Two keystones of Catholic moral tradition

They are the intrinsic dignity of the human person and the social nature of human life

By Deacon Bob Hunt

On April 2, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith published Dignitas Infinita, a declaration reaffirming the Church’s teaching on the intrinsic dignity of the human person and addressing and condemning certain attacks on that dignity, including poverty, war, abortion, human trafficking, and gender ideology. The introduction to the declaration begins: “Every human person possesses an infinite dignity, inalienably grounded in his or her very being, which prevails in and beyond every circumstance, state, or situation the person may ever encounter. This principle, which is fully recognizable even by reason alone, underlies the primacy of the human person and the protection of human rights.”

The declaration delineates four distinctions in human dignity: ontological dignity, moral dignity, social dignity, and existential dignity.

Ontological dignity is the dignity given one by God, being made in His image and likeness. It is a dignity that all must respect and that can never be confiscated by others or even surrendered by the individual. “From this truth,” the declaration states, “the Church draws the reasons for her commitment to the weak and those less endowed with power, always insisting on ‘the primacy of the human person and the defense of his or her dignity beyond every circumstance.’” The declaration states that moral dignity is attached to how one acts in the world. While given free will to act toward the good, people can choose to act contrary to the good, contrary to God’s will, and as such act in a way that is not dignified, that contradicts their dignity.

Social dignity refers to a person’s living conditions and the all-too-often circumstances where people, such as those living in extreme poverty, are living in conditions contrary to their ontological dignity, making it difficult for them to live lives of human dignity. “The last meaning’” the declaration says, “is that of existential dignity, which is the type of dignity implied in the ever-increasing discussion about a ‘dignified’ life and one that is ‘not dignified.’ For instance, while some people may appear to lack nothing essential for life, for various reasons, they may still struggle to live with peace, joy, and hope. In other situations, the presence of serious illnesses, violent family environments, pathological addictions, and other hardships may drive people to experience their life conditions as ‘undignified’ vis-à-vis their perception of that ontological dignity that can never be obscured.”

In perhaps the critical paragraph of the declaration, it states, “We do not create our nature; we hold it as a gift, and we can nurture, develop, and enhance our abilities. By exercising the freedom to cultivate the riches of our nature, we grow over time. Even if a person is unable to exercise these capabilities due to various limitations or conditions, nevertheless the person always subsists as an ‘individual substance’ with a complete and inalienable dignity. This applies, for instance, to an unborn child, an unconscious person, or an older person in distress.”

In reflecting on biblical themes, the declaration reminds us that our dignity is given to us by God, for we are made in His image and likeness. We possess the imago Dei, that is, “the image of God,” within us as creations of the heavenly Father. As well, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity took flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, thus entering into the human condition and elevating the dignity of what it means to be human. Jesus taught by example in recognizing the intrinsic dignity of all persons, Gentile and Jew, man or woman, Roman or Greek. He turned to those who had been rejected and reminded them and others of their dignity: the poor, the destitute, the adulteress, the rich man, the tax collector, the leper, and even the dying and dead. Jesus recognized their dignity and called us to do the same. Furthermore, the resurrection of Christ Jesus elevates again the dignity of the human person because it reveals that our dignity is fulfilled in living in loving communion with God, the Holy Trinity, for eternity.

The intrinsic dignity of the human person and the social nature of human life are the keystones of the Catholic moral tradition. We must adhere to these principles now more than ever, when human dignity is so

assaulted, and the social nature of human life, that is, our responsibility to each other and our joy in our experience of each other, is ignored or even never considered by a culture dominated with concern for the individual’s expression of their personal truth and what they perceive as individual freedom.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


Deacon Bob Hunt is a husband, father, grandfather, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville. He is author of the book Thy Word: An Introduction to the Bible for People in the Pews.

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