7.1.1 Human dignity

Unit 7 Contents

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

At the start of its chapter on the human person and human rights, the Compendium says:

The Church sees in men and women, in every person, the living image of God himself. This image finds, and must always find anew, an ever deeper and fuller unfolding of itself in the mystery of Christ, the Perfect Image of God, the One who reveals God to man and man to himself.  

It is to these men and women, who have received an incomparable and inalienable dignity from God himself, that the Church speaks… constantly reminding them of their lofty vocation so that they may always be mindful of it and worthy of it.

(Compendium, #105; italics in original; para. break added)

This means you.  It means, in exactly the same way, every other human person.  Here is the basis in the Christian faith for self-esteem.  Here is the basis, in each person’s “lofty vocation”, for responsibility – you and I have to live up to being human.  Moreover here is the basis for human rights, the insistence that there are some freedoms and some benefits that should be denied to none of us, that every single person should have.

This unit explores what this means.

You are probably aware of Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and other books.  In the worldview of atheistic evolutionary biology, represented eloquently by Dawkins, which is one outcome of the purely mechanistic way of seeing nature that we have looked at in earlier units, there is no basis for an affirmation of human dignity.  This is because human beings are, in that view, entirely the same kind of material stuff as the rest of nature, not more than collections of chemicals.  The very idea of human dignity implies a worth that transcends material things.  But in that perspective we are only things, so there is no basis for such transcendence.  At the end of a powerful discussion of human dignity, a well-known Catholic philosopher, Robert Spaemann, says that “atheism definitively deprives human dignity of its foundation, and with that the possibility within civilization to reflect on good reasons to protect human life”.1

One reason for beginning this unit by presenting that very sharp dichotomy between how Christianity and atheistic evolutionary biology see human beings is that you will, early in this unit, read a passage that includes discussion of both human dignity and atheism.  This comes from the Vatican II document called Gaudium et Spes, and the passage you’ll read can be seen as the ‘classic text’ about human dignity in current Catholic Social Teaching. Surprisingly, this text discusses atheism in what can be seen as a much more sympathetic way than that sharp dichotomy might lead us to expect.  It even recognizes that the Church probably has had some part to play, because of its failings, in the rise of atheism over the past 300 years in the Western world.

The grandeur of the Christian doctrine of human dignity gives us no reason to brag.  On the contrary, it is utterly humbling, because it says: that is how God made us.  We could not construct our own dignity.2

I have begun this unit in a different way from most others in order to put across straight away what we are talking about. All human beings are of immeasurable worth.

I hope these few paragraphs also make clear why this subject matters.  This is especially necessary when we are looking at ‘human dignity’ and ‘responsibilities and rights’ because these concepts could be addressed in a very abstract way.

Learning outcomes for Unit 7

By the end of this unit, you will be able

  • to explain how the terminology of dignity, rights and duties can be used coherently and clearly
  • to outline the main developments in the 1960s in CST on human rights, and discuss whether they should be described as a ‘Catholic human rights revolution’
  • to assess critically some main objections to using the language of human rights at all
  • to set out some ways in which people can take action against abuses of human dignity and rights.

In a similar way as in units 3 to 6, we shall be following the pastoral spiral, although less closely.  So you be will asked shortly to reflect on your own experience in relation to questions of dignity, responsibilities and rights.

But before that, I’d like to introduce the terminology of rights and duties, in order to clarify what these words mean.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

End of 7.1.1

Go to 7.1.2 Duties and rights: some basics

Copyright © Newman University.  If you wish to quote from this page, see Citation Information. N.B. If you make use of material on this page in a course assignment, you are obliged to reference the source in line with the citation information.


  1. Robert Spaemann, ‘Human Dignity’, in Spaemann, Essays in Anthropology: Variations on a Theme (Cascade Books, 2010), 72 

  2. In the article by Spaemann, the sentence following that quoted above says, referring to probably the two most influential atheistic thinkers of the past 200 years, “It is not by chance that both Nietzsche and Marx described dignity as something still needing to be constructed rather than something already to be respected” (‘Human Dignity’, 72). 

Go to Top