Gaudium et Spes 41 begins by suggesting that humanity is indeed experiencing a time of progress. But it is only through the reliance on God — and the recognition that God fulfills our deepest human longings — that this “development” can reach its full potential:
Modern (humanity) is on the road to a more thorough development of (its) own personality, and to a growing discovery and vindication of (its) own rights. Since it has been entrusted to the Church to reveal the mystery of God, Who is the ultimate goal of (humankind), she opens up to (people) at the same time the meaning of (their) own existence, that is, the innermost truth about (themselves). The Church truly knows that only God, Whom she serves, meets the deepest longings of the human heart, which is never fully satisfied by what this world has to offer.
We might not always possess the full awareness of it, but God even works deeply upon believers themselves, to further the plan of salvation:
She also knows that (people are) constantly worked upon by God’s spirit, and hence can never be altogether indifferent to the problems of religion. The experience of past ages proves this, as do numerous indications in our own times. For (people) will always yearn to know, at least in an obscure way, what is the meaning of (their) life, of (their) activity, of (their) death. The very presence of the Church recalls these problems to his mind. But only God, Who created (human beings) to His own image and ransomed (them) from sin, provides the most adequate answer to the questions, and this He does through what He has revealed in Christ His Son, Who became (flesh). Whoever follows after Christ, the perfect (human being), become (themselves) more (human). For by His incarnation the Father’s Word assumed, and sanctified through His cross and resurrection, the whole of (the person), body and soul, and through that totality the whole of nature created by God for (human) use.
At this point, it’s appropriate to ask, “What makes Jesus special?” It’s also timely, for the celebrations of Holy Week point in a special way to the most profound aspect of Christ’s example: his emptying, or kenosis. A person who throws herself in front of a bus to save a child. A person who has sacrificed tirelessly for the poor and needy. Even if these people are not believers, and not conscious in any way about the Paschal Mystery — in such sacrifices, people make the choice to imitate Christ, to take up their cross and follow, even if they do not know Another has walked that same path.
The Church is in a difficult place today. More difficult certainly, than forty years ago. We need leaders who embody those core values of kenosis: people who can do more than talk about sacrifice. When we find them, I think the relationship with the modern world is eased, at least in the sense of being able to communicate clearly the Christian vision.
Thanks to this belief, the Church can anchor the dignity of human nature against all tides of opinion, for example those which undervalue the human body or idolize it. By no human law can the personal dignity and liberty of (people) be so aptly safeguarded as by the Gospel of Christ which has been entrusted to the Church. For this Gospel announces and proclaims the freedom of the (children) of God, and repudiates all the bondage which ultimately results from sin (cf. Rom. 8:14-17); it has a sacred reverence for the dignity of conscience and its freedom of choice, constantly advises that all human talents be employed in God’s service and (people’s), and, finally, commends all to the charity of all (cf. Matt. 22:39).
As I read this section, I think the laity have a special apostolate these days to assist in overcoming the poor image of the hierarchy. This last paragraph is certainly true, in spite of the sinfulness of those who have harbored sexual predators.
This agrees with the basic law of the Christian dispensation. For though the same God is Savior and Creator, Lord of human history as well as of salvation history, in the divine arrangement itself, the rightful autonomy of the creature, and particularly of (humankind) is not withdrawn, but is rather re-established in its own dignity and strengthened in it.
And who best to exemplify the confirmation and strength of human dignity? Lay people empowered by their relationship with Christ.
The Church, therefore, by virtue of the Gospel committed to her, proclaims the rights of (people); she acknowledges and greatly esteems the dynamic movements of today by which these rights are everywhere fostered. Yet these movements must be penetrated by the spirit of the Gospel and protected against any kind of false autonomy. For we are tempted to think that our personal rights are fully ensured only when we are exempt from every requirement of divine law. But this way lies not the maintenance of the dignity of the human person, but its annihilation.
GS alludes here, I think, to the notion of rights-plus-duties, rather than a rights-alone approach. Human rights are indeed an essential component of human dignity. Human rights are most often abused by leaders. The same leaders, of course, overemphasize duty and forsake the rights of others. Striking a balance in this is vital. Each person indeed has rights. But each person also has particular duties to fulfill in his or her role in a family, in friendships and associations, with the commitments of school and work, as well as within larger groups: in churches, neighborhoods, and political entities, including the world as a whole.