Any treatment of Catholic social teaching has to begin and end with the dignity of the human person. Here we start, one post on each principle of Catholic social teaching.
The first principle and foundation of all social justice and Catholic social teaching is a recognition of the inherent dignity due to human beings by virtue of their being made in the image and likeness of God.
As Pope John XXIII wrote in Pacem in Terris:
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. His is a nature, that is, endowed with intelligence and free will. As such he has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature. These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable. (7)
When, furthermore, we consider man’s personal dignity from the standpoint of divine revelation, inevitably our estimate of it is incomparably increased. Men have been ransomed by the blood of Jesus Christ. Grace has made them sons and friends of God, and heirs to eternal glory.
Each and every human being has value and dignity inherent to them as persons created by God and ransomed by the blood of Christ. This value and dignity is not based on location, age, size, race, gender, cognitive ability, “consciousness”, or ability to contribute. It is based on being human. Period. Made in God’s image and likeness.
The primary way this dignity is respected is through ensuring that all persons have at minimum the right to live. John XXIII continues,
But first We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of illhealth; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.
The right to live is, and must be spoken of firstly, as without the right to live, all other rights are meaningless. One cannot enjoy freedom of speech, assembly, medical care, etc. if they are dead.
From that starting point, we can reasonably draw the conclusion that we may not ever intentionally take the life of an innocent person. This of course is not speaking of acts of self-defense (or defense of someone who is incapable of defending themselves). However, self-defense has as it’s definition the premise that an unjust agressor is attacking one, which means that to use lethal force to stop them would not constitue taking an innocent human life. Of course we are obliged to use only the amount of force needed to stop the unjust agressor, reserving lethal means for only the most dangerous of agressors. As a general principle, we ought not to be killing people, unless they are dangerous and there is no alternative which exists to keep others safe.
Social justice cannot truly exist in a society which allows the intentional taking of innocent life for any reason. Human sacrfice is not acceptable, no matter how “noble” the cause.
For the purposes of Catholic social teaching, a “person” is defined as a human being which exists in some stage beginning with conception and ending with natural death. It is not morally licit to intentionally kill any innocent person beginning with their conception and ending with their natural death.
From this principle we arrive at the Church’s strong condemnation of Euthanasia (or “mercy killing”), doctor-assisted suicide, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, gun violence, nuclear war, and any practices of warfare which (1) do not meet the criteria for just war and (2) in any way target innocent civilians.
In a more broad sense, the dignity of the human person flows into each of the other pinciples of Catholic social teaching, illuminating the reasons why we work for the common good and the rights of workers, to name just a few. The dignity of all persons is why we oppose human trafficking, torture, abuse of any kind, domestic violence, unjust working conditions or wages, unjust war, and indifference to the poor.
Wednesday’s post will explore the next principle of Catholic social teaching, which is the call to Family, Community, and Participation.
What questions do you have about the teaching on human dignity? How can this teaching impact your family and how you relate to families around you?