University of Notre DameUniversity of Notre Dame

Office of Human Dignity & Life Initiatives

Why a concern for Human Dignity?

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The concept of human dignity, of the unique value of the human person, is an essential foundation of Catholic teaching on human rights, including the right to life.  Thus, John Paul II observes that Catholic teaching on the right to life from conception to natural death is founded on the idea of “the incomparable value of the human person” -- so much so that he adds, “the Gospel of the dignity of the human person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel” (Evangelium Vitae 2).

If that is true of the right to life, it is also true of all of the human rights included in Catholic Social Teaching.  In another encyclical, John Paul II lists these human rights, and notes that they correspond to the human being’s transcendent dignity as a person (Centissumus Annus 47).  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church mentions that “A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person” (section 132).“In fact, the roots of human rights are to be found in the dignity that belongs to each human being” (Compendium153).  Further, according to the Second Vatican Council, the Church is the “sign and the safeguard of the transcendent dimension of the human person” (Gaudiem et Spes 76).

And yet, in the last two decades, the very idea of human dignity has come under assault, so much so that it has been declared a “meaningless” concept by secular theorists, and even ardent supporters of the idea have conceded that there is no common understanding of what “human dignity” means.  

Summing up these developments, Professor Mary Ann Glendon observed that,  “It’s hard to imagine a decent politics that doesn’t depend on the notion of the dignity of the human person.  It’s unfortunately also hard to specify how to anchor that notion in something beyond our earnest moral intuitions” (First Things, May 2011, p. 41). She goes on to challenge defenders of the concept of human dignity, such as herself, to make their case in terms that are accessible to persons of all faiths or no faith, and she also challenges the world’s religions to act persuasively in exhorting their own followers to perfect their human dignity and respect that of others.