1.3.4 Respect for human dignity

Back to 1.3.3

Unit 1 Contents


If justice is a pre-requisite of the common good, what are the pre-requisites of justice?

In other words, how can we specify what is needed, in more concrete terms, if we are going to have a just society?  Some of the other principles of CST can be understood in exactly this way, as each specifying something of what justice requires.  On the next five screens we are going to look at five such principles.  These are:

  • Respect for human dignity
  • Protection of human freedom
  • The preferential option for the poor
  • Subsidiarity
  • The priority of labour over capital

You will be glad to hear that most of these are easier to understand than the common good.

Beginning with human dignity, here is a quotation to get us going:

A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person. The person represents the ultimate end of society, by which it is ordered to the person: “Hence, the social order and its development must invariably work to the benefit of the human person, since the order of things is to be subordinate to the order of persons, and not the other way around”. Respect for human dignity can in no way be separated from obedience to this principle. It is necessary to “consider every neighbour without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity”. Every political, economic, social, scientific and cultural programme must be inspired by the awareness of the primacy of each human being over society.   (Compendium, #132, quoting Gaudium et Spes, ##26-27; italics added)

The statement here that each human person has “transcendent dignity” means basically that everyone has a value that cannot be measured against anything else in the world, an immeasurable worth.

Why do Christians affirm this?  They do so in the light of the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible which presents God as making human beings, men and women, to be “in the image of God”.  How should we understand this?  You have the opportunity to study this fully in Module A, Unit 3.  To sum up in a sentence, it means that men and women together are authorized by God to act on God’s behalf in the good creation.  How do we know what this implies in practice?  The Christian answer refers to the figure of Jesus Christ whom Christians understand as the perfect image of God.  In short, men and women are made to represent God in the world – to be Christ-like – and this astonishing role dignifies the human person.

Take a look at what the Compendium says about human dignity.  In doing these readings, you will notice that the quotation above (from #132) is in the first of them.


Reading (9pp)

Compendium, ##124-134 (Chap. 3, sec. III A and B) (5pp)

This link will take you to #127, so you need to scroll up to #124.


Compendium, ##144-151 (Chap. 3, sec. III D and E) (4pp)


In summary, then, the dignity that human beings have must be respected. This is what justice requires, because humans persons are due such respect.  In practice, one of the main things this means is that people’s human rights must be respected.  While the concept of human rights can be both misunderstood and abused, CST includes a very strong affirmation that people’s genuine human rights must be upheld.  This was incorporated into CST in the 1963 Encyclical, Pacem in Terris, and is very clear in several more recent documents.

The topic of human rights is a really important one, especially as it matters that people – not least Christians – learn how to use this language in a clear and truthful way.  We need to avoid making claims that X or Y are human rights when really they are not!  VPlater Module A gives you the opportunity to study what CST says about human rights quite fully – see Unit 7.  Therefore, this module gives less attention to this topic.  However, now is a good moment to read a few pages in the Compendium summing up Catholic teaching on rights – and this topic will come up at various points later in this module.

The following reading comes shortly after the end of that on human dignity you did just now.


Reading (5pp)

Compendium, ##152-159 (Chap. 3, sec. IV)


Before we move on, it is important to see the way that the principles of the common good and human dignity balance each other.  We saw that CST affirms that human wellbeing is found in the common good (1.3.2).  But this is the good of human persons who have transcendent dignity.  Therefore any claim that the common good requires in practice something that contradicts this dignity, such as the mere use of a person as a means to achieve an end, must be rejected as false and unjust.  In short, the common good is the good of persons.

In a way, the common good and human dignity can be seen as two sides of coin.  Their complementarity is evident if we compare these two sentences, both quoted above:

Every political, economic, social, scientific and cultural programme must be inspired by the awareness of the primacy of each human being over society.  (Compendium, #132)

The goal of life in society is in fact the historically attainable common good. (Compendium, #168, as quoted on 1.3.3)

How do these fit together?  Each and every human person has priority over anything that ‘society’ might claim to need to do collectively.  At the same time, the good for each person is found in the common good, so his or her wellbeing depends on pursuit of this shared end.  This might seem paradoxical, but conceptually it is perfectly coherent.



End of 1.3.4

Go to 1.3.5 Protection of human freedom

Module B outline

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