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Human Dignity – An action-guiding concept in today’s and tomorrow’s “Ecclesia in Europa”?

Dear friends from “Obnova” Ukraine, dear guests,

I would like to start with a quotation:

“European culture gives the impression of  “silent apostasy” on the part of people who have all that they need and who live as if God does not exist. This is the context for those attempts, including the most recent ones, to present European culture with no reference to the contribution of the Christian religion which marked its historical development and its universal diffusion. We are witnessing the emergence of a new culture, largely influenced by the mass media, whose content and character are often in conflict with the Gospel and the dignity of the human person. This culture is also marked by an widespread and growing religious agnosticism, connected to a more profound moral and legal relativism rooted in confusion regarding the truth about man as the basis of the inalienable rights of all human beings. At times the signs of a weakening of hope are evident in disturbing forms of what might be called a ‘culture of death’.” (9)

Although this rather unambiguous statement seems to be rooted in Benedict the XVI.’s teaching which hints at the permanent menace of what the Holy Father calls “dictatorship of relativism”, it is in fact taken from an Apostolic Exhortation of his predecessor John Paul II.

I discovered this document on the Vatican website when searching for an inspiring text which could serve the following multiple purposes:

1)      to transmit the central values and to be an authentic background of what a European Catholic student organization such as JECI-MIEC realizes in its everyday work and concrete actions while

2)      taking into account and paying a tribute to the topic chosen by Obnova: “Human dignity in John Paul II. teaching” although the presenter is not an expert at all on John Paul II. teachings and

3)      to offer a thematic basis on which also the other students as invited guests – even if they are non-believers – can reflect and discuss on.

What can better serve all this purposes, than a text named “Ecclesia in Europa” – “Church in Europe”?

The impact Church’s existence in fact had for the historical development of Europe is shortly, but pointedly described as follows:

The Church’s concern for Europe is born of her very nature and mission. Down the centuries the Church has been closely linked to our continent, so that Europe’s spiritual face gradually took shape thanks to the efforts of great missionaries, the witness of saints and martyrs, and the tireless efforts of monks and nuns, men and women religious and pastors. From the biblical conception of man Europe drew the best of its humanistic culture, found inspiration for its artistic and intellectual creations, created systems of law and, not least, advanced the dignity of the person as a subject of inalienable rights. The Church, as the bearer of the Gospel, thus helped to spread and consolidate those values which have made European culture universal.” (25)

Among the values fostered by the Church John Paul II. also names the “dignity of the person”, which is the core focus of this conference. Of course the literary source wherefrom Christianity argues in favor of a dignity of human beings can be found in Genesis 1,27 and therefore in the cultural context of ancient Israel. But the concept of human dignity neither ends there nor is this passage sufficient in itself. For Christians the value-added is so to speak what John Henry Newman says, when he is requested to reduce Christian doctrine to one central idea: “God became human in Jesus Christ”. The further development of the dignity-concept, among others, became as imago-Dei-doctrine” one of the milestones in Christian medieval theology and philosophy which helped to offer clarifications and precise interpretations. The development of the Church, the formation of European thinking and the concept of human dignity are in fact closely interrelated. John Paul II. therefore demands:

“To give new impetus to its own history, Europe must ‘recognize and reclaim with creative fidelity those fundamental values, acquired through a decisive contribution of Christianity, which can be summarized in the affirmation of the transcendent dignity of the human person, the value of reason, freedom, democracy, the constitutional state and the distinction between political life and religion’” (109)

That this statement has certain raison d’être is witnessed by the fact that among the thinkers of the age of enlightenment the dignity concept was further elaborated. For example Immanuel Kant came to a similar strong position in favor of the human dignity, although his argumentation leaves out any theological implications. To shortly reconstruct Kant’s argument, every human being has a dignity, because every human being is an aim in itself as a bearer of reason. What Church’s doctrine renders additionally, is the concept of the human being as a person, considering not only his or her cognitive dimension such as reason, but also its emotions and weaknesses. In fact this approach does not exclude reason and offers Christians the possibility to discover overlaps between their own and different worldviews. The exhortation itself states:

“Because of its intrinsic connection with the dignity of the human person, the Church’s social doctrine is also capable of being appreciated by those who are not members of the community of believers.” (99)

Of course our European history does neither end in the age of enlightenment nor now. In today’s discussion we can basically find two competing theories on human dignity:

1)      Human dignity in the classical sense described above as the intrinsic and never losable value of human beings.

2)      Hinting at the fact, that human dignity – although not being losable as such – can be violated nonetheless, critics of the first position understand human dignity as an imperative to be realized again and again.

Both positions have their strengths. That is why John Paul II. figures out the relevance of an ongoing promotion of the value of human dignity:

“Given this state of affairs, it is necessary to serve the Gospel of life through ‘a general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life. All together, we must build a new culture of life’. This is the great challenge which we must accept as our responsibility, in the certainty that ‘the future of European civilization greatly depends on the resolute defence [sic.] and promotion of the life-giving values which are the core of its cultural patrimony’. This means restoring to Europe her true dignity as a place where every person is affirmed in his or her incomparable dignity.” (96)

How and with which means can this restoring function properly? The document goes on:

“By the body of principles which it sets forth, the Church’s social doctrine helps [to] lay solid foundations for a humane coexistence in justice, peace, freedom and solidarity. Because it is aimed at defending and promoting the dignity of the human person, which is the basis not only of economic and political life, but also of social justice and peace, this doctrine proves capable of upholding the supporting structures of Europe’s future. It contains points of reference which make it possible to defend the moral structure of freedom, so as to protect European culture and society both from the totalitarian utopia of ‘justice without freedom’ and from the utopia of ‘freedom without truth’ which goes hand in hand with a false concept of ‘tolerance’. Both utopias portend errors and horrors for humanity, as the recent history of Europe sadly attests.” (98)

After this short presentation of the highlights on human dignity which can be found in the Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in Europa”, I would now like to contextualize this text in the concrete work and projects of the European Coordination JECI-MIEC to figure out, that the Christian concept of human dignity can indeed be action guiding in our everyday lives as student leaders.

What are our concepts and values in concrete and which activities do we use to implement them? I could refer to our website one more time, but I will leave this reference up to you and illustrate however some highlights from the recent past and those which are planned for the near future:

During our Colloquium in March we reconsidered a topic discussed already in 2004: Integral Education. We found out, that this more or less ambiguous term must not necessarily be associated with Hindu or New Age doctrine, but can also be based on Catholic views on the human being. Integral Education understood from this perspective aims at the whole person as image of God being learner and multiplier of skills, values and spirituality. Concerning the interrelatedness of individuals and society, Integral Education also aims at the person’s actions to make up communities. We established a plan of actions starting from this general concept as the general methodological framework to clarify HOW to work on different topics in future. Fortunately the European Youth Foundation awarded a Study Session in the European Youth Centre in Strasbourg for 19th-26th February 2012 on the theme ‘Creating Empowered Students in Human Rights through Integral Education’. This can be regarded as an exemplary activity which focuses at the value of human dignity from both a methodological and thematic point of view: Human Rights as an instance of applied human dignity conveyed by the means Integral Education. In the context of society the concept of Integral Education certainly promotes Active Citizenship. This was a core element of all JECI-MIEC activities throughout 2011. Active Citizenship is a long term objective, which has to be always viewed, evaluated and contextualized from different perspectives and with different focuses. It provides the indisputable precondition for tolerance, peace-building and conflict resolution. These generally in both religious and secular contexts decisive social aims were covered in our Study Session in July. This Study Session was an activity of JECI-MIEC Europe in cooperation with the international Level of IMCS Pax Romana. Using such an approach, we provided the opportunity to realise intercultural learning by experiencing the realities of different organizations all over the world and offered a platform for fruitful dialogue. The sessions covering these ideals went far beyond mere definition and theoretical reflection of tolerance, peace-building and conflict resolution, but tried to contextualize them within our students’ realities and aimed to make them practicably recognizable among the single National Organizations. As the Study Session shows, these values can be elementary achieved through Intercultural Learning. This was also addressed during our Colloquium in Kaunas in March. The way JECI-MIEC promotes Intercultural Learning is mostly informal: A lot of learning experience flows from the participants’ diversity itself; further activities such as intercultural evenings appear to be pleasant and informative. Among all participants the general willingness for intercultural exchange was recognizable throughout all activities.

All of the named concepts can again be found theoretically reflected in one more passage of John Paul II. Apostolic document:

“While restating the ethical criteria which must guide the marketplace and the economy in scrupulous respect for the centrality of the human person, the Church will not fail to engage in dialogue with persons involved in political life, unions and business. This dialogue should aim at building a Europe seen as a community of peoples and individuals, a community joined together in hope, not exclusively subject to the law of the marketplace but resolutely determined to safeguard the dignity of the human person also in social and economic relations.” (87)

The everyday work and administration of the European Coordination is done by the European Team, which is annually elected during our European Committee. At the moment the position of the European Coordinator is occupied by me, whereas the newly elected Executive Board will start its work from the 1st of January 2012 on. Namely the members are Laura Sopon from ASTRU-Cluj Romania, Ryan Merceica from MKSU Malta, Nuno Wemans from MCE Portugal and coming from Obnova fortunately – Romana Mysula. Till then Fani Freri form EKNE Greece works closely together with me.

The Coordination sees one of its essential roles as a sort of link between National Organizations and external partners throughout Europe:

As it regards the member organizations, JECI-MIEC Europe strives for maintaining internal contacts and stability by doing visitations, helping with concrete problems and offering programs for students as well as young student leaders. Moreover the Coordination keeps contact and strives for collaboration with the international levels of IYCS/JECI and IMCS/MIEC Pax Romana as well as with the academics’ organization ICMICA/MIIC Pax Romana. The communication with the movements is regularly done via e-mail, Google groups of movements and through the participants in the Committees.

As it regards other partners on European level, the work is mostly about external representation: We for example represent our Coordination towards the “European Youth Forum” (YFJ) during the annual Councils of Members and General Assemblies.

Also these representational and contact tasks undertaken by the Coordination can be led by suggestions we can find in the words of John Paul II.:

“At the same time, it is a matter of becoming involved in the processes of social communications, in order to make them more respectful of the truth of information and of the dignity of the human person. In this regard, I invite Catholics to contribute to the establishment of a code of ethics for those who work in the field of social communications, letting themselves be guided by the criteria […] listed as follows: ‘respect for the dignity of the human person, for his or her rights, including the right of privacy; service to truth, to justice and to human, cultural and spiritual values; respect for diverse cultures to avoid their disappearance within the majority, protection of minority groups and of the weak; pursuit of the common good, over and above particular interests and the predominance of economic criteria alone’.” (63)

Apart from the Study Session in February, which I mentioned already, the European Coordination JECI-MIEC will finally hold a European Congress in September 2012, where the working guidelines for the next four years will be elaborated jointly and afterwards adopted in the following European Committee as the highest decision-making body.


At this point I would kindly invite you to our Study Session in February 2012 and especially to the European Congress in September 2012 to bring in your ideas on how the future work of the European Coordination JECI-MIEC should look like, to take part in discussions and decisions and finally to meet students from all over Europe who share similar values, tasks and challenges and come together in the unity of Catholic faith.


Summarisingly I would again like to quote one more statement from the Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in Europa”, which joins the concept of human dignity as conveyed by John Paul II. and the youth work to be done on European level. It illustrates in my eyes best what our Coordination – which again consists of its member organizations – should strive for. I do not claim to have achieved these ideals already, since it would sound vain:

“[…] we need to rediscover the authentic meaning of Christian volunteerism. Born of and continually nourished by faith, Christian volunteer work should combine professional skills and genuine love, impelling those engaged in it ‘to lift their feelings of good will towards others to the heights of Christ’s charity; to renew every day, amid hard work and weariness, their awareness of the dignity of every person; to search out people’s needs and, where necessary, to set out on new paths where needs are greater but care and support weaker’.” (85)

The Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in Europa” can be found in English on:

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