May 08, 2005

Dignity of the Human Person

The dignity of the human person is foundational to Catholic social teaching. Every other aspect of the church’s social thought comes back to this in one way or another. But what does it really mean, and how can we put this principle into action in our everyday lives?

Dignity is a ‘quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect’, or ‘inherent nobility and worth.’ It is not something one earns or achieves, but is inherent in each and every person’s existence. When I think about the dignity of the human person I am drawn to Genesis 1:27, “God created man in his image” and various New Testament scriptures describing how the Spirit dwells in each of us. If we really believe this, how can it not affect how we see others?

Maybe some people get dignity confused with approval. I may not approve of certain lifestyles, attitudes, actions and such but that doesn’t give me license to disrespect the dignity of these people. Likewise, by acknowledging the dignity of a murderer, dictator, terrorist, liberal or conservative that doesn’t mean I have to approve of what they do and what they represent. Catholic social teaching calls us to a higher standard – respect for the dignity of all people. I don’t believe we get to pick and choose here.

It gets complicated sometimes, when a politician endorses views that promote the dignity of some while ignoring others. Hardly any American politician these days has a perfect track record on this issue, so as participants in the democratic process we have to make choices. We have to make choices that we feel maximize, or do the most to advance our society’s respect for the dignity of all people. We will come to different conclusions and reach different decisions, but if we are all working to advance the overall society’s stance on dignity then dignity will advance. It may not be in a straight and fast line, but how much of life and society is like that anyway? We all – individuals and society – move forward in crooked lines with stumbles and sprints along the way.

In practical terms, if we feel led to vote for a politician who is against the war in Iraq but is pro-abortion, then perhaps we could offset that a bit by donating to or volunteering at a pro-life pregnancy center? Or if we vote for the anti-abortion, pro-death penalty politician maybe we could lend some support to Sr Helen Prejean and her Sisters of St Joesph of Medaille?

As Catholics, we must ask ourselves a simple question: how are we promoting, or not, the dignity of the human person?