Whatchu Talkin’ Bout, Popcak? (Or, what’s all this “dignity” crap?)

I had a few people gently take me to task on my “Why do Catholics Bother?”  post which attempted to highlight the real reason Catholics are involved in healthcare, education, and social services (namely, NOT primarily to solve social problems but to stand for the dignity of the human person by means of solves those problems that undermine human dignity).

The comments raised some excellent questions and I thought I would take a moment to respond more thoughtfully than a combox post would allow.

“Oregon Catholic”  writes…

One of my biggest pet peeves is the over-use of the word dignity in explaining Catholicism. I’m not picking on you Dr., it is a problem throughout papal encyclicals as well. Dignity needs to be defined, not just used as an umbrella term, because it means too many different things to different people. For instance, a person who thinks having the option of physician assisted suicide will maintain their dignity if they develop dementia isn’t going to have the same definition you mean.

and “Nathaniel agrees…

Dignity is one of the most useless words in existence when attempted to be abused in service to vague philosophy, much like the word “obscene,” has been useless as a legal term.

The good news is that Catholics do, indeed mean something specific when we use the word “dignity” and it does, indeed, differ from the way many people (for instance, pro-euthanasia and pro-homosexual groups) use it.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1700 says, “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God (article 1); it is fulfilled in his vocation to divine beatitude (article 2). It is essential to a human being freely to direct himself to this fulfillment (article 3). By his deliberate actions (article 4), the human person does, or does not, conform to the good promised by God and attested by moral conscience (article 5). Human beings make their own contribution to their interior growth; they make their whole sentient and spiritua lives into means of this growth (article 6). With the help of grace they grow in virtue (article 7), avoid sin, and if they sin they entrust themselves as did the prodigal son1 to the mercy of our Father in heaven (article 8). In this way they attain to the perfection of charity.”

So there you have it.  To break it down, an authentic, Catholic sense of dignity recognizes that…

1.  We are made in the image and likeness of God.  Therefore all human life is sacred regardless of the diseases or limitations under which he suffers.

2.  A person is behaving in a manner consistent with his dignity when he strives to live according to the gospel and pursues both  his heavenly destiny  and his obligation to bring the face of God to the world in all of his works and relationships.

3. A person is behaving in a manner consistent with his dignity if he works to protects his life and health, works to preserve his spiritual, physical, moral, and psychological integrity, and strives to support others in their pursuit of the same.

4.  Above all, the person is true to his dignity to the degree that he renounces sin and embraces a life of virtue.

Incidentally, you can also find these points enumerated in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church which I linked in the original post.

So, anytime you hear the word “dignity”  you now know what it is supposed to mean.  Any definition that falls short of the above is simply… not worth dignifying.

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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • Ted Seeber

    Unfortunately, Oregon Catholic and I live in a state where a Republican I otherwise admire, the Great Tom McCall, felt that terminal illness was undignified in and of itself. After a 30 year conversation on death with dignity, we became the first government in the world to explicitly legalize euthanasia- not once but twice thanks to a challenge from the US Constitution.

    It is not surprising to me that dignity is not a sufficient reason to feed the poor here- it isn’t even a sufficient reason not to poison grandma in Oregon.


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