The fundamental dignity of the human person

I have spent some time writing about the place and dignity of work in the realm of social justice, that is in a just social order. Even without considering the remuneration that people receive for their work I observed that different kinds of work are not all equal as to their dignity and a rightly ordered society will honor different forms of work according to their true dignity.


That led to a discussion of the much agitated question of equality, distinguishing between equality of rights as compared to equality of results. Justice requires some manner of equal rights, not equal results. Indeed, any social order, just or unjust, will necessarily involve some sort of class structure. That class structure will mean that members of the upper classes will enjoy some sort of privileges and, for those who are born into upper classes, they will even be privileges of birth.


This is not a bad thing, but must be moderated by the ancient principle ‘noblesse oblige’, nobility has its responsibilities, so do elites. There can be no social justice, in fact, except in the measure that the elites are aware of and fulfill their responsibilities. Social injustice results not from power and privilege, but from the abuse of power and privilege.


Nevertheless, I pointed out beyond all the privileges of social, economic, and political standing, the greatest privileges of all are actually those of being born of married parents, the gift of the Catholic faith, and the gift of divine grace.


Dignity, inequality, and privilege, all these concepts are interrelated and lead us what is often cited as the most basic principle of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of the human person.


So far I have not directly addressed this issue, but it has been implied in everything that I have written since last autumn on the subject of social justice.


Nevertheless, while the dignity of the human person is a fundamental principle of social justice, I don’t think it is a proper starting place for an exposition of the subject matter. That is because the concept is rather abstract and is frequently bandied about in a careless and meaningless fashion so as to justify all manner of nonsense. Instead, by starting with the original order of Eden, I took as my starting point man in the most fundamental, concrete relationships that characterize his life, individually and socially: his relation to God, the interior order of his soul, the relation between man and woman in marriage, and his relation to the environment.,


I have not said much about the interior order of the soul because while this is necessary for social justice, it does not directly bear upon human social order. I have, however, spoken about the foundational character of our social relationship to God, the right order of man and woman in marriage, and also work, through which man is in relation to the environment, though I have yet to speak directly to the impact of work on the environment.


We now have enough of a picture of the right order of human social life to say something in a meaningful fashion about the dignity of the human person. What we need to see is how human dignity is equal, how it is rightly unequal, how it can never be lost, and how it can be lost.


First, though, let me point out what I think is a much-abused expression, ‘the sacredness of human life’. The right understanding of the expression refers man’s being created by God and in his image.


Nevertheless, from a Catholic perspective, in which the natural, created world is subject to sin, I don’t think it is good to speak about the inherent ‘sacredness’ of human life. In the traditional Catholic vocabulary the word ‘sacred’ is reserved for what belongs to the order of grace and redemption. Human life is not born sacred, but needs to be sanctified through the sacrament of baptism. Baptism, through imparting of the indelible character, truly sets the baptized person apart, consecrates him to God, and makes him to be ‘sacred’.


Nevertheless, every human person, through being created by God, in his image, possessing thereby a rational, human nature, possesses inherent dignity. The fundamental equal dignity of all men comes their sharing in human nature, a rational nature, created in the image of God. That is a dignity that can never be lost.


That all men equally share in a rational nature does not mean that all men are equally and at all times capable of the exercise of reason. Nevertheless, from the moment of conception the human person, simply because he is human, possesses a rational nature, a nature that is capable of reasoned knowledge, and consequently capable also of free choice, even if due to time or other circumstances a particular person may be impeded from the exercise of reason and choice. The rational power is what makes man to be in the image of God, who freely created all things by the power of his word, the expression of the divine reason.


That is the fundamental dignity of the human person, which makes him responsible in the aforesaid relationships, towards God, towards himself, towards his fellows, and towards the world that has been entrusted to his care. That dignity cannot be lost, but there is another sort of dignity that depends upon the way he fulfills or fails to fulfill his responsibility.  (To be continued)









Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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