The Dignity of Man, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 19 January 1936

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'The interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son in our broadcasts up to this point has been this: The younger son may be likened to Western Civilization which left the Father’s House and squandered its spiritual capital of eternal religious truth. It finally sank so low that it would fain have filled its belly with husks; and this philosophy which fills bellies and mobilizes souls for secular ends is Communism. The choice before the world is between a philosophy which makes society a god, and a society which seeks God.

Today, we begin the inquiry into the first of the four conditions which civilization must fulfill if it is to recover peace and salvation. Returning to the parable for our guide, it will be recalled that while the prodigal was delighting in his new-found pleasures and false liberty, there was very little thought of his spiritual destiny. It is a very interesting thing that he did not begin to reflect until he was reduced to dire need and misery. Our Blessed Lord speaks first of the return of the prodigal in these expressive words: “He entered into himself”. This implies that up to this time he was “outside himself”, or “beside himself”; i. e., all his enjoyments were something external to himself: such as food, pleasure, and dance, and in general what some men call “life”. In this he was like the beasts of the field, for they seek things outside of themselves. The animal in quest of food and the flower lifting its face to the sun, the bird dipping for the worm – all of these have no other end or purpose in life than some object outside themselves. They can nevei enter into themselves, for the very simple reason that they have no rational soul. Man is the only being in the world who can reflect, and hence the only one who can turn back upon himself, be angry with himself, be pleased with himself, contemplate his own thoughts, perceive the difference between what he is and what he seems, between his own worth and what others attribute to him. He is the only creature in the universe who can look upon himself as in a mirror, and see himself as others see him, and even sit, as it were, on another planet and let his feet hang over, contemplating off in the distance another person which happens to be his very self.

Now to continue the historical application of the parable: Civilization will return to peace and order when it ‘”enters into itself’; i. e., reflects upon the end and purpose of being a man. We cannot talk of building a social or economic order for man, unless we know the purpose of a man, any more than an architect can build a house unless he knows the nature of the one to dwell in it. If a dog is to live in it, it will be a dog house; if a criminal is to live in it, it will be a penitentiary; if a Malthusianite is to live in it, it will have no nursery. In like manner, the kind of social order we will build will depend upon the nature of the man for whom it is made. If he is only an economic animal, then we will let Communism give him a bed in a factory; but if he is a rational creature, made to the image and likeness of God, then we will have to build something else besides a factory for him; e. g., a house which will be a home, a school which will be the arsenal of truth for his children, and a church where his soul can escape the servitude of the earthly and mount to eternal union with God,

Hence, I say the fundamental problem facing civilization today is not the problem of unemployment, nor finance, nor free trade, nor gold standards, nor even property rights. The problem of the hour is the problem of man. Wht is a man? Is he an economic animal, or is he a rational creature composed of body and soul, and capable of entering into communion with the triple environment which surrounds him, namely, nature, fellowman, and God? The way we answer the problem of man is the way we will solve our social problem.

Two powerful influences in our civilization have done much to degrade, mechanize, and depersonalize man, and keep him from entering into himself. The first is false economics, which says that the primary end of business is not consumption, but production. Start with this principle and it follows then that the purpose of a machine is not to supply human needs, but to make profit for its owner. The price then becomes more important than the man who pays the price. It is then only a step to say that the produce of God’s bountiful land may be destroyed in the midst of starvation for the sake of an economic price. Man becomes subordinate to economics, instead of economics to man, and this means a degradation and impoverishment of human dignity.

Secondly, a false education is to be blamed for destroying the true nature of man. A bad psychology told man he had no soul, then no mind, and finally no consciousness, but that he was only a complex machine made up of actions and reactions, ganglia and glandoozings. Biology told him he was evolving to the state of a god, then Physics contradicted this and told him that in view of the greatness of the universe he was only a “crustal phenomenon floating on an insignificant planet”. Robbed of God by the error that God was only a symbol for “the ideal tendency in things”; robbed of will by the behaviorist and gland psychology; robbed of his intellect by theories of knowledge which doubted his capacity to know; robbed of his soul by the subconscious, the subliminal, and sex – he became only an atom dissolved in the mass of a two-dimensional universe of space and time, with no other purpose than like an ant to pile his contribution of economic wealth on the great ant-hill of the State and then to die and to be seen no more. Such is the end of the Renaissance which began by exalting man without God and ended by slaying both.

These are the two forces which destroyed traditional man, and sought to break the mould in which God poured him. They have created for our times the problem stated so clearly in the parable, namely, whether man is to seek niaterial things wholly outside himself, like husks, or to enter into himself and recognize his eternal destiny. This problem must be solved before any economic problem can be solved, for what is the use of constructing an economics for man unless we know the nature of man? The problem of man must be solved first because it is on his account that the social problem must be solved. When the world was living on the spiritual capital given to it by the Church, systems of economics and government and finance acknowledged the true nature of man. But now that the nature of man is challenged, and human personality is absorbed by the state as in Russia, Mexico, and Germany, and when economic rights precede human rights, the problem of man must be settled first. And if it is not settled, then all our solutions ¦will fail, for souls are being born into the world every minute, presenting the riddle all over again. Our problem today then is the problem of the Forgotten Man Рnot the forgotten man in the sense of the man who is unemployed, or hungry; not the forgotten man who is economically dispossessed, or socially disinherited; not the forgotten man of the bread lines, but forgotten man in the sense of forgotten human dignity, forgotten human worth, forgotten divine destiny, forgotten personality, forgotten power to rise above the state and the collective to commune with the Life and Truth and Love which is God. This is the real Forgotten man of our day Рthe man who can enter into him- self and find down in the depths of his soul that he was made for God and only God can make him remembered Рeven for eternity.

Now, we ask, how can a prodigal civilization re-discover its last harmony? Only in the same way the prodigal son discovered his, namely by entering into itself; i. e., by recognizing the simple but forgotten principle that man has a final end. One of the first questions in the penny catechism is: “Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next.”‘ These words which sum up the wisdom of Aristotle and Saint Thomas and the best thought of the world, both pre-Christian and Christian, are worth more than all our modern prophets who have not yet discovered why they are men. They reveal that this world is a stage of character-making wherein all our actions have tremendous consequences; where happiness like art must be won by effort, by struggle and practice; where a soul is at stake in the living of a human life, for we are not only creatures but creatures of our eternal destiny. This fundamental concept of rational and moral relations between God and man involving the eternal happiness of man with God, must penetrate the whole of life. At every moment from birth to death man is envisaged as seeking the realization of the “ought to be”. For this end he has been placed here. Hence none of his actions is insignificant; nothing is indifferent, nothing is trivial; everything he does, thinks, or chooses brings him nearer his goal or away from it. According to this philosophy every economic, political act of man is in a certain sense a religious and moral act. Man’s final end is God and all proximate ends must keep this in mind. But once God as the goal or purpose of life is lost there is nothing left but scepticism and pessimism and a complete conversion to the earthly things which is the sign of mortal sin. It was just such a blindness to the final end of man which produced our modern cry that “business is business”, implying that ethics and morality and religion have nothing to do with business. Business is not business- – business is either good business or had business, and it is good or bad because it helps or does not help man to attain his final destiny which is God. Forget the ultimate destiny of man and a new god will be created for him – a cruel god, which is the tyrannical State, as modern history is so well proving. When Rome forgot its religion it deified its emperors; when Western Civilization forgets its Christianity it begins to deify the State. This is Communism, the Moloch devouring men who forgot they had an immortal eternal tryst with undying Love who is God.

But once start with the true dignity of man, namely, by recognizing that he has a final end; that he is a personality living his complete life in society with obligations to his neighbor and to God; and finally that this world is only a prelude to the next – then we shall have the basis of true social reconstruction. Then “production is on account of man and not man on account of production, then the object of profit is that a man may provide for himself and for others according to their state, then the object of providing for himself and others is that they may be enabled to live virtuously. The object of the virtuous life is the attainment of ever-lasting glory with God.” Then the world instead of being the storehouse of our mounded dust, becomes the scene of our greatest victory; then wealth is not something to acquire, but something to be used to increase virtue; then man becomes primary and economics secondary; then the material is the channel of the spiritual, and the universe becomes one great scaffolding up which souls climb to the Kingdom of God – and when the last soul shall have climbed up through that scaffolding then it shall be torn down and burnt with fervent fire, not because it is bare, but because it has done its work – it has brought us back to where we started – the very heart of God.

In conclusion, if we doubt that the problem of man is primary, then let it be recalled that never before in the history of the world has there been so much power and never before have men been so prepared to use that power for the destruction of human life; never before has there been so much gold, and never before has there been so much poverty; never before has there been so much wealth, and never before has there been such an economic crisis; never before has there been so much food, and never before has there been so much starvation; never before have there been so many facts and never before have there been so many unsolved problems; never before has there been so much education, and never before has there been so little coming to the knowledge of truth. It is therefore not the material and the economic which has failed us, but the moral and religious inspiration to direct our material resources for the common good and the glory of God. This does not mean that there must not be political and economic and financial solutions; but it does mean these are secondary, and that they cannot be ultimately attained until we have “entered into ourselves” and discovered the end and purpose of being a man. This does not mean that anyone who interests himself in political and economic matters has played false to the Kingdom of God; but it does mean that while due weight must be given to mass legislation as an instrument of reform, these things can be accomplished only by bringing God’s breath upon the face of the earth. As Leo XIII stated in his Rerum Novarum: . . The things of earth cannot be understood or valued aright without taking into consideration the life to come, the life that will know no death.”

The note of this encyclical is: Spiritual and moral regeneration is the condition of political and economic reconstruction. Both economics and politics are doomed to unreality and failure unless grounded on the recognition that man is a spiritual being with ideals beyond this world. To recommend only political and economic panaceas for the world problem of dehumanized forgotten man, is like recommending face powder for someone suffering from jaundice, or an alcohol rub for someone suffering from cancer. It is not our bodies that are ill; the soul of civilization is sick. The world is in a state of mortal sin and it needs absolution. Vain platitudes about ‘Regeneration”, “the Constitution”, and “progress”, are not going to save us even though we do go on shouting them louder and louder. We need a new word in our vocabulary – and that word is God. We need a new standard of judging men than by the wealth they acquire, and that is the virtues they practice. We need less emphasis on the Five Year Plan and more on the Eternal Plan, for what doth it profit a man if he fill the world with tractors and lose his immortal soul?