The dignity of the Person
Fundamentals of the rights of man and guiding principles of the common good
Author: Thomas Williams | Source: Convention of Christians for Europe
The dignity of the Person
Fundamentals of the rights of man and guiding principles of the common good
The importance of human dignity
Perhaps there is no other concept of greater importance for the cultural and moral future of Europe than the concept of the dignity of the human person. Being the person the center and the point of reference of society, the goodness or the wickedness of a culture is measured precisely by its attitude towards the person.
It is well known the importance that the social doctrine of the Church gives to the human person and its dignity as a source of the rights of the man. Among all the subjects covered by Vatican Council II, the dignity of the human person occupied a position of singular relief.
Already in 1964, in the midst of the debate on the instrumentum laboris that would become the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, the then Archbishop Karol Wojtyla gave a speech on the Vatican Radio where he stated: "To the Council and the Church consider the call about the dignity of the human person as the most important voice of our age.” Thirty years later Pope John Paul II called the Gaudium et Spes the last and most extensive of the documents promulgated by the Council "the Magna letter of human dignity".
From the time of the Council to the present times the centrality of the dignity of man in the social thought of the Church has certainly not diminished. Rather, it has become even more evident in the writings and pronouncements of the Magisterium and has been embodied in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a reference point for social ethics and the guiding principle of the common good.
But the dignity of the person not only forms the axis of the social doctrine of the Church but also serves as a point of convergence between very varied currents of thought and thus is offered as the foundation of civil society. The concept of the dignity of the person is present in the preamble of the constitutions of several European nations as an anthropological budget of the right, and also in the various decrees on the rights of man, notably in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
Dangers of poorly understood dignity
However, precisely because of its ubiquity and proliferation, this vital concept risks of getting distorted and becomes an instrument of manipulation for particular interests. What dignity are we talking about? What do we mean by the dignity of the human person?
Just to give some examples, today the propellants of euthanasia speak of a dignified death as a remedy for a state of life that according to them are not in conformity with the dignity of the person. Likewise, among those who defend the so-called animal rights, there is more and more talk of a supposed dignity of primates, or mammals, or all living beings.
The darwinist practice is increasingly in vogue to talk about the difference between men and animals as a difference of only degree rather than essence. At the same time, the concept of the dignity of the person is used to defend the practice of abortion, or denying personality to the unborn, or defending abortion as a remedy against an unworthy life for unloved babies.
Finally, the dignity of the person is often reduced to freedom understood as absolute autonomy, which precludes a straight understanding of human rights and removes the possibility of distinguishing between true rights and mere personal preferences.
In the face of these distortions and their importance for civil discourse, we must define well what we mean by human dignity. In the remaining minutes, I would like to briefly touch three points. First of all, I will offer considerations on the dignity of the person as a bridge between anthropology and ethics.
Secondly, I will present dignity as a distinctive characteristic of the human person, which distinguishes it from all other terrestrial beings and resembles God. Finally, I will talk about the universality of this dignity among all the members of the human species, without distinctions of race, age, maturity, sex, religious belief or social class.
Dignity as a bridge between anthropology and ethics
It was the Scottish philosopher David Hume who said two and a half centuries ago that an imperative of an indicative affirmation cannot be derived. This proposition is true provided that the indicative affirmation does not already contain an imperative sense. It is precisely what happens in the case of dignity.
The Latin word "Dignitas", of the root "dignus", not only signifies greatness and excellence for which the bearer of this quality is distinguished and stands out among the others but also denotes merit of a certain type of treatment. So dignity can be defined as excellence that deserves respect or esteem.
It is said that a person of high rank or who occupies a high position possesses a dignity, special excellence that demands of the others a particular answer. We also speak of human dignity as such, so it must always be treated as a man. By embracing both the quality of excellence and merit, dignity forms a bridge-type concept that unites anthropology and ethics. Knowing that man is like that, we also know that he should be treated in a particular way.
The relationship between human dignity and the rights of man is also clear. If by its human status, the man deserves special treatment, the details of this treatment are specified in human rights. Man is given access to authentic goods that favor his complete fulfillment as a person.
Dignity as a characteristic trait of human beings
But what does this man's excellence derive from the other creatures? The answer that theology offers us is clear: man is the only creature made in the image and likeness of God. Like God, man is intelligent, possesses a spiritual nature, he is free and able to love.
Not only, but also every man is called to divine sonship by grace, i.e. to partake of the same divine life. For this reason, the Gaudium et Spes can affirm that man is the only terrestrial creature to which God has loved for himself and that he cannot find his plenitude if it is not in the sincere surrender of himself to others.
But this excellence, for which man stands out among the other creatures, although it rests on theological bases, is also within the reach of human reason. Man's intelligence and freedom distinguish him from other beings and elevate him to a higher rank. Therefore, the dignity of the person is not the fruit of accidental qualities, but the very nature of man as a rational animal, capable of thinking and loving.
Although the concept of human dignity as a characteristic of human beings has developed much in the last century, especially thanks to personalism, it does not constitute an innovation in Christian thought. In the 13th century, the great Franciscan theologian, Saint Bonaventure, presented dignity as a distinctive feature of the person.
And St. Thomas of Aquino, in the Summa Theologiae, defined the person as a different hypostasis for his dignity and claimed that each individual of rational nature is called a person, by its high dignity. This dignity comes from the metaphysical reality of the person as subsistence in a rational nature or, as John Paul II writes: it is the metaphysics that makes it possible to base the concept of personal dignity by the spiritual nature of the person.
This leads us to a categorical affirmation, without apologies: the human being is fundamentally different from other beings. There is a difference not only of degree but of the essence. Between man and animals, there is a qualitative leap that changes all ethical schemes. So, even if you can talk about environmental ethics or ethical behavior towards animals, non-personal beings do not have a moral relevance for themselves, but only about God and other men.
It is, therefore, improper to speak of the dignity of animals or the Earth, for dignity is a distinctive characteristic of the person. The effort to equate animals with a man does not result from the exaltation of animals, but rather from the reduction of man to pure matter, denying his spiritual nature.
Dignity possessed in equal measure by all members of the human family
These considerations lead us to the last point of our reflections. Since the dignity of the person depends not on their particular capacities, but on their nature, it is common to all the members of the human family. Just as all men equally partake of humanity, they all possess equal dignity that is characteristic of humanity.
However, although it seems obvious, and it is the doctrine of the Catholic Church that all men have equal dignity, this principle is often violated. The Nazis excluded the Jews and other undesirables from the state of the people who possessed their dignity. For more than a century, Americans and other peoples denied personal dignity to black men and subjected them to slavery as inferior beings.
Today our civilization denies personal dignity to the unborn, sometimes allowing abortion until during the nine months of gestation.
The differences between men are obvious. Some have superior intelligence, others are better athletes, and others enjoy a particular artistic sensibility. If man's dignity depended on any of these factors, one could not speak of a common dignity of people, but there would be a wide range of particular dignities, and so also the rights of men would vary from person to person.
However, as we have seen, dignity is not the fruit of particular qualities, but the rational and spiritual nature of man. Neither the disease, nor the color of the skin, nor the physical or emotional immaturity, nor the development of one's capacities, nor the religious beliefs, nor the social class can change the essential dignity of every human being and the rights that are the consequence of this dignity.
Conclusion: a challenge
Here end the theological and philosophical disquisitions and here begins the real commitment and effective work. The great challenge for legislators and jurists is how they are going to translate within a European constitution or their preamble the content of the dignity of the person, to defend the concept of possible manipulations and distortions.
How will they ensure that the rights deriving from this common dignity are recognized for all members of the human family? We have seen that the same word can be interpreted in various ways, and can be used to advance particular interests.
It is vitally important that the concept of the dignity of the human person, as a distinctive feature of every human being, maintains its integrity. This way European civilization will be able to move forward according to authentic justice, and it will become a true beacon of light for the whole world.