The Institute for Church Life hosts a conference on human dignity

“In recent years, the concept of human dignity has come under intense scrutiny and has even been dismissed as ‘stupid’ and ‘useless,’” proclaims the Human Dignity Lecture and Conference 2016 website. This line sums up the motivation behind the recent conference on human dignity hosted at Notre Dame on April 3-5 by the Institute for Church Life.

Titled “The End of Human Dignity?: Recovering the Intellectual Appeal of Human Dignity for the Theological and Philosophical Imagination,” the conference brought together philosophers and theologians alike to foster discussion about the defense of human dignity. The conference featured speakers such as O. Carter Snead, director of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture and an expert in bioethics; John Cavadini, Director of the Institute for Church Life; and Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria.

Cardinal Onaiyekan opened the conference on April 3 with a lecture entitled “Human Dignity: From Human Race to Human Family” about human dignity and the Church’s teachings concerning the human person. When Cardinal Onaiyekan was appointed the titular bishop of Thunusuda and Auxiliary of the Diocese of Llorina in 1982, he was the youngest bishop in Nigeria.             

In his lecture on human dignity, Cardinal Onaiyekan emphasized care for our fellow man and cooperation with others in striving to make the world a better place. Human dignity, he said, should be at the forefront of our discussions about war, peace, the family, religion, and interfaith dialogue. Improvement can be made by changing cultural attitudes and, furthermore, Catholics should be role models in living out the human vocation to love one another.  

Throughout his career, Cardinal Onaiyekan has emphasized interfaith work and was a 2012 Nobel Prize candidate alongside the Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Muhammed Sa’ad Abubakar III for their work promoting peace in Nigeria. These two religious leaders represented Christianity and Islam, the two main faiths present in Nigeria. In his lecture at the conference, Cardinal Onaiyekan emphasized inter-faith dialogue and cooperation as a means of ensuring progress. He spoke about the Muslim perspective and stressed the common foundations between faiths that can be utilized to sustain human dignity around the world.

Stephen M. Barr, Professor of Physics at the University of Delaware, followed Cardinal Onaiyekan on April 5 with a talk entitled “Is the Human Mind Reducible to Physics?” in which he tackled the problem of physicalism or materialism. Supporters of this notion argue that the human mind can be entirely explained by the laws of physics. If this were the case, then it is argued that the spiritual cannot affect the material, if the spiritual exists in the first place. He presented five arguments that demonstrated how there is more to the operations of the human mind than can be explained by physics alone.

One of his arguments claimed that consciousness cannot be explained in purely physical terms. Color sensation, for example, can be described in terms of wavelength, but physics can never take into account the subjective experience of color. A blind person could have the deepest knowledge of the physics of light, but he or she would not have the experience of color.

In another argument, Barr considered the nature of truth or abstract concepts themselves, claiming that they have to be more than mere mechanics. Math, he said, cannot be simply a collection of electrical signals. There has to be an element of grasping abstract truths if math is to be studied and understood. Humans do not operate under a strict set of rules; rather, they have the capacity to understand abstract truths and to manipulate them to arrive at different outcomes.

Initiatives such as this conference strive to upholding the university’s mission of open academic dialogue within a context of faith. In the words of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, in 2011 during the inaugural lecture of the University of Notre Dame Human Dignity Project, an initiative of the Institute for Church Life, “if we really believed [the great dignity of the human person], think of what a difference it would make in the way I treat myself, in the way I treat others. It would be life-saving.”

Brie Bahe is a junior neuroscience and behavior major, philosophy minor. She appreciates all woodland creatures except the aggressive Notre Dame squirrels who try to steal her Grab N’ Go lunches. Please feel free to contact her at