“Man alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life . . . This is the fundamental reason for his dignity. Being in the image of God, the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 356.
What is a human being worth? This may seem like an odd question, but how we answer that question, indeed, how history has responded to that question, has enormous significance.
In this treatise, I will explore the source of human dignity. Such an examination requires a definition of a human being, whether human dignity is contingent or not, and finally, the consequences of how those questions are answered.
The Human Person
So as to adequately address what, if any, innate dignity belongs to the human person, we must first settle on what a human being is. While doing so may seem straightforward, the fact is that how one defines a human being is often predicated upon one’s worldview.
A strictly humanistic or scientific definition of a human is “Any member of the mammalian species homo sapiens, a group of ground-dwelling, tailless primates that are distributed worldwide and are characterized by bipedalism and the capacity for speech and language, with an erect body carriage that frees the hands for manipulating objects.” (New World Encyclopedia).
Atheism, as is often the case, takes a simplistic and reductionist view, seeing human beings as nothing more than highly evolved great apes.
Neither of the above interpretations of what human beings are appears to afford humans an intrinsic dignity, at least not with a status that would differ from any other living being.
Fortunately, these reductionist views of human beings are not what the Bible suggests. The Bible tells us that God made humans in His image (see Genesis 1:27). To be made in the image of God is, among other things, to reflect the rational nature of God. However, many animals possess a certain level of rationality. One differentiating factor is the human capacity to choose or reject a share in the life of God. Furthermore, a thing is more in the image of its creator to the extent that it shares qualities with its creator. In this case, that quality is love (1 John 4:16).
So much then for what is meant by a human being, but what is meant by human dignity? To that, I turn to.
The term dignity can have several meanings, often dependent upon the context in which it is used. It can be used to connote such concepts as “universal human worth,” “social rank,” or “personal integrity.”
For the purposes of this paper, human dignity refers to the intrinsic value owed to human beings by virtue of their being in the image of God. Because all living things are endowed with a soul and created by God, all living creatures deserve dignity. However, as human beings are specifically made in the image of God, they are considered to be eminently dignified.
As suggested above, of three foundational definitions of human beings, only the biblical one seems to afford humans an innate dignity. The reason why this is so is predicated on what people are and the source of their dignity.
Why The Question Matters
If human beings are simply evolved primates, then there is no reason to afford them any respect above what other primates are afforded. One may argue that human beings are worthy of more dignity by virtue of being more intelligent than other primates. However, this classification appears artificial as it is not applied to other species. Moreover, should an adult be afforded more basic dignity than a child by virtue of their (presumably) higher intelligence?
Finally, suppose humans and the whole of the animal kingdom are – as atheists would suggest – the result of blind and mindless evolution. In that case, the claim that humans (or any living thing) are endowed with innate dignity is absurd. In the absence of a transcendent source of human dignity, the value of human beings, as well as their rights, becomes the purview of the most powerful. It is a recipe for tyranny.
Not surprisingly, both the humanistic and atheistic anthropologies are irreconcilable with the Bible and Catholic teaching. The biblical and Catholic teaching is that humans are made by God and in God’s image. As such, they are afforded immense dignity. Moreover, since God is both the efficient (creator of human beings) and final (reason for their creation) cause of man, human rights are derived from God, not government.
With God as its source, human dignity is not contingent. In other words, regardless of station, each person possesses an inalienable dignity. “We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops).
Finally, much of the above is not novel for those in the West. Yet the concept of humans having an innate, God-given dignity is a relatively recent development in our history. Moreover, the consequences of human beings as imago Dei are immense. In addition to grounding human rights, a God-given dignity greatly influences normative ethics.
If we are temples of the Holy Spirit and icons of the Trinity, then we must treat each other as such.
If we are reflections of God, created in His image and likeness, then we are morally bound to treat ourselves and others only with respect, love, honor, and care.
If a baby in the womb is a human from the earliest moments of conception, then that baby’s life should be cherished and protected.
If even a person on death row has a soul made by God, then society ought not to kill that person.
Secularism asserts that human beings are nothing but evolved apes. However, in this paper, I have sought to show that such a view is antithetical to biblical and Catholic teaching.
If humans are, as the Bible teaches, made in God’s image, then we have a great responsibility to God to live in a manner conducive to such a status.