits for children in being raised by their own parents. In giving marriage special recognition within the law, the state encourages its citizens to recognise and take responsibility for rearing their own biological children where possible. Surely this can only be a really good thing.

Tracy Harkin


Breaking the Seal of Confession

The Issue

The seal of confession is one of the most cherished and important aspects of sacramental practice in the Catholic Church. Given the seal of confession, a penitent can approach the confessional and be forthright and honest with his sins knowing that the priest cannot without repercussion betray the penitent by revealing his sins. Effectively the seal of confession permits the sinner to come face to face with God in the confessional, so that the revelation of his sins is a genuine revelation to himself of what he has done wrong and a bringing of these to God (Who already knows the sins in question) in an act of confession whereby the penitent makes himself vulnerable and asks for forgiveness. The confessional is a humbling place because the penitent reflects on himself and discerns within himself his own weaknesses, realises what they are, and determines that he does not want to remain in his sins. As such the confessional is a vulnerable place where everything is laid bare before God, and this vulnerability is one of the reasons why the Church looks upon violations of the seal of confession with the utmost seriousness.

However, the seal of confession raises an issue. Evidently all sorts of things will be revealed in the confessional that will be uncomfortable. These can range from the perfectly legal yet sinful, to the illegal and sinful. In all of this the priest is bound by the seal of confession, and the challenge is precisely whether or not that seal is appropriate when illegal matters, especially abuse, are confessed. Catholic teaching is that the seal remains in place when illegal matters are confessed, so that the priest cannot break the seal when pressurised by the secular authorities to do so. This leaves one with an uneasy feeling that the priest in adhering to the seal enables the practitioner of illegalities to remain in practice. This is the challenge now placed before the seal of confession in light of revelations of abuse within the Catholic Church.

A Practical Consideration

The first thing to reflect upon here is something practical. Confessions are now often held in a confessional box. This box has a screen between the penitent and the priest, and the screen can range from a metal grill to a curtain. Such an arrangement preserves the anonymity of the confessional so as to make it practically impossible to violate the seal even if the priest wanted to do so. With such an arrangement, the value of any evidence gathered from the confessional where the penitent is practically anonymous would be negligible (Jeremy Bentham makes a similar point in a passage quoted below, though not for the same reasons).

Nevertheless, confession does not have to be so anonymous, and confession can be had face to face. In those cases, evidence collected from the confessional would likely not be negligible, and so the argument is made that in those cases the seal should be broken so as to facilitate investigation of criminal activity.

Some Precedents

We do not have to look too far in the secular world to observe something akin to the confessional seal; this is found in both journalism and in the legal profession, though of course to a different extent and with different conditions than that of confession. Nevertheless, in both journalism and the legal profession there is recognised the principle that there obtains a certain relationship wherein disclosures can be made which disclosures cannot be used to prejudice the person at some later date.

This principle is more controversial and less embedded in the world of journalism than it is in the legal profession. Journalists, especially investigative ones, tend to maintain the confidentiality of their sources, and this precisely so that their sources can feel confident in approaching the journalist with information. Whilst this is a practice in journalism, it is not as well embedded as the same principle is in the legal profession.

There exists a long-standing legal practice in common law known as professional privilege. The principle behind professional privilege is that a client can make disclosures to his lawyer without fear that these disclosures will prejudice him in the future. Whilst there are certain circumstances in which privilege does not apply, the idea behind it is that if it were not in place and a client could not reveal something in confidence to his counsel, then it would be impossible to have a justice system with a professional class of legal men and women, since nobody could trust such people with their disclosures. As Lord Brougham put it in Greenough v Gaskell (1833): ‘…[I]t is out of regard to the interests of justice, which cannot be upholden, and to the administration of justice, which cannot go on without the aid of men skilled in jurisprudence, in the practice of the courts, and in those matters affecting rights and obligations which form the subject of all judicial proceedings. If the privilege did not exist at all, everyone would be thrown upon his own legal resources, deprived of professional assistance, a man would not venture to consult any skilful person, or would only dare tell his counsellor half his case’.

The Confessional Seal

Turning to confession then, and in a similar vein to journalism and the legal profession, if there were no seal of confession, an individual would be unable to bring his sins before God in the sacrament without fear that the priest would reveal his sins to others. People would gradually cease to confess their sins, and their souls would be lost. As Jeremy Bentham (not exactly a friend to Catholicism) put it: ‘The advantage gained by the coercion, gained in the shape of assistance to justice, would be casual, and even rare: the mischief produced by it, constant and all-extensive…The advantages of a temporal nature, which, in the countries in which this religious practice is in use, flow from it at present, would in a great degree be lost: the loss of them would be as extensive as the good effects of the coercion in the character of an aid to justice. To form any comparative estimate of the bad and good effects flowing from this institution, belongs not, even in a point of view purely temporal, to the design of this work. The basis of the inquiry is that this institution is an essential feature of the Catholic religion, and that the Catholic religion is not to be suppressed by force.’

What is being enabled is not the ability of those breaking the law to continue breaking it (for obviously the advice and admonition of the priest, as well as legal professionals and journalists, would be not to break the law); rather, what is being enabled is a special relationship whereby one can reveal to another one’s mistakes without fear of prejudice. Such a relationship is somewhat necessary in the legal profession and in investigative journalism, but it is also necessary in the spiritual life so that the sinner may confidently come before God and make himself vulnerable; otherwise sinners will not trust the confessional and will not likely confess their sins. This lack of confidence in and falling away from confession will not only apply to those committing abuse or other illegal activities, but also to those not breaking the law but still caught up in sin and seeking reconciliation. It is the normal everyday individual who abides by the law but finds himself sinning who will cease to approach the confessional if the seal is broken. Hence the need for the seal to remain in place.