What is Human Dignity and the Sanctity of Life?

Pope Benedict XVI has aroused some opposition but also worldwide hope for dialogue and discovery of shared truths about our humanness, God, and moral and social crises of our times. He has focused much of his initiative on the core question of “human dignity” and, by implication, “the sanctity of life.” There is good reason for his point of departure.

For many secular and religious authorities since the mid-20th century human dignity has become the standard of choice for judging good and evil, right and wrong, legality and illegality. Human dignity is the new rallying point in the global struggle for human rights and social justice. A prime example is seen in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), a founding document of the United Nations that proclaims some thirty human rights on the basis of human dignity. Yet, neither the authors of this document nor most subsequent proponents of human dignity discuss the term with a view to defining it [1]. Perhaps its meaning has been thought to be self-evident.

To rely only on intuition in this case, however, yields ambiguity because there are several possible meanings of “human dignity.” For example, two subjective meanings derive from how one feels about oneself in the sense of self-esteem and how one feels about another’s worth. Two objective meanings derive from the real value of one’s personal achievements or moral character and from the real value of being a member of the human race. About this last meaning, which is the focus of this article, most thinkers assume that our common objective dignity is the highest value we know of, that it is equal for every human being, and that it should be respected in each by all.

The magisterium of the Church may be the only significant authority to have looked more deeply into the objective value of common human dignity. Several documents of the Second Vatican Council discuss doctrinal and moral implications of human dignity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI do as well, but they also draw together the Church’s understanding of human dignity itself by answering three pivotal questions.

First, the magisterium urges contemporary thinkers to ponder: is every human being especially dignified by virtue of his or her origins? In respect to the origins of the human body, for instance, John Paul II has taught that, even though evolution is presently a probable scientific theory and not merely an hypothesis, thinkers still need to contemplate the origin of the evolutionary process and of the universe itself. The pope was confident that open human minds could see that the Uncaused, First Cause of classic Western philosophers or the Creator God of believers is the ultimate origin of the human body, no matter our human ancestry or how many other intermediate sources scientists may discover.

In respect to the origin of the human soul, it is evident to right reason that immaterial spirits cannot arise from material sources (either from parental gametes or from physical evolution). Hence, the immediate origin of each human soul must be that wholly immaterial First Cause, or God. The fact that the ultimate and immediate origins of every human being are of the highest caliber confers a corresponding objective value or dignity equally upon human beings which should be respected by all.

Related closely to this first question is the second: is every human being especially dignified by virtue of his or her very nature? In view of scholarly problems, past and present, about the question of human nature, the magisterium helps thinkers toward a balanced answer by insisting that, by nature, humans are composite beings who are at once physical (material) and spiritual (immaterial). Hence we are the sole expression of all that exists. This fact alone gives us a dignity of high distinction. Then, upon examining our nature, we find no other on earth as complex, developed, or capable on the physical, psychological, spiritual, and social levels. We discover from experience itself that our personal potential vastly exceeds the capacities of any other creature. Through our reason and free will, for example, we are independent in many ways from the material determinism to which all other creatures are subject. We alone are able even to engage in initial but real communion with Transcendent Being. Truly, human nature is of superior value.

Moreover, the Genesis account of creation proclaims that human nature is an actual image of God, and for those blessed with baptismal life in Jesus Christ mere human nature is transformed by God’s grace into a supernatural likeness of the Trinity. No other answer to the question about human nature could reveal the objective dignity of human beings in nobler terms.

Yet, the Christian answer to a final question does go much further: is the human being dignified the most by virtue of his or her destiny, or reason for existing? Secularist and even some religious thinkers have little to say in response to this capital question. Conversely, the Church’s magisterium has a great deal to say. In brief, a human being exists to develop his or her personal and interpersonal capacities here and now so as to be able to relate forever in the fullest way possible to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This one-on-one friendship or communion between human and divine persons is our actual life-purpose or destiny that confers inestimable dignity upon every human being.

The above three questions and answers reveal that our human origins, nature, and destiny are of the highest nobility. Indeed, God alone is holy or sacred. But our ultimate and immediate connections to God give intellectual substance to the assertion that human life is also sacred. We come from God; we reflect God materially and spiritually; and we are meant to share unending fulfillment in, through, and with God. On this basis, a definition of the dignity common to human beings can be attempted: an objective excellence that indicates superior meaning and value in comparison to those of all other earthly creatures.

Such an understanding of human dignity adds great weight to the widespread intuitive assumption that human dignity is indeed a high value we all possess and all should respect. Through reason in harmony with Christian faith, this view grounds securely the human rights insisted on by the Church, the United Nations, and others who face up to current arenas of moral and social peril, including some from bioscience and medicine.

This vision of the real worth given human beings by God—who fashioned us to be God-like and destined us to eternal divine friendship—inspires inviolable respect and love: for God, for oneself, and for all human beings.


[1] A helpful exception is the volume Human Dignity and Bioethics, President’s Council on Bioethics, Washington D.C., March 2008, in which some 20 scholars discuss human dignity from a myriad of perspectives. Two of these authors attempt an analytical exploration and definition and, while they (and the other 18) express valuable insights, none view human dignity as thoroughly as does Catholic tradition, especially Vatican II documents and the post-Vatican II magisterium. See also “Chapter One: The Dignity of the Human Person,” Part Three, Section One, Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Image Doubleday, 1995: 424-458; Conner, O.P., Paul. “Human Dignity: Universal Standard of Good and Evil.” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly V. 4, N. 2 (Summer 2004): 265-273; Kass, Leon R. Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002.

[Editorial Note: Much of this article was published as “Human Dignity” in Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy: An Encyclopedia, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD, July 2007, 519-521, and is being used with permission.]