This past week I’ve spent time pondering the link between Pastoral Counseling and Catholic Social Teaching. The foundation of every principal of Catholic Social Teaching rests upon the belief that every single human being has inherent dignity. “Human life is sacred, and the dignity of the human person is the starting point for a moral vision for society. The person is the clearest reflection of God among us (USCCB).” Due to the sacredness we each possess, we are deserving of a certain level of treatment from ourselves, our families and our society. But this isn’t always what we receive. Most people today experience more assaults on their dignity than affirmation of it. And this leaves each of us with a question we all struggle to answer: what am I worth?
Conceptual knowledge of one’s dignity can never replace experiential knowledge of it. It’s much easier to tell someone that they’re a unique, irreplaceable child of God, than to actually love them in a way that helps them understand this truth. But this is what people are starving for; an experience of their dignity. The Church teaches that every individual has a responsibility to advance the dignity of their brothers and sisters and that no one is exempt from this mission. As Pastoral Counselors I believe we have an even greater responsibility in carrying out this mission because we often have greater access to those whose dignity has been diminished. We are working with the broken, the lost, the thirsty, the depressed, the afflicted, the confused, the grieving, the suicidal, the forgotten, the abused, the bullied, the neglected, and the unseen. So many of the people we encounter in therapy are coming to us because their dignity has never been recognized and they now struggle to see it within themselves.
We need to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless, education to the uneducated, and protection to the defenseless. We need to work for peace and ensure justice and be good stewards of the earth. But if we fail to recognize their dignity, none of the aforementioned is possible. Each time we affirm someone’s dignity, we are affirming Christ within them. Blessed Mother Teresa once said:
“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty-it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”
In my limited experience thus far, I have had the honor of working with some of the most broken and beautiful people I have ever encountered. They have had the courage to share their stories with me and expose their wounds before me. They have been stories of abuse, neglect, addiction, abandonment, self-harm and everything in between. They have cried and I have cried for them. I have seen their anger, their shame, their hurt, and the full spectrum of human emotion. Some of them bare visible, physical scars which I have seen and others just carry emotional ones. Each of them are hurting in their own way. Why does this matter? Because when I look at the person across from me and see the suffering that encompasses their humanity I begin to understand why our Church teaches what it teaches. I see their dignity. I see the sacredness of their personhood. I see a child that is so incredibly loved by our Father but struggles to believe it because of all the times the world diminished their worth or cast doubt upon it. The degree to which we see and value one’s human dignity will be the determinant of the magnitude of our understanding, our compassion and our love for them.
If you believe the girl sitting across from you is a precious daughter of God, then her story of being sexually assaulted carries much more weight than if she’s just a disposable means for attaining sexual pleasure. If the man in the AA group only identifies himself by his addiction and fails to differentiate his dignity from his disease, then how much hope will he have for a life of sobriety and wholeness? Dignity is everything. It’s foundational. Our dignity is not dependent on whether we believe it or not. No one can take away someone’s dignity because they didn’t give them their dignity; the Father who created each of us assigned it to us when He breathed life into us. But, whether we see our own dignity and that of others will affect everything. It will affect how we define them, diagnose them and love them. Each of us determine whether we help draw people into a deeper understanding of their dignity, or whether we help perpetuate the lies they believe that make seeing their worth so much more difficult.
As Pastoral Counselors, the way we view our clients will dictate our interactions with them. Will all we define them by is their shortcomings, their lists of sins and their diagnosis or will we look deeper at the reasons they failed and the root of their sins, still seeing a person underneath it all? My supervisor once told me that people do things for one of two reasons: They are trying to have their needs met or they are trying to avoid pain. And I think this is true. Many people today are trying to find something or someone that will help restore their sense of dignity, that will give them a sense of love, a feeling of being wanted. And others are trying to numb the pain of every memory where they weren’t treated with dignity, where their value was conditional. Look around at the homeless man on the corner. How much dignity do you think he feels when he’s begging? Look at the girl crying in her room from the shame of being sexually used time and time again after the promise of love. Do you think she believes in her own dignity? No one goes out intentionally looking to have their value degraded. They don’t dream of a life of begging on a street corner or jumping from one bed to the next. They go out looking to have their worth appreciated. And we must start giving people an experience of this worth if we are to start changing our world.
As Pastoral Counselors we can’t make up for what our clients lack. We can’t rid them of every moment of confusion or pain as they wrestle with trying to discover themselves. We may not be able to convince them of their value and we may not be able to promise them that their dignity will always be safeguarded in the future. But, we can help challenge the lies they carry that create the barriers that make it increasingly difficult to develop a healthy sense of self-worth. We can offer our presence, our love and our theology of dignity. We can walk beside them as they open up about their memories and their present struggles, knowing that they’re not alone. Most importantly, we can point them to the one person who can give them an authentic experience of unconditional love; a love that they will never experience from this world. We can help gently pry open their hearts so that His love can seep into every area of doubt that their hearts contain and His blood can wash over their heart that is so wounded. We can introduce them to Jesus. And if anyone is capable of convincing them of their dignity….it is Him.