Further Explanation

Susy BrouardThe Dignity of the Human Person

A main theme of Catholic Social Teaching is the inherent value, worth and dignity of each of God’s human beings.

As Daniel Groody writes in “Globalization, Spirituality and Justice”, p.109:

‘Catholic social teaching believes that human beings, created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), have by their very existence an inherent value, worth, and distinction. This means that God is present in every person, regardless of his or her race, nation, sex, origin, orientation, culture, or economic standing. Catholic Social Teaching asserts that all human beings must see within every person both a reflection of God and a mirror of themselves, and must honour and respect this dignity as a divine gift.’

Do we really see ourselves and others as a ‘divine gift’? What difference would this make to our families, relationships, parishes, schools, workplaces and local community?

The Theme of Dignity in Church Documents

The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes – “The Joys and Hopes”, speaks clearly about human dignity;

“At the same time, however, there is a growing awareness of the exalted dignity proper to the human person, since he or she stands above all things, and his or her rights and duties are universal and inviolable. Therefore, there must be made available to all people everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.” (paragraph 26)

“Coming down to practical and particularly urgent consequences, this council lays stress on reverence for humankind; everyone must consider their every neighbour without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his or her life and the means necessary to living it with dignity, so as not to imitate the rich man who had no concern for the poor man Lazarus.” (paragraph 27)

From Evangelium Vitae – The Gospel of Life (1995): paragraph 34

Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of human beings; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where human beings are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury.

The life which God gives man is quite different from the life of all other living creatures, in as much as man, although formed from the dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7, 3:19; Job 34:15; Ps 103:14; 104:29), is a manifestation of God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory (cf. Gen 1:26-27; Ps 8:6). This is what Saint Irenaeus of Lyons wanted to emphasize in his celebrated definition; “Man, living man, is the glory of God”.23 Man has been given a sublime dignity, based on the intimate bond which unites him to his Creator: in man there shines forth a reflection of God himself.

There is also the U.S. Catholic Bishops Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, Economic Justice for All 1986 Chapter II paragraph 28 which states

“The basis for all that the Church believes about the moral dimensions of economic life is its vision of the transcendent worth – the sacredness – of human beings. The dignity of the human person, realized in community with others, is the criterion against which all aspects of economic life must be measured. All human beings, therefore, are ends to be served by the institutions that make up the economy, not means to be exploited for more narrowly defined goals. Human personhood must be respected with a reverence that is religious. When we deal with each other, we should do so with the sense of awe that arises in the presence of something holy and sacred. For that is what human beings are: we are created in the image of God”(Genesis 1:27).

Likewise, the U.S. Catholic Bishops 1983 document The Challenge of Peace paragraph 15 says: “The human person is the clearest reflection of God’s presence in the world; all of the Church’s work in pursuit of both justice and peace is designed to protect and promote the dignity of every person. For each person not only reflects God, but is the expression of God’s creative work and the meaning of Christ’s redemptive ministry.”

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict reminds us that: “Only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature, to recognise the divine image in the other, thus truly coming to discover him or her and to mature in a love that ‘becomes concern and care for the other.” (Caritas in Veritate – Charity in Truth, paragraph 11, 2009)

It is also worth looking at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about human dignity and worth, click here. To find out more about Catholic Social Teaching on Human Dignity, see vplater.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

An important document for all of us when acknowledging the dignity of all humans is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris – “Peace on earth”, Pope John XXIII affirmed what this document was seeking to do:

142. The United Nations Organisation has the special aim of maintaining and strengthening peace between nations, and of encouraging and assisting friendly relations between them, based on the principles of equality, mutual respect, and extensive cooperation in every field of human endeavour.

143. A clear proof of the far sightedness of this organisation is provided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The preamble of this declaration affirms that the genuine recognition and complete observance of all the rights and freedoms outlined in the declaration is a goal to be sought by all peoples and all nations.

144. We think the document should be considered a step in the right direction, an approach toward the establishment of a juridical and political ordering of the world community. It is a solemn recognition of the personal dignity of every human being; an assertion of everyone’s right to be free to seek out the truth, to follow moral principles, discharge the duties imposed by justice, and lead a fully human life.

For more on Pacem in Terris and other CST documents on Human Rights, see vplater and vplater.


One of the many ways in which human dignity is not respected is through the sin of racism. Racism is one of the ugliest forms of prejudice. The 1988 document from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace called The Church and Racism, defines racial prejudice as: awareness of the biologically determined superiority of one’s own race or ethnic group with respect to others”

Racism leads to the mistreatment of people based on their race, colour, national origin, or ancestry..

This mistreatment can take place on a person-to-person basis. Racism can also be institutional, that is, legalized or tolerated in the very structures of society, favouring the majority and hindering the success of the minority. No one is immune from racism. Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, have been racist. (See Catholic Social Teaching Learning and Living Justice by Michael Pennock, Ave Maria Press, 2000)

Furthermore, in 1979 the US Bishops wrote a pastoral letter on racism, entitled Brothers and Sisters to us. This speaks of the sin of racism:

Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of races. It is the sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights. It mocks the words of Jesus: “Treat others the way you would have them treat you.” Indeed, racism is more than a disregard for the words of Jesus; it is a denial of the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation.

Susy Brouard, Theology Team – CAFOD