Reading through the papal encyclicals, it becomes evident there are a number of foundational principles that guide Catholic Social Teaching. Four in particular, form the base of the Church’s social doctrine: the dignity of man; the common good; subsidiarity; and solidarity. Out of these foundations, arise the practical implications of Roman Catholic Social Teaching. Today’s post is focused on the first of the four – The Dignity of Man.
Dignity of Man
The dignity of man is derived primarily from Genesis 1, in which it is revealed that man is made in the ‘image of God’ and must be recognized and treated as such. Man’s position within society changed with the Industrial Revolution, prior to which, he was able to participate in the production of the land. His position changed from being a producer to being labor for hire—from selling his production to selling himself and his time. The ‘social question’ as Pope Leo XIII came to ask it, dealt with this relationship between capital and labor.
In Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI reaffirmed Leo’s position on the problem of men being bought and sold like commodities. The situation as he considered it divides men into two warring factions, battling one against the other (§83). The solution as the Pope saw it was to form guilds or associations. But is it right that men should be in such a position in the first place? Laws need to be implemented to protect the dignity of workers as men and Christians (§28). In Pacem in terris, Pope John XXIII said that “Any well-regulated and productive association of men in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual man is truly a person.” (§8-9) Our nature as creatures of God endowed with intelligence and free will give us rights and duties which are “universal and inviolable and therefore altogether inalienable.” (§9)
The Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et spes posited that “a sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man.” (§1) Men should be given the freedom to act in their own judgment and to enjoy that freedom, not by coercion but by a sense of duty. Pope John Paul II noted in Laborem exercens that man was created in God’s image and was given the mandate to have dominion and subdue the earth. There is a dignity that comes out of the mandate of creation and this mandate gives dignity to our work. (§9)
The US National Conference of Catholic Bishops said in Economic Justice for All that “the person is sacred—the clearest reflection of God among us. Human dignity comes from God, not from nationality, race, sex, economic status, or any human accomplishment. (§13) The Conference also recognized that human dignity can only be realized and protected in community. (§14) Men and women stand at the pinnacle of creation, made in God’s image and therefore, possess an inalienable dignity that stamps human existence prior to any division into races or nations and prior to human labor and human achievement (Gn 4-11).” (§32)
In Vocation of the Business Leader, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace declared human dignity as something that is possessed by virtue of being human, and not something that can be achieved or be given. Thus it cannot be taken away (§30). Human flourishing involves reason, freedom, and community in order to develop, but until “each person has a transcendent destiny to share forever in the life of God, earthly flourishing will never be complete, but that does not mean it is unimportant.” (§33)
The dignity of man carries with it many implications. First and foremost, it determines how we are to treat one another. It can be easy for us to dismiss those who we might consider ‘beneath’ us, but this would be wrong. We each possess a dignity that cannot be dismissed without dismissing the God who made us. It forces us to consider the effects of our economic policies or business decisions or simply our relationship and interactions with our friends, families, colleagues or employees. We have a responsibility to treat those who are made in the image of God with a corresponding dignity.