The Dignity of the Human Person

Patrick Breen, O.Carm.

“God created man in the image of himself,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them.”
(Genesis 1:27)

The above text, from the Book of Genesis, is the bedrock of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the human person. Because we are all made in the image and likeness of God we have a dignity which cannot be taken away from any of us. For more than a hundred years the Church has developed this teaching and has consistently taught it especially in the closing years of the twentieth century. No matter where we come from, no matter what our status in life or in society, no matter our beliefs or our colour or where we live, we are all the sons and daughters of God and we each have a dignity which goes with that particular standing at the pinnacle of creation.
That dignity does not put us above creation and does not mean that we can do what we like. We are part of God’s creation and hold a special place within creation but we still have a duty and responsibility before God. The Church is guided by Sacred Scripture and particularly by the teachings of Christ who, before he ascended to heaven, gave us a mandate to “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation” (Mark 16:15). The Gospel is not something which we can keep quiet or to ourselves but is something which has an impact on all aspects of life and which we must proclaim in fulfilment of the Lord’s command.
The dignity of the human person demands that we all be treated equally and that the rights of all people be recognized and upheld. In the Gospel, Christ tells us to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 19:19) and in this there are no distinctions. Our ‘neighbour’ is not simply the person who lives next door to us but anyone and everyone we come into contact with throughout our lives. God’s message then, is not simply for ourselves but for all people. By virtue of our baptism, in which we are all made disciples of Christ, we each have received the mission to proclaim the Good News not simply by what we say but also by what we do, how we treat others, and how we make our decisions. In this way we become fellow workers with God for the sake of the kingdom (Catechism 307). In living out the will of God in our lives we are not diminished in any way but our dignity is enhanced because God has given us free will to act as we wish (Catechism 306, 308). Christ told us to make our homes in him as he makes his home in us (John 15:4) – in other words, Christ is already present within each one of us – and what we do to our fellow men and women we do to Christ who is present in every human being (Mark 25:40). This adds to our dignity and to the sanctity of the human body.
Living a moral life bears witness to the dignity and sanctity of the person (Catechism 1706) and our moral code comes from the teachings of Christ and from Scripture, in particular the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) and the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-21; Deuteronomy 5:1-22) respectively. For the good ordering of society and the protection of all its people a society needs to have a moral code because without it anything is permissible and individuals are open to being seen as commodities.
“Only God, the Supreme Good, constitutes the unshakeable and essential condition of morality, and thus of the commandments, particularly those negative commandments which always and in every case prohibit behaviour and actions incompatible with the personal dignity of every man. The Supreme Good and the moral good meet in truth: the truth of God, the Creator and Redeemer, and the truth of man, created and redeemed by him. Only upon this truth is it possible to construct a renewed society and to solve the complex and weighty problems affecting it, above all the problem of overcoming the various forms of totalitarianism, so as to make way for the authentic freedom of the person.”
Veritatis splendor, 99

The moral code of the Catholic Church comes from God and the Church and its members have a duty and responsibility to live and promote that code. Each of us must play his or her part in society and for Catholics that means that our moral standards are those in keeping with the will of Christ.
Some democracies today are not happy with Catholics standing for public office because they feel that Catholics will do what the Church and the Pope – a foreign sovereign leader – will tell them to do and therefore fear that they are somehow not fully patriotic. Yet the Catholic Church is not against democracy and nationalism and has worked for the freedom of peoples everywhere which has been seen in the conflicts in South America and also in the fall of communism in Russia. The Church continues to fight for human rights and freedom but it is also aware that a democracy has to have values and morals if the rights and dignity of each individual are to be protected. Catholics bring certain values and morals to public life because those in public life cannot stop being Catholic once they leave their home. It is not a wish to impose the Catholic Church on any nation but a desire to see the human rights which flow from our dignity as God’s creatures to be upheld.
“Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy. . . It is the Church’s role to remind men of good will of these rights, and to distinguish them from unwarranted and false claims.”
Catechism 1930; Pacem in terris 65

We have been made stewards of God’s creation (Genesis 1:28) and have an obligation to involve ourselves in the governance and ordering of society with a view to seeking the common good and of respecting the rights and dignity of our fellow men and women as sons and daughters of God.
In a pluralist world many have said that the Catholic Church should remain quiet and not try to impose its will and beliefs on others. However, the Church cannot remain quiet because to do so would be to fail in its duty of proclaiming the Good News to all creation. Also, the Church does not seek to impose its thinking on others but acts from the basis that everyone is created equal with equal standing before God and so seeks to preserve the dignity of every human being regardless of their beliefs. We are called to live in communion with God (Catechism 27) and the Catholic Church seeks to help all men and women to achieve that union while not rejecting anything which is positive in other religions because the Catholic Church is not the sole deposit of the truth (Nostra aetate 2). Three things immediately spring to mind in this regard: abortion, contraception, and euthanasia. In speaking against these three it is often felt that the Church is trying to keep people in misery or punishment or trying to deny them freedom and happiness. The Church has spoken out against these things not because it is not ‘Pro-Choice’ (the fact that something is possible does not mean we have to use that option) but on the grounds that they do not enhance the dignity of the individuals and, in certain circumstances, is very much against the freedom of individuals and the sacredness of human life. In speaking against these issues the Church is not the only ecclesial community or belief system to do so.

For the Church, life does not begin when we are born but begins at the moment of conception and therefore the unborn has the same rights and dignity throughout the pregnancy as do those who have been born (Catechism 2270). The embryo – a technical term often used to dehumanise the unborn child – is a human being with potential. All of us were a simple collection of cells at one stage but we were all fortunate to have been allowed to develop and to be born. The unborn child is a human being and must have special protection because it is unable to protect him or herself. The situation of the parents or the cause of the pregnancy are not reason enough to terminate the pregnancy and, in some countries, the Church has offered every assistance possible to women considering abortion to help them to bring the pregnancy to full term.

In speaking against artificial contraception the Church has not done so because it is against sexuality or sexual intimacy but because contraception does not always enhance the dignity of the individuals involved. The Church teaches that sexual intimacy rightfully belongs within marriage which has the twofold purpose of being life-giving for the couple and also for bringing new life into the world. All too often couples engage in sexual activity not from the point of view of genuine love or respect for one another but simply because it is possible, or a challenge, or because it is ‘forbidden,’ or any number of other reasons. For the Church, artificial contraception makes this possible and can and often has led to men and women been seen only as sexual objects and not as sons and daughters of God. Marriage is sacred for the Church and is one of the seven Sacraments but “this course of action [contraception] can lead to the way being wide open to marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards” (Humanae vitae 17). In particular, the Church has serious concern for women:
“Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraception may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”
Humanae vitae 17

The Church is not against sexuality and sexual intimacy or birth control but is against anything which would cheapen the act of sexual union which is so vital to the life of a couple and of the human race.

The Church has consistently spoken against euthanasia because life is given by God and none of us has the right to take that life away from ourselves or from others. Euthanasia is seen as ‘mercy killing’ or letting a sick person ‘die with dignity.’ But death is not the only answer and the Church argues that other ways of making the sick or handicapped person comfortable and of safeguarding their dignity can and should be used. “Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible” (Catechism 2276). This does not mean that extraordinary measures must be used to prolong life (Catechism 2278), but that life must not be deliberately taken against the will of God (Catechism 2277). There is also a danger that euthanasia could be misused so that families could decide when an elderly relative should die, or unscrupulous groups could decide that those who are of no productive use to society should cease to live. Christ suffered for us and told us that we too would suffer in our own way but suffering does have a value and through it we become united with the suffering of Christ and can play a special role in his saving work (Catechism 1521).

Further Reading
  • The Catechism of the Catholic Church. 1994.
  • Rerum novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes). Pope Leo XIII. 1891.
  • Lumen gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church). 1964.
  • Gaudium et spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). 1965.
  • Nostra aetate (Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions). 1965.
  • Humanae vitae (On Human Life). Pope Paul VI. 1968.
  • Centesimus annus (On the hundredth anniversary of Rerum novarum). Pope John Paul II. 1991.
  • Veritatis splendor (Regarding certain fundamental questions of the Church’s Moral Teaching). Pope John Paul II. 1993.