The Church’s Teaching on Human Dignity
The term “human dignity” has become a major part of discussions on human rights and social justice. It is a belief that every person, regardless of their class, race, religion, or abilities, holds a special value that’s tied to the fact that they are human. The concept is rooted in both a human rights framework and a religious framework. This article explores the history of this concept and how it relates to the Church’s efforts to protect life at all stages.
Respect is a feeling of admiration for someone or something that’s considered important or valuable. It’s the basic concept behind many of our social conventions and rules. For example, you wouldn’t damage a public place because you have respect for other people’s enjoyment of it and their right to the quality of the environment. Similarly, you wouldn’t hit or otherwise hurt another person because you have respect for their feelings and well-being.
While there are many different definitions of respect, they all include some form of appreciation, awe, consideration, deference, or honor. The word is also used to describe the way a person treats another—it’s the attitude, behaviors, and etiquette that convey a respectful relationship with others. The Church teaches that the most fundamental way to respect other people is by treating them as persons. This requires that we recognize them as such through the attitudes, manners, and behaviors we use with each other.
In clinical practice, the Church’s teaching on human dignity informs how we interact with patients. It explains that respect is a vital component of patient care and should be demonstrated through the ways we communicate, listen, and treat each other. It also guides us in determining what’s best for the patient—whether they are a pregnant woman considering abortion, an elderly woman in a nursing home, or a young mother on the labor ward.
Many philosophers have analyzed the concept of human dignity, and they differ on what constitutes full moral worth for a person. However, most agree that a person is owed respect and dignity based on their rational nature, which makes them distinct from other animals and the objects of their knowledge (Darwall, 1977).
The Church’s understanding of human dignity has evolved over time. In the past, the word “dignity” had a more specific meaning that aligned much closer with someone’s merit. If you belonged to royalty or the church, for example, you were deemed to have a high degree of merit that warranted respect and other privileges. In 1948, the United Nations ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which rewrote the term “human dignity” so that it wasn’t just about a person’s rank or status but rather about their inherent value as humans.
The Church’s recognition of the dignity of all persons is inseparable from its belief that human beings are created in the image of God, becoming his children and therefore heirs to his glory. This is what gives rise to our Catholic commitment to defending and protecting every person at all stages of their lives.