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What is the foundation of human dignity?

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Human dignity - the Catholic weekly
Human dignity is intrinsic and inalienable.Photo:Nathan Anderson

The Vatican document Dignitas infinita speaks about the ontological dignity of the human person. What does this mean and what is the foundation of this dignity?

The ontological dignity of the person is the dignity which every human person has for the very fact of being human.

The word ontological refers to the being of something, and so the ontological dignity of the human person is that dignity which every person has for the very fact of existing, regardless of their age, health, talents, social status, etc.

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There are various reasons for this dignity. As a first reason, the Vatican document says that ontological dignity “belongs to the person as such simply because he or she exists and is willed, created, and loved by God. Ontological dignity is indelible and remains valid beyond any circumstances in which the person may find themselves” (n.7).

Furthermore, the very nature of ‘person’ gives a foundation for this dignity: The classical definition of a person as an ‘individual substance of a rational nature’ clarifies the foundation of human dignity.

As an ‘individual substance,’ the person possesses ontological dignity (that is, at the metaphysical level of being itself).

Having received existence from God, humans are subjects who ‘subsist’—that is, they exercise their existence autonomously.

The term ‘rational’ encompasses all the capacities of the human person, including the capacities of knowing and understanding, as well as those of wanting, loving, choosing, and desiring” (n. 9).

Animals do not have this dignity because, not having rational nature, they cannot understand, love, choose, etc.

A later point in the document adds to this: “Medieval Christian thought arrived at a synthesis of the notion of the ‘person’ that recognised the metaphysical foundation of human dignity. St Thomas Aquinas attested to this when he affirmed that ‘person’ signifies what is most perfect in all nature—that is, a subsistent individual of a rational nature” (n. 13; STh, I, q. 29, a. 3, resp).

Another reason for human dignity is this: “Biblical Revelation teaches that all human beings possess inherent dignity because they are created in the image and likeness of God: ‘God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ (Gen 1:26-27) … Because of this, to be created in the image of God means to possess a sacred value that transcends every distinction of a sexual, social, political, cultural, and religious nature” (n. 11).

Even the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights acknowledged this dignity.

In its Preamble it spoke of “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”

The Vatican document comments: “Only this inalienable character of human dignity makes it possible to speak about human rights” (n. 14). It goes on to say that “dignity is intrinsic to the person: it is not conferred subsequently (a posteriori), it is prior to any recognition, and it cannot be lost.

All human beings possess this same intrinsic dignity, regardless of whether or not they can express it in a suitable manner,” (n.15). Thus, the baby in the womb already has this dignity.

The dignity of the person was revealed in its fullness “when the Father sent his Son, who assumed human existence to the full: ‘In the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God confirmed the dignity of the body and soul which constitute the human being’ (CDF, Instruct. Dignitas Personae, 8 Sept 2008, n. 7).

By uniting himself with every human being through his Incarnation, Jesus Christ confirmed that each person possesses an immeasurable dignity simply by belonging to the human community; moreover, he affirmed that this dignity can never be lost,” (n.19).

Another important foundation of human dignity is man’s calling to eternal life with God in heaven: “Indeed, the dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God, destined to last forever. Thus, the dignity of this life is linked not only to its beginning, to the fact that it comes from God, but also to its final end, to its destiny of fellowship with God in knowledge and love of him,” (n. 20).

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