Developing Our Understanding Of Human Dignity

Developing Our Understanding Of Human Dignity April 10, 2024

Wesley Fryer: All Human Beings Are Equally Deserving of Human Rights and Dignity / flickr

Freedom and human dignity are interconnected, which is why those who promote human dignity must promote liberation for those who are oppressed. We should want everyone to enjoy the freedom which everyone naturally possesses. Everyone, by nature, is good, and that goodness reflects the divine image which is in them. God is absolutely free; those made in the image of God reflect that freedom, giving them a relative, not absolute freedom, a freedom which allows them to make of themselves as they wish (and so, in a way, co-create themselves). God made us out of love; God wants to share the divine life with us. For us to do so, we need to be given a level of our own autonomy, that is, the freedom we need to actualize the image of God which is found within ourselves. The more we do so, the more we will reflect divine love, and through that love, respect the dignity of others, promoting their freedom:

Freedom that is conscious of its own dignity will always respect the freedom of others. It will be in solidarity with their freedom, and will stand up for it. Freedom, therefore, is not “freedom from others,” but “freedom with and for” others. Freedom is realized in justice, which gives everyone his or her due. Freedom concretely presupposes that everyone else will respect their own freedom. It presupposes thereby a system of justice, that is, at the same time, a regulated system of freedom. [1]

Justice must work to promote the dignity of everyone, and in doing so, defend that dignity. When human dignity is undermined, justice is undermined.

Just as human nature is good, with a goodness which grants humanity its own natural dignity, so each person represents humanity in their own unique way, reflecting the infinite glory of God. As God is said to be light, so each person, imagining God within themselves, will have their own light which participates in and reflects the greater light of God. Each of those lights will differ from each other, representing different qualities or aspects if the incomprehensible nature of God. Each of them will be worthy of being honored and respected for what they reveal to us of God, but also because of the good which is contained in that light, the good which makes each person good in and of themselves. “And in this it should be considered what it is to see God in so many of the blessed as a light is seen in many lamps that participate in it in various ways according to the differing dignity of each.” [2] Every person, therefore, should look within themselves, for then they will see the image of God shining from within. They should use what they perceive to know, because that goodness is there, they have their own dignity. No matter what vices they struggle with, whatever way sin has tarnished them, even from birth, their inherent goodness, their inherent dignity remains, and is loved by God, which is why God calls them to salvation and deification:

If there is present any love of vainglory or any root of avarice or germ of hatred, let the soul take nothing of such food, but, intent on the delight of virtues, let it place heavenly feasts before earthly pleasure. People should acknowledge their own dignity and see themselves as “made in the image  and likeness of” their Creator; they should not become so terrified from the suffering which they meet through that great common sin that they do not bring themselves to the mercy of their Redeemer. [3]

Christianity, though recognizing the inherent dignity of every person, has struggled throughout history to understand the full implications of that dignity, that is, what it means for how society should come together and live. Christians have often pondered not only their actions, but their prejudices and biases, and doing, have seen how they have often acted contrary to the way of love. Each time they do so, they come to a new insight about humanity and human dignity and the way human dignity must be affirmed. Sadly, alongside such developments, we also find many Christians struggling against them, as they want to defend and reinforce their prejudices and biases, and in doing so, many Christians have also worked to undermine the dignity which they should be defending.

The fact that many Christians, over time, have developed their understanding not only of human dignity, but the way it is to be promoted, is a key theme in the recent document of the Dicastery For the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Infinita. Indeed, it is one of the most important themes, as it reminds us that at no point in history, not even now, have we come to a point where we can end our reflection and believe we have attained all we can and should attain in regards human dignity and how it is to be promoted. Thus, the document should not be seen as an end point, as the final development which we need, but rather, as a point along the path, allowing us to pause and reflect from where we have come and where we should be going. We should see it as encouraging us to continue to reflect upon and explore the implications of human dignity for our actions in the world, indeed, to even explore what it says and discern what points it makes should be developed further, and what points need to be criticized and totally reformed.  In doing so, we will be affirming that Christian thought develops over time, something which needs to be ongoing and not just a a thing of the past:

As Christian thought developed, it also prompted and accompanied the progress of humanity’s reflection on the concept of dignity. Drawing from the rich tradition of the Church Fathers, classical Christian anthropology emphasized the doctrine of the human being as created in the image and likeness of God and the unique role of the human person in creation. By critically sifting through the inheritance it had received from ancient philosophy, Medieval Christian thought arrived at a synthesis of the notion of the “person” that recognized the metaphysical foundation of human dignity. St. Thomas Aquinas attested to this when he affirmed that “‘person’ signifies what is most perfect in all nature—that is, a subsistent individual of a rational nature.” The Christian humanism of the Renaissance later emphasized this ontological dignity and its preeminent manifestation in free human action. Even in the writings of such modern thinkers as Descartes and Kant, who challenged some of the foundations of traditional Christian anthropology, one can still strongly perceive echoes of Revelation.[4]

This is a journey which we must continue, not just as Christians, but as members of humanity. In doing so, we must take some basic principles with us, principles which the document outlines, and explore them more than the document itself does. In doing so, we hopefully will find ourselves understanding the human condition more, and see how, within it, there is an infinite potential which provides for human diversity, a diversity which we then must see as good.  This is why every person not only can be said to have dignity of their own, but their dignity can be said to also be infinite: “Every human person possesses an infinite dignity, inalienably grounded in his or her very being, which prevails in and beyond every circumstance, state, or situation the person may ever encounter.”[5]  Next, we must recognize that everyone has a dignity which is equal with everyone else, for then we will know that everyone should be treated with equal respect, despite the way various people might seem to have different values based upon their social condition. “The Church proclaims the equal dignity of all people, regardless of their living conditions or qualities.”[6]

The infinite dignity of the human person comes as a result of the divine image within it. God can be said to possess infinite dignity in an absolute or unbound way, while the human person has it in a relative or bound way. But because it is infinite, it grants each person an infinite variety of ways to develop themselves and establish their own personal dignity. We must allow people to do so as long as they do so in connection with the common good, that is, in a way which affirms the dignity of everyone without unjustly hurting some in the process.  How we effectively do this is one of the things which is difficult for us to discern; sometimes it takes trial and error, and through such trials, we should find we develop our understanding what works and promote it while those things which did not, which did the opposite, we reject. As there will be no utopia, we will have to engage such reflection, such development, until the end of time, and in doing so, we will find new possibilities, new ways to promote human dignity come to us, even as, we will also find new ways to undermine human dignity which we must reject (and do so, if necessary, through positive law).

And this, we can see, is what lies behind many reflections in the document; they represent attempts to do such discernment, sometimes, doing it well, because it has better understanding of what is going on (such as when dealing with issues of poverty and how it undermines human dignity), and at other times, not as well, as the understanding involved by those involved in its creation is much more limited (as is clearly the case when dealing with gender theory, as much which is reflected upon in the document does not truly address the philosophical and scientific discussions, but rather, reflect predetermined ideological perspectives which do not meet what  empirical evidence has revealed) . Nonetheless, we can see glimpses of  new developments coming through, developments which we are not able to discern where they will lead, such as its acknowledgment that those who have “genital maladies” (a vague term) might be justified in having surgery to deal with those maladies (i.e., have what is conventionally called a “sex change” operation):

This is not to exclude the possibility that a person with genital abnormalities that are already evident at birth or that develop later may choose to receive the assistance of healthcare professionals to resolve these abnormalities. However, in this case, such a medical procedure would not constitute a sex change in the sense intended here.[7]

The document, which contends against some forms of sex change operation, indicates such reflections must not be seen as universal, as not all sex change operations are indicated by their critique. What they have left open is “genital abnormalities,” but what, exactly are they? Those who undergo sex change often do not think they really are changing their sex, but rather, they are having their body reflect what they believe themselves to be;  as such, they view their external genitals to be abnormalities, and so might be able argue, due to what the document said, that if they undergo a “sex change” operation, their action would not fall under what is being criticized by the document. Whether or not that is not the cases is not the point here, but rather, it indicates that what has been granted gives room for further exploration, to consider more the voice of those who undergo such operations, to listen to them, and even the science which underlies sex and gender and the impossibility of it being simply binary (male and female) due to those who do not fit either category (those who are intersex).  It is the over-simplification of gender, one which ignores evidence, like intersexuality, which is causing most confusion in the Christian community; sadly, some are trying to reify the over-simplification and in doing so, they cause much pain and sorrow, as they undermine the human dignity of those who do not conform to their overly-simplified view of human gender. We must explore gender better and truly accept all the potential varieties we might find when we do so, making sure all are welcome by the Christian community. How that will work out over time is, once again, beyond our scope here; what is important is to recognize that we are only beginning to deal with these issues and we must take them far more seriously, even exploring traditions concerning gender which have otherwise been forgotten or ignored, so that we can see that the simple binary position is not one which is necessary for the Christian tradition (as for example, it already accepted the possibility of those who were different as it was forced to recognize those who were hermaphrodites challenged the simple binary reading of gender).  Thus, it is important to recognize, with its own reflections, Dignitas Infinita must not be seen as the final statement on human dignity and what it means for us, but rather, it is best to be seen as a document to get us talking, to consider where we are at, to look to see the kinds of discussions being had, and to see where those discussion have gone astray in the past (like in the acceptance of the death penalty) or might be going astray now :

This Declaration does not set out to exhaust such a rich and crucial subject. Instead, its aim is to offer some points for reflection that can help us maintain an awareness of human dignity amid the complex historical moment in which we are living. This is so that we may not lose our way and open ourselves up to more wounds and profound sufferings amid the numerous concerns and anxieties of our time.[8]

If we understand the document in this fashion, we will better appreciate its value. We must not turn its considerations as final statements which cannot be changed. Where it works best is presenting the principles which we must use to engage human dignity. Where it is weakest is in is presentation of practical implications of those principles, in part, because it goes through them in a very simplistic form for each issue it brings up requires more exploration, much more consideration, much more reflection, than can be put in one small paragraph. As we have gone a long way in developing our understanding of human dignity, and what that means, we should realize we have a long way yet to go. We must not assume we know everything now, just as Christians of previous generations did not know everything, and go so much wrong (such as accepting slavery, torture, the death penalty, et. al.). What we do know, what we have been told, is we should love others and treat them as we would like to be treated, because they have been made in the image and likeness of God; to disrespect them, to abuse them, is to show disrespect to God. We should, therefore, seek to promote their dignity and honor, recognizing when we do so, we also show respect to God. Thus, when we encounter anyone, we should first ask ourselves, how can we best honor and respect them. If we do so, we will start our engagement with them in the right way.

[1] Walter Kasper, Mercy. Trans. William Madges (New York: Paulist Press, 2013), 200-1.

[2] St. Albert the Great, On the Body of the Lord. Trans. Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, OP (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2017), 68.

[3] St Leo the Great, Sermons. Trans. Jane Patricia Freeland CSJB and Agnes Josephine Conway SSJ (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1996), 392 [Sermon 94].

[4] Dicastery For The Doctrine Of Faith, Dignitas Infinita. Vatican translation. ¶13.

[5] Dicastery For The Doctrine Of Faith, Dignitas Infinita,  ¶1.

[6] Dicastery For The Doctrine Of Faith, Dignitas Infinita, ¶17.

[7] Dicastery For The Doctrine Of Faith, Dignitas Infinita, ¶60.

[8] Dicastery For The Doctrine Of Faith, Dignitas Infinita,  Introduction.


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