Educational Resource

Recognizing Every Person's God-given Dignity

Year Published
  • 2011
  • English

Chapter One - Study Guide

Revisiting Paul's Writings

For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17)

Catholic social teaching holds that something essential is missed whenever a human persons dignity is overlooked. Every human person possesses a God-given dignity.

But is this merely an idle claim that the Catholic Church makes about human life? No, it is a belief with far-reaching consequences. It is a belief that becomes visible through our actions. It influences how we live and act; it shapes how we relate to other people, other cultural groups and other nations.

This chapter in our discussion guide examines the principle of human dignity in Catholic social teaching. The discussion guides overall purpose is to draw the issue of torture into clear focus, and to aid parish small groups, classes, families, and individuals as they look into the ways that Catholic social teaching applies to this important concern.

Why, then, do we begin by taking a close look at what the Church says about human dignity? Because basic to the Catholic Church's stance against torture and/or the abuse of prisoners is the belief that such practices violate a persons God-given dignity. In fact, some say that torture violates the human dignity, not only of the person who is tortured, but of those who impose the torture.

So, lets talk about human dignity. As we talk about it, lets ask, in particular, why this principle of Catholic social teaching matters so much in our times. What difference does a belief in human dignity really make?

Perhaps the following question will provide some initial direction for our conversation. Ponder it briefly now as we get under way.

How much would our world change if everyone's God-given dignity always and everywhere was recognized and honored?

When you think of Catholic social teaching, what first comes to mind?

  1. Maybe you think of serving the poor in some concrete way.

  2. Maybe you think of protecting human rights for example, the right to life, to food, to work; the right of people to participate in society and make their voices heard.

  3. Perhaps ways that the lives of children, or refugees, or the aged, or the sick, or workers are exploited and demeaned are what first come to mind for you.

  4. Or is it the need to counteract discrimination against various racial and ethnic groups and to give human equality its due that springs to mind?

Whatever it is that first comes to mind when you think of Catholic social teaching or the pursuit of social justice, it almost certainly in some way reflects a belief about human dignity. For this belief -- that everyone possesses a God-given dignity -- motivates the activities that Catholic dioceses, parishes, schools, families, individuals, and groups undertake to serve others and to carry out the mandates of Catholic social teaching.

It is only natural for people who participate in the Eucharist to be concerned about everyone's human dignity, Pope Benedict XVI suggested in the apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist ( Sacramentum Caritatis ) that he released in March 2007. Precisely because of the mystery we celebrate [in the Eucharist], we must denounce situations contrary to human dignity, since Christ shed his blood for all, the pope wrote.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that social justice can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man ( No. 1929). In this context, the catechism quotes a sentence from one of Pope John Paul II's social encyclicals, On Social Concerns (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis), released in 1988 . The defense and promotion of the human persons dignity have been entrusted to us by the Creator, the pope said (SRS 47).

The Catechism immediately adds that respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature (No. 1930).

Did you notice, in the preceding two paragraphs, how the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in discussing human dignity and human rights, employed the term respect? It spoke of respecting each persons transcendent dignity and of respect for human rights. How significant is the term respect in Catholic social teaching? What, in fact, does the word respect actually mean?

In Catholic social teaching, a simple recognition of human dignity in and of itself isn't sufficient. Rather, this recognition bears consequences. It leads to respect; to respect for human life and for human rights; it highlights the need for actions of many kinds on behalf of human rights and human life.

The Catechism provides a bit of insight into the meaning of the term respect when it makes the following statement: Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as another self, above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity (No. 1931).

As our discussion of human dignity continues, reflect upon the term respect and its meaning. Undoubtedly, you hear frequently in the Church about respect for life. When you hear of this, isn't it clear that respect is not an abstraction? Isn't it clear that the call to respect all of life is a call to change ways of thinking and ways of acting?

What does it mean to respect another person or group of people? In other words, how do you define the term respect?

The duty to respect the dignity of each human being, in whose nature the image of the Creator is reflected, means in consequence that the person cannot be disposed of at will. Those with greater political, technical, or economic power may not use that power to violate the rights of others who are less fortunate. Peace is based on respect for the rights of all. (Pope Benedict XVI, in his Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2007)

No one can be by nature superior to his fellows, since all men are equally noble in natural dignity. (Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Peace on Earth [Pacem in Terris], No. 89)

The roots of human rights are to be found in the dignity that belongs to each human being.
( Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church , No. 153)

A prime example [of intrinsically evil actions] is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia Direct threats to the sanctity and dignity of human life, such as human cloning and destructive research on human embryos, are also intrinsically evil. These must always be opposed. Other direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified. ( Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States, No. 22, 23, November 2007)


This chapter suggests that a God-given human dignity is there to be recognized by us in every human person. What are the implications of this statement? Pause for a moment to think that over.

Who is encompassed by the words every human person? Is anyone left out?

Do we find it difficult to recognize the human dignity of some people? Are there hard cases for us? What about people who are unkind to us personally? What about people who cause harm within society, or who are violent? What about people considered enemies of our nation? What about prisoners of our nations efforts to combat terrorism?


If you search for just one rather simple, clear reason why Catholic social teaching holds that dignity is a basic characteristic of every human person, you wont find it. Instead, you'll find two reasons, both rather simple and clear:

First reason: God is our Creator; we are created in Gods image. A reflection of God is found in all those he created. Pope John Paul II spoke about this in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) . He wrote: 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 ( EV 34).

Second reason: In the Incarnation, Jesus Christ becomes one with the human family's members. All human persons are touched by the reality of the Incarnation, and by Christ's redemptive actions. Christ came for all. In The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II explained this. He said that Jesus self-oblation on the Cross becomes the source of new life for all people ( No. 33). And, the pope said, Jesus has a unique relationship with every person, which enables us to see in every human face the face of Christ ( No. 81).

The Catholic bishops of the United States made the same two points regarding the source of our human dignity in their 2003 statement For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food . They wrote, Created by God and redeemed by Christ, every person possesses a fundamental dignity that comes from God, not from any human attribute or accomplishment.

And here is what the Second Vatican Council said about this, in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern Word (Gaudium et Spes) : "Since all men possess a rational soul and are created in God's likeness, since they have the same nature and origin, have been redeemed by Christ and enjoy the same divine calling and destiny, the basic equality of all must receive increasingly greater recognition (No. 29).

Do you find it surprising or confusing that Pope John Paul II spoke about finding the face of Christ in every human face?

Where can this conviction regarding the God-given human dignity of every person lead? It can lead toward building what Pope John Paul II called a culture of life. According to Pope John Paul's vision, builders of the culture of life constitute a powerfully constructive force for great good in the society and the world they inhabit.

Pope John Paul discussed the culture of life at length in The Gospel of Life. There is an urgent need for a general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life. All together, we must build a new culture of life, he wrote ( No. 95).

As the outlines of a culture of life unfolded in The Gospel of Life, the pope said that the time has come to rediscover the ability to revere and honor every person ( No. 83). Many, many persons found a place in the popes expansive discussion of the culture of life and what respect for life implies: the unborn child, the newborn child, the sick, the poor and needy, terminally ill people, the aged and those who mourn, those who are marginalized within society, minors, AIDs patients, and even enemies.

The people of the Church are people of life and for life, and this is how we present ourselves to everyone, Pope John Paul II said ( No. 78). He added, We are guided and sustained by the law of love ( No. 79).

In the late popes vision of a culture of life, even an enemy ceases to be an enemy for the person who is obliged to love him and to do good to him; the height of such love, said the pope, is to pray for one's enemy ( No. 41).

It is impossible in this short space to sum up all that Pope John Paul said about the culture of life in his important encyclical. However, in our context, the following statements should be noted:

The deepest element of God's commandment to protect human life is the requirement to show reverence and love for every person and the life of every person ( No. 41).

All of society should respect, defend and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in every condition of that persons life ( No. 81).

Pope John Paul II went on to discuss the culture of life many times in the years after publishing The Gospel of Life. For him, the call to build a culture of life was a demanding call to take responsibility for our world and to enrich it. Just take a look at what he said in March 2001, when he spoke to the Pontifical Academy of Life:

The best way to overcome and defeat the dangerous culture of death is to give firm foundations and clear content to a culture of life that will vigorously oppose it. Although right and necessary, it is not enough merely to expose and denounce the lethal effects of the culture of death. Rather, the inner tissue of contemporary culture must be continually regenerated, culture being understood as a conscious mentality, as convictions and actions, as the social structures that support it.

Pope Benedict XVI also affirmed the need to respect the life and dignity of the human person when he spoke at St. Peters Square on February 5, 2006: It is fundamental to foster a correct attitude towards the other: the culture of life is in fact based on attention to others without any forms of exclusion or discrimination. Every human life, as such, deserves and demands always to be defended and promoted.

Catholic social teaching holds that all people bear a God-given dignity. This conviction makes demands upon us: calls us to action, calls us to respect each person.

It is possible at once to feel personally affirmed by this teaching and disturbed by its most far-reaching demands, especially the demand to recognize human dignity in what may appear to us as difficult cases.

So this teaching leads somewhere: It leads to respect for ourselves and all others, and to action on behalf of justice. It leads to recognizing the face of Jesus in others.

This teaching also may prompt us to take a second look at widely accepted ways our society treats people to assess whether some ways of treating people reflect respect for human dignity, or whether, in fact, they constitute abuses of human dignity.

Society itself frequently is divided when it comes to judging whether or not an action constitutes an abuse of human dignity. Thus, debates over particular issues get played out in the pages of our daily newspapers and on TV. For example, since 1973, there has been an intense debate over abortion, in which the Church calls for respect for human life from the moment of conception. There are ongoing debates over racism: when it is operative in school systems and when it is not, or how it influences voting choices. Currently, there is an ongoing debate in society over abortion and human embryonic stem-cell research, which the Church regards as a failure to recognize the unborn child's humanity and dignity.

And, of course, there is debate over torture: whether certain practices commonly regarded as torture are legally or morally acceptable in the treatment and interrogation of prisoners accused of terrorist acts.

Torture is an issue in the news of our day, an issue that Catholic social teaching prompts us to examine. The issue of torture will be explored in detail in this discussion guides next chapter. At this point, however, we might conclude this discussion of human dignity by posing these questions:

What is at risk when respect does not characterize the relationships of individuals, of cultural and religious groups, or of nations?

Is it possible to condone practices of torture while at the same time affirming every persons God-given human dignity? Why or Why not?

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
you have given the world its true light,
Jesus, your Son, the Son of God.
You abandoned yourself completely
to God's call
and thus became a wellspring
of the goodness that flows forth from him.
Show us Jesus. Lead us to him.
Teach us to know and love him,
so that we too can become
capable of true love
and be fountains of living water
in the midst of a thirsting world.

( From Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical)

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