Dear Father Angelo,
I am writing to you, Father, to tell you about the doubts I have on the social doctrine of the Church, in particular about how the teachings of the Bible on the equality of all men before God and before mankind should be understood.
A professor at my university says that it was Christianity that inspired the idea that men should be equal before law. This seems to me a commendable merit, but my knowledge, albeit scarce, of the Holy Scriptures gives me a different understanding, namely that the equality of men before God does not imply a social and juridical equality among men; moreover, that if Christianity has inspired the principle of the equality of men before law, it did so simply by not approving and not supporting the social inequalities that existed in past centuries and were considered the only right way to organize society (as other religions do, for example Hinduism), placing less resistance in the face of their decline.
In effect, St. Pius X wrote: “Hence it is that, in human society, it is according to the ordering of God that there are princes and subjects, masters and proletarians, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, nobles and plebeians, who, all united in a bond of love, help each other to achieve their ultimate purpose in Heaven; and here, on earth, their material and moral well-being” [Encyclical “Fin dalla prima (1903)”].
St. Paul of Tarsus asked the master Philemon to welcome the slave Onesimus “as a brother” but this is a particular case that does not express the overall judgment of the Apostle of the Gentiles on servitude; moreover, in other times St. Paul seemed to confirm the validity of the authority of masters over their servants (1 Timothy 6, 1-2). And then, can we be sure that Paul was proposing to Philemon to free Onesimus, when he suggests he welcome him “as a dear brother”, and not simply to forgive his escape, regardless of whether Philemon had decided to free Onesimus or not?
St. Augustine of Hippo, on the other hand, believed that servitude was nothing more than a natural consequence of original sin (De Civitate Dei, XIX, 15), the effects of which, according to Christian dogmas, will be felt by humanity until the end of time.
Please forgive me if the question is a bit too long-winded and thank you for your kindness.
Answer from the priest
1. a distinction must be made between the dignity of the person as such and the roles that individuals have in this world.
2. Now, there is no doubt that all people have equal dignity.
The Second Vatican Council in n. 29 of Gaudium et spes speaks of “the basic equality of all [men]”.
The statement has its foundation above all on reasons of natural law: we all have the same nature and the same origin (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1935).
Divine Revelation further enlightens the truth of equality.
It reminds us that all men have been redeemed by Christ, that all enjoy the same vocation, and that, as man is raised to the dignity of God’s child, there is no longer any reason for claiming supremacy of one over the other: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28). This light helps to overcome the temptations to establish discriminations for reasons of race, sex, and culture.
Everyone, therefore, has equal dignity: man and woman, the children and the elderly, who is starting on the path of life and who is coming to its end. They are in fact persons, and that is to say “individual substances of a reasonable nature” as St. Boethius said in De duabus naturis et una persona Christi, and, as such, no one is more a person than another.
3. Equal and perfect as persons, however, men “are not alike from the point of view of varying physical power and the diversity of intellectual and moral resources” (Gaudium et Spes 29). We would say that they are not the same with regard to character, within which there can be evolution and regression. Character concerns assets that are certainly important to an individual, but secondary (or accidental) to the dignity of the person, such as health, physical fitness, gifts, virtues, abilities, culture, life experience…
In this second area we can also put the roles that people perform in society.
Therefore, within the framework of a school, the principal and the janitor are of equal dignity as people, but have different roles, to the point that the second is subordinate to the first.
The same goes within the hospital framework for the relationship between the doctor and the nurse. Both are of equal dignity as persons, but as for their roles, the second is subordinate to the first.
4. Now, it was Christianity that introduced the concept of equal dignity.
In ancient cultures, slaves were considered things and were the property of their masters.
Even today, in some nations men are stratified into castes.
All of this is contrary to the dignity of the person.
This purification by common consent was carried out by Christianity.
5. In the case of Onesimus, St. Paul did not ask Philemon to set him free, because of how culture was in that time.
But he asked him not to treat him as a thing anymore, because in his personal dignity, and even more so as a son of God, he was of equal dignity to him.
For this reason, he told him to treat him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord” (Phil 1:16).
6. St. Augustine’s claim that servitude is a natural consequence of original sin is true, because servitude in those days was understood as a synonym for slavery, while in the twentieth century to serve someone else or, as it was said, to be a servant did not make one the master’s property at all.
In fact, everyone retained his or her own autonomy and by law had to be legitimized and supplied with a salary, days of rest, and provisions for retirement or for any accident.
I wish you well, I remember you in prayer and I bless you.