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Human Dignity is Inviolable

by Franz Kamphaus Monday, May. 23, 2005 at 3:45 AM

The Christian faith is obviously losing ground. Disorientation and superstition spread. The merciless religionof the market has long replaced faith in the humanitarian God..Act so you always trat people as ends in themselves and never as means to an end (Kant).


By Franz Kamphaus

[This address by Bishop Franz Kamphaus in Kassel, 3/26/1998 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

In Homer’s battle against Troy, Philoktet was bitten by a serpent before the Greeks reached the city. The sight and stench of his suppurating wound was so unbearable to the other heathen that they abandoned him on a remote island. Courage in battle and determination for victory would be endangered by signs of weakness. Behold the repression of sickness three thousand years ago.

After a nearly ten-year battle, the Greeks learned through an oracle that they would not conquer Troy without the weapons of Philoktet. Odysseus and Neoptolomus were sent out to steal the bow from the seriously wounded hero. When they saw him, Neoptolomos realized it was pointless to take away the bow without taking him along in the ship. The ailing one belonged to the healthy in the boat.


The truth lying in this story like a seed is found – very distinctly – in the prophets of Israel. The suffering Servant of God is the Savior of the people. Jesus of Nazareth entered consciously in this tradition. He did not leave the disabled and weak at the edge or outside but brought them into the middle. He liberated those written off by society from the stigma of guilt and demonic possession. He declared the sick were the place of encounter with God (“I was sick and you visited me”). He not only taught this revolutionary truth; he suffered it himself and died for it.

Where would we be without Jesus of Nazareth? The dignity and uniqueness of the person as a person, the dignity of disabled, sick and weak persons, would not have come to light. I know the modern program of freedom and human rights often had to be realized against Christianity. I do not trivialize the bloodstains in church history.

Without Jesus of Nazareth, there would be no universalized consciousness of freedom, equality, brotherliness and sisterliness, human rights and human duties or of the individuality and sociality of every person, his or her healthy qualities and disabilities, deeds and atrocities, achievements and slips.

A supposedly enlightened emphasis on humanity and tolerance forgets that these foundations of our society would not have come into the world without Christianity. Jurgen Habermas is an excellent witness. “I do not believe,” he writes, that we Europeans could not seriously understand terms like morality and morals, person and individuality, freedom and emancipation without appropriating the substance of the Jewish-Christian history of salvation.” Heinrich Boll was right: “I would prefer the worst Christian world to the best heathen world because there is space in a Christian world for those without space in any heathen world, for the disabled and the sick, seniors and the weak. There is more than space for them. There is love for those who appear useless to the heathen world. I believe in Christ and I believe that 800 million Christians on this earth could change the face of this earth. Imagine a world without Christ.”

I don’t quote this to come on strong but to explain what is happening in our world. The Christian faith is obviously losing ground. Many see this with pleasure and think enlightenment and humanity will sprout from the ground in the vacuum. Far from it! Disorientation and superstition spread. The merciless “religion of the market” has long replaced faith in the humanitarian God. Commerce dictates in all areas of life and trivializes nearly all themes. When the soul is sold on the market, one need not be amazed that the social climate becomes frosty and many freeze to death. The weak are hit first.


The disabled are the emergency in which the principle of human dignity’s inviolability has to stand the test. The person has dignity, not value. Worlds separate dignity and value. “Value” comes from the economy. It has its hidden danger when one unscrupulously transfers the term into ethics. Value is the basis of price. “What is that worth?” We know measurements, limiting values and cash values. These values are governed by the definition of the person and are negotiable. Limiting values are set by commissions. Measurements are statistical results of experiments. The value of currency is subject to the fluctuations of interest-rates.

The term dignity is a countervailing term. The dignity of the person means that the person cannot judge himself. He is withdrawn from assessment by people. Classifying persons in value categories is alarming and risky. The backside of the “valuable” person is “unworthiness.” We have had experience with this unworthiness.

Dignity language has nothing to do with assessment language. Dignity language represents the basic principle of Immanuel Kant: “Act so you always treat people as ends in themselves and never merely as instruments or means to an end.”

Whoever wants to define the dignity of other persons violates the equality and justice principle. He makes himself into a superman over others and ultimately confuses himself with God. This happened when the American physicist and reproduction researcher Richard Seeds announced at the beginning of 2005: “Cloning is the first serious step to become like God.” The person claims to define the fate of other persons. Only faith in God ultimately protects against this “God-complex.” Faith in God unmasks megalomania and forces us to be realistic toward ourselves with our possibilities and limits.

Every person and all persons are God’s likeness. This principle entered humanity’s history through the Jewish-Christian tradition. The dignity of the person is established there. Therefore this dignity is inviolable. Because the person belongs to God, he is withdrawn from human grasp. This is settled for Christians in that God assumed our nature in the incarnation of his Son Jesus Christ.

Freedom of the person characterizes the God-given and God-guaranteed human dignity. Can this freedom survive without its guarantors? Signs of the time seem depressing. The movers and shakers are advancing. Whatever can be programmed counts. Everything becomes technically producible, even at the end the producing person. Freedom falls by the wayside, the freedom to become myself, an original, not the copy of another.

Can we resist the dissolution of this freedom without God? If human dignity is only dignity according to the agreement or social contract, then it would not be looking very good. Contracts are terminable, even those concerning human rights and human dignity. We have had enough experience of this in our century. If God no longer honors us, who will? What remains of our dignity? Is it a product of development, the environment or conditions? Whoever can manipulate the environment and conditions will also manipulate people and their dignity. Then inviolability ends. Encroachments occur ruthlessly at the expense of the weak before and after birth to the end of life. The way is open for those who will stop at nothing. Our social order lives from presuppositions that it cannot produce itself. Without the heaven over us, we lose the ground under us.


We experience today how the person manipulates himself by means of genetic engineering. While he has long organized his environment, he now sets out to manipulate his own life. Incursions in the embryo path make this possible. With the human gene, the vital basis of human dignity is violated irreversibly. This incursion occurs without asking the affected. Exhaustive embryo experiments are necessary, a research that abuses and destroys embryos as test material. Fortunately this is still prohibited in Germany.

This “progress” is justified with the “immanent logic of highly industrialized modern states.” Accordingly as the Bremen social researcher Klaus Haefner said, “cloning is in the hands of people who resolutely remove their natural conditions.” Technical progress legitimates drastic manipulations of other people. Haven’t we experienced enough the incredible ambivalence of so-called progress? The dying of species, the ozone hole and environmental pollution are examples. For many people, the hole in the sky represents hell on earth. Where will this “progress” bring us if we apply it unscrupulously to the building blocks of human life?

If human dignity is inviolable, it seems counter-productive to bring persons into the world against their parents’ will who will lead a hard or physically handicapped life.”

So much for Haefner. Does handicapped life violate the dignity of parents? Do only healthy grown people have this dignity, not the disabled and unborn?

Great healing possibilitie4s are opened up in modern medicine and genetic engineering. However prenatal diagnostics seduces physicians and parents to search more and more for the “weaknesses” of the unborn. For the parents, the “reasonability” of a genetic defect or a recognized handicap becomes the judgment over life and death for the unborn child – with the most perfect methods and a clean record before the law. Who guarantees that complete grasp of the human genetic code will not accelerate this process of selection? The old dream of perfect persons, persons with a genetic seal of quality, is revived. This dream is dreamt at the expense of the imperfect. We are all essentially imperfect.

Homer knew this better. The heathen could only reach their goal with the ailing Philoktet and his weapon in the boat. No one may sneak away from the companions in distress of the healthy and sick, the disabled and the less disabled and the perfect and not-so-perfect. No one may be expelled from that community. A society of the strong that fades out the weak and disabled does not see an essential part of reality. The disabled cannot usually hide their weakness. They show us as in a mirror that the person has limits and represses and lies when he only demonstrates strength. The person is not strong because he fades out the other half of reality.

In Christa Wolf’s “Cassandra”, the prophetess says to the conquerors of troy: “When you cease conquering, your city will survive.” Turning to the charioteer, she adds: “I don’t know any victor who does this.” Can one live in this world only as a conqueror? Isn’t there any other possibility than conquering and fighting at the expense of others? Is winning everything and neediness nothing but weakness? That cannot be true. Then our sympathetic talent would wither, the ability to give thanks, accept life, admit limits and see life as meaningful even in the fragment and in its brokenness. Still we are not only justified as men of action, producers or doers.

With a trace of hope, Cassandra says: “I believe that we don’t know our nature and that I don’t know everything. There may be persons in the future who know how to transform their victory into life.” These persons exist. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. His sign of victory is the crown of thorns, not the laurel wreath. He transformed his victory into life.


The effort at a binding Europe-wide convention on all these questions, especially regarding the globalization of the economy deserves support. However the drafted human rights convention for biomedicine is inadequate. I can illustrate this in two examples.

The convention distinguishes between the human creature and the individual, between reproductive and non-reproductive cloning and so forth. The definition who and what is human life and when it begins is still open. But if dignity is inviolable, who may define when it comes to a person? In any case a “division of the human” (D. Mieth) occurs into a life without and a life with human dignity. In this connection, it is beyond me that many politicians are very sensitive in the matter of embryo-path therapy but lack this sensitivity in the matter of abortion.

Vagueness of terms is also striking in the question of researching persons without their consent. I am not convinced that this research must be prohibited on principle. However a clear limit is necessary when the concerned are threatened in their freedom and development possibilities in the long run. The possibilities of genetic engineering go beyond a blood test. They have a very new quality. This possibility that is not excluded by the convention should be rejected.

If one considers the extravagant title of the convention (“Agreement to Protect Human Rights and Human Dignity regarding the use of biology and medicine: Human Rights Agreement on Bio-Medicine”) that speaks twice of human rights and once of human dignity and if one sees the vagueness of the applied terms, I doubt whether the convention (of the participating bio-ethicists and politicians) can achieve its goal – protection of human dignity. One could ask why politicians chose such an extravagant title. A supplementary protocol against the possibility of cloning persons was necessary before ratification by the national parliaments. Why wasn’t this considered directly? How is this quickly possible now? I see the danger that the so-called human rights convention may not really serve the protection of human dignity but could decay to eyewash. I also see the increasing interest of science and the economy in the fetal tissue for transplants and tissue cultures. Only when watertight formulations are applied in the legislation can a research of dubious utility be prevented and human dignity assured..

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