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The west cannot take ‘human dignity’ for granted

With what many Catholics took as a refreshing forthrightness, the Vatican released a document on Monday that took aim at gender theory and sex-change interventions, among other things, as “grave violations” of human dignity. Hang out around the Church long enough and you’ll quickly see that there’s nothing unusual about human dignity talk, but what was welcomed as novel was a text that specifically called out as abuses practices that are often claimed as rights in western societies.

Pope Francis has long been vocal about these things, just last month calling gender ideology “the ugliest danger of our time,” and previously blasting surrogacy as “deplorable”. “A child is always a gift and never the basis of a commercial contract,” he said on that occasion. To explicitly link these things though to the erosion of human dignity in a new document was a move many welcomed, as it has been perceived for a while now that that core pillar of western civilisation has been silently under attack by these modern means.

Dignitas Infinita (‘Infinite Dignity’) comes at a time when the concept of inherent human dignity, in this writer’s opinion, is being taken for granted. It by no means should be, as history testifies. However obvious the inalienable dignity of the human person may be to many in 21st Century Europe, it has not always been so, to the misery and misfortune of many societies’ lowliest and weakest.

A concept that’s origins have always been a flashpoint between those of faith and faith’s more strident critics, human dignity is a theme that is being considered by ever more people in 2024 – if only indirectly, in many cases – as technologies and practices that require an ever-expanding repertoire of rights make headlines at an increasing pace.

As Pope Francis has noted previously, the closest formulation of the Christian understanding of human dignity in modern culture is to be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out in its very first article that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

Adopted in 1948 amid the wreckage of the second world war, the Declaration set out for the first time “fundamental human rights to be universally protected”. It’s no surprise that the question of man’s inherent worth was on policymakers’ minds following a conflict that saw some of the worst distortions of man – in the violence done to victims and in the evil done by the perpetrators – that the world had ever seen. The need to reaffirm the value of every human being and the fundamental human rights derived from that must have stood forth particularly starkly in the shadow of the recent Holocaust.

Just as the Judeo-Christian tradition was drawn upon then to reaffirm man’s inviolable dignity in the face of that which would seek to deface it, Dignitas Infinita has once again pointed the Church, and wider society, in that direction as it grapples with subtler issues that come cloaked under the guise of care and compassion.

I will not here rehash the entire 12,000 word document – which is well worth an afternoon’s read whether you’re Catholic or not – but suffice it to say that it comprehensively argues that the notion of human dignity we in the west have inherited is born of the idea that we are made ‘in imago Dei’ (‘in the image of God’) and that that dignity “prevails in and beyond every circumstance, state, or situation the person may ever encounter”.

“This principle, which is fully recognisable even by reason alone, underlies the primacy of the human person and the protection of human rights,” it reads.

Was this understanding of human beings always dominant? Most certainly not. While in classical antiquity a sense of human dignity emerged, it was developed from a perspective that estimated the value of each person according to where they found themselves in the social order. As such, slaves, to name but one societal grouping, were thought to have no inherent dignity whatsoever. It was a similar story with women, the infirm and more in many times and places. The vision we enjoy today was, as Dignitas Infinita puts it, “a long way away”.

A long way away from those days we are, and yet, as the Vatican I think rightly sees it, there are practices that would run roughshod over that dignity that every person – regardless of their context or circumstances – is endowed with. It is these that generated the headlines on Monday when the document was released, not least because many of these threats are often presented as ‘rights’ themselves.

While a number of “grave violations” are listed that would be acknowledged by a broad spectrum of society – poverty, war, human trafficking, sexual abuse, enforced migration and violence against women to name but a few – a couple of controversial issues turned heads: abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia and assisted suicide, gender theory and sex-change procedures.

Now, anyone who knows anything about the Church won’t have been surprised by these latter inclusions, but the majority of people in the western world understandably don’t know all that much about the Church’s position on these things, the Church being considerably out of fashion. In fact, discussing the Church’s views on these things at all would be considered fairly irrelevant by many were it not tied to the concept of human dignity that we all – believer and unbeliever alike – subscribe to. For that reason, it is a document as relevant for those inclined to disregard the Church’s opinion as it is for those filling the pews.

Every upstanding person cares about human dignity, hence widespread fears of anything that might dehumanise or marginalise in near every western country today. There are obvious ways in which humans deny the dignity of others – think of slavery, to use the example above once again – but there are ways that aren’t quite so obvious. In fact, our present age has become quite good at repackaging abuses of that inherent human dignity as care and compassion – indeed, as rights themselves.

The concept of human dignity “is also occasionally misused to justify an arbitrary proliferation of new rights, many of which are at odds with those originally defined and often are set in opposition to the fundamental right to life,” the controversial document reads.

“It is as if the ability to express and realise every individual preference or subjective desire should be guaranteed. This perspective identifies dignity with an isolated and individualistic freedom that claims to impose particular subjective desires and propensities as ‘rights’ to be guaranteed and funded by the community.”

How often have we heard about the ‘right to abortion’ in recent years? Less widespread but still at large is the notion of the ‘right to a child’, that has seen the surrogacy industry boom. The ‘right to die’ has just been recommended to the Government by an Oireachtas committee tasked with examining whether or not Ireland should legislate for assisted suicide/euthanasia, while ‘trans rights are human rights’ has been heard by nearly everyone with ears in the past decade.

Those who support any or all of the above won’t be particularly swayed by what the Church has to say on the matter, but its weighing in to the debate raises interesting questions regardless. The Judeo-Christian roots of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are plain as day for anyone who cares to trace them. What leg have we to stand on then if we start hacking at the branch upon which we’re sitting?

This line of argument is nearly always regarded as scaremongering by those keen to see ‘progress’, but it doesn’t invalidate it. A society that says some lives aren’t worth living or are less valuable than others, that thinks a baby can form the basis of a commercial exchange or that thinks carrying out questionable (to say the least) medical interventions on people who struggle with their being as a man or a woman is a loving response is a society that has drifted far from the idea that human dignity is inherent.

If we’re capable of drifting that far, how much farther?


Jason Osborne



This article first appeared in Gript and is published here with permission 



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