7.2.1 CST on human dignity

Back to 7.1.5

Unit 7 Contents


At the very start of Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII set a small but significant precedent.  As in all such Vatican documents, it begins with a statement of to whom it is addressed, namely to the Catholic Church’s leaders (several ranks are listed) and members.  At the end of this, he added “and to all people of good will”.1

Pacem in Terris was, in other words, addressed to anyone and everyone willing to give it a hearing, Christians or otherwise.  This was the first time a papal encyclical had been formally addressed to people outside the Catholic Church.  Subsequent papal documents that contribute to social teaching have, likewise, been addressed to everyone “of good will”.

Gaudium et Spes, which you’re asked to read from in a moment, is similar, in that it was the first document issued by any Church Council to be addressed to the people of the whole world.  All the other fifteen documents issued by the Second Vatican Council focused primarily on internal Church questions and, correspondingly, were addressed to the Church.

The story of the writing of Gaudium et Spes is fascinating, but this is not the place to go into it.  It is enough to say that, when the Council opened in 1962, there was no intention that it should produce a document deliberately directed outward in that way.  After all, there were plenty of difficult internal issues on the agenda.  We can assume that the precedent of John XXIII’s encyclical to all people “of good will”, issued during the Council, helped to inspire it.  Another major factor was that some bishops, notably Dom Helder Camara from Brazil and Cardinal Leo Suenens from Belgium, insisted on the urgency of tackling global challenges, not least appalling poverty in many countries.2

In retrospect it seems very surprising that it wasn’t until 50 years ago that major Church statements were made to the whole world.  It seems such an obvious thing for the Church to do!  Yet it is of course very far from easy to formulate statements in a way that is appropriate for people across the globe, in vastly different cultural contexts, with hugely different levels of prior knowledge of the Church and of the issues they are seeking to address.  You will be able to assess the extent to which you find Gaudium et Spes speaks to you – keeping in mind that half a century has elapsed and very big changes taken place since then.

At the very start, Gaudium et Spes attempted to make a connection with people struggling with the ordinary challenges of life, wherever they might be.  The document’s opening is this:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.

After an ‘Introductory Statement’ about some of the major challenges the world was facing in that period, the first chapter addresses the subject of human dignity.  As you read it, here are a few things to notice:

  • the anthropocentrism of the first sentence (you may recall that in Unit 3 the question was raised of whether Gaudium et Spes’s perspective is too human-centred; cf. 3.5.1)
  • the statement about ‘conscience’ and natural law in #16 – we shall look at conscience later in this unit
  • the insistence in #17 that human freedom is a prerequisite of people living well
  • the engagement with atheism in ##19-21, which I referred to in 7.1.1 above.


Reading (9pp)

Gaudium et Spes, ##12-22 (Chapter 1, ‘The Dignity of the Human Person’)

The link is to the text of Gaudium et Spes at Intratext Digital Library.




Was it a good decision to make human dignity the topic of chapter 1 in this document that was, uniquely, intended to speak to the whole world?

What, according to Gaudium et Spes, is the basis for the Church’s affirmation of human dignity?

Bearing in mind the 50-year difference in time, how accessible and meaningful do you think this text would have been for moderately well educated people who knew little or nothing of the Church?

Do you find there is a message in it that speaks to you, despite that time lapse?


That chapter of Gaudium et Spes refers to the Christian teaching that humans are made “in the image of God” as a main source for affirmation of human dignity.  You will recall that we gave attention to the meaning of this phrase in Unit 2, when looking at all the main principles of CST (2.2.3).  If you have studied Unit 3, you will have given more sustained attention to this (3.3.4-3.3.7).  Perhaps you would like to look back at those screens briefly.

We shall not cover the same ground again here.  However, you might wish to do the following optional reading.  This is the roughly the first half of the Compendium’s chapter on ‘The Human Person and Human Rights’.  Part of it is re-reading, as indicated below.  I am suggesting this as optional reading here because it includes the section on humans as ‘in the image of God’.  It’s also simply what comes immediately before the reading that follows, so it would help to set that in context.


Optional reading  (10pp)

Compendium, ##108-129 (chap. 3, part II and part III to end of sec. A)


##108-114 are on humans as ‘in the image of God’ and were set as reading in Unit 3 (3.3.7).  ##115-119 were set in Unit 5, in connection with ‘structures of sin’ (5.3.3).  The topic of ##127-129 is ‘the unity of the human person’ and they basically say the same thing as Gaudium et Spes #14, which you have just read.


You are now asked to read the main passage in the Compendium on human dignity.


Reading (11pp)

Compendium, ##130-151 (chap. 3, part III, secs B to E)




Compare and contrast this with Gaudium et Spes chapter 1.

What topics does this address that are not covered there?

What new perspectives on or implications of human dignity does it add?

In relation to #48 on persons with disabilities, what do you think of its strong insistence on their full humanness?

The underlying view here is that being fully human is not at all a matter of being able to exercise any particular capacities.  How do you think this view compares with the views of people with disabilities to which hedonism or voluntarism would lead?  (This question will be easier to think about if you have worked through Unit 6.)


In that reading, the last section on ‘The Social Nature of Human Beings’ is especially significant.  This is because it marks out the way in which, in CST, the emphasis on human dignity is not individualistic but is consistent with its vision of the common good.  To appreciate the fundamental point which enables us to see how human dignity and the common good hold together, we can think back both to the explanation of the idea of the common good in Unit 2 (2.2.7) and, if you have studied this, to the discussion of human wellbeing in Unit 6 (6.2.1-6.2.3).

Human dignity refers to the immeasurable worth each person has. The response it calls for in others is respect, which in practice means the upholding of each person’s rights.   But human dignity is not the same thing as human wellbeing.  As you know, CST describes the latter as ‘integral human development’, and this is the proper end of the human person.  In contrast, human dignity is, we could say, what must be respected at the beginning of a person’s integral development.  If human dignity is trampled on, people won’t be able to grow and reach their proper end.

But this end, integral human development, is not something that people can attain and enjoy as separate individuals.  Rather it is found in the common good.  The Christian faith affirms that, ultimately, it means the communion of God’s people with the triune God.

Some people who have an individualistic worldview, such as hedonism or voluntarism, assume that any and every form of community is basically a threat to individuals.  This is because community basically stands in the way of what individuals want or freely choose to do.

But CST insists that, in principle, when we understand persons and the common good well, there is no contradiction.  On the contrary, a community properly makes real in its life together a common good in which both the dignity of its members is respected and their integral development is made possible.

In principle, family life gives an excellent example of this, whether in a nuclear or an extended family.  To the extent that the life of a family goes well, it forms a genuine common good for its members.  But, while it might not seem so at times, this is not contradictory to its members’ human development.  Rather, the family’s life helps to enable this.

In this respect, a family is a model for how things should and can be in larger human societies.  In principle, there simply is no contradiction between affirmation both of human dignity and that human wellbeing is found in the common good.

I have put this point in partly different language from that used in the Compendium’s section on ‘The Social Nature of Human Beings’ that you just read, but I hope that helps to clarify the perspective it is presenting.

What I’ve said here also gives the basis for answering one of the objections that some people put to the whole idea of human rights – namely that it is inherently individualistic.  This is simply wrong, even though some people have argued for human rights from individualistic premises, notably those whose view of human wellbeing is essentially voluntarist.  (To reiterate, this view sees living well as a matter of each individual doing the things he or she has freely determined to do, exercising his or her free will.  It is strongly associated with advocacy of human rights, even though it has a partly different conception of rights from that found in CST. This is one in which there is no corresponding conception of the common good, and in which there is sometimes no recognition that human rights that can be justified only by appeal to a transcendent basis for human worth – see 7.1.1.)

Later in the unit we shall consider a number of objections that have been made against ‘human rights’ in general.



End of 7.2.1

Go to 7.2.2 Historical context: the emergence of ‘human rights’

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  1. The English translations of the 1960s have “all men of good will”.  The official Latin text says: “universis bonae voluntatis hominibus”.  The root of the last word is homo, a main meaning of which is ‘human being’, in contrast to the meanings of vir, man, and mulier, woman.  (There are not two distinct words in English with meanings that correspond to those of homo and vir in Latin.)  Since Pope John Paul II’s first encyclical, in 1979, the English translation of the same Latin phrase has been either “all men and women of good will” or “all people of good will”. Notwithstanding which, why the Vatican has continued to use much gender-exclusive language in English translations of teaching documents is difficult to understand, not least as it needlessly drives some people away. 

  2. For a short account of the writing of Gaudium et Spes, see Marvin Mich, Catholic Social Teaching and Movements (Twenty-Third Publications, 1998), 120-123.