The Dignity of the Human Person

5/18/17

This is the second post in a series of eight exploring Catholic Social Teaching. Affiliate links are used for recommended resources in this post.

Genesis 1:27 
 God created humankind in His own image 

You might see the idea talked about in its Latin form, "imago Dei". I love that we have a succinct way of expressing a reality so complex and mysterious.

In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the "imago Dei" is explained like this: “the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. (108)"

Simply put, God our Creator took some of the most beautiful parts of Himself and placed them within each one of us. Every human being has dignity because every human being has been made in the image of God. Dignity is not a right that can be earned or lost by our life choices.

By the way, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church was released by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2004 under the authority of Pope John Paul II. If you're unfamiliar with the workings of the Catholic Church, this basically means that the Compendium is official and universal Catholic teaching. It's not just a fringe group that blows their social justice trumpet to the annoyance of everyone else. This is for and representative of all Catholics.

(I simply cannot move forward without begging you to buy a copy of the Compendium. If you are Catholic, this needs to be right up there on your bookshelf beside your Catechism. If you are a non-Catholic Christian, you will be encouraged and equipped with extensive language to articulate your Gospel-shaped social convictions to others. The Compendium is not just a feel-good religious book; it holds up in academic settings. Get your hands on this thing, guys.)


"A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person... It is necessary to 'consider every neighbor 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 of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 132, emphasis mine)

I think it's fair to say a just society is what we all want. Maybe we could all even agree that the foundation of such a society would have to be the inherent dignity of the human person. But the idea of considering every neighbor WITHOUT EXCEPTION as another self- that's where it starts getting uncomfortable, isn't it?

I mean sure, in Mark 12:31 Jesus said the most important commandment- after loving God- was to love your neighbor as yourself. But we all know what He meant. He meant the neighbors who have earned their dignity, earned their respect. The ones who act in a way that makes middle-class Americans feel comfortable. Surely Jesus doesn't expect us to consider the undocumented immigrant taking our jobs as another self. Surely He doesn't think we'll be able to see ourselves in the black teenage boy who shouldn't have mouthed off to the authority figure in the first place. Surely Jesus meant that I love the neighbor who reminds me most of myself.

What if maybe, maybe, Jesus meant exactly what He said? What if, like the Compendium articulates, I am called to consider every single one of my "neighbors" (i.e. people I share the earth with) as another self? Not called to be nice to them, not called to make donations to them, but called to truly believe that they belong to me, and I to them?


Going back to the above quote, what could it mean to take into account not just the worth of my neighbor's life, but equally important, "the means necessary for living it with dignity"? That's the part that will get us.

Let me paint you a picture.

I was born to parents who were not wealthy, and whose own families had their share of financial struggles through the years. But both of their families of origin were white in Mississippi, so even without a cushioned bank account, they enjoyed a basic level of respect and privilege within their communities that their neighbors of color did not receive. My parents were both first generation college graduates, but while not college educated, my grandparents all worked stable jobs and owned their homes (this was made astronomically easier by the fact that the generations before them had legal right to own property. In their state, as you know, this was not a historical given.)

By the time I went to college, my nuclear family was upper middle class. Both of my parents worked at a Christian university so I got free tuition. I was given a brand new car the Christmas before I graduated- the exact make and model I had asked for. I can tell you right now I did NOT live out my first few college years "with dignity", but there was no systematic injustice to blame. I was just an immature idiot.

I had been through a high performing public school and knew how to succeed, so I grabbed my Bachelor's degree with hardly breaking a sweat. I married right after college graduation, to a man also from a stable two-parent, financially cushioned family, and we began our life together.


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“With due respect for the autonomy and culture of every nation, we must never forget that the planet belongs to all mankind and is meant for all mankind; the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity.”  (Pope Francis, Evangeli Gaudium)

Everything about the background of my life set me up to be treated with dignity by our society.

But had my parents, growing up in the deep South in the 1960s, happened to have been born with a different color skin, do you think my own story would have unfolded the same way? We both know the answer to that.

Had my parents been born Mexican citizens, grew terrified for my safety in a city riddled with drug cartel and violence, took the risk of moving to a new country without the finances, education, or language to succeed in it, and tried to piece together a life for me here, would I be in a respected position in our society?

I could go on and on but I'll stop because you get the point.

If creating a just society means working towards a system where every human being has the means necessary for living their life with dignity, how do we move towards that? It's a complicated topic to be sure, but I believe there is an easy place to start.

We love our neighbors as ourself.

That means we consider our neighbor when we make decisions for our own lives. We seek to understand systematic injustices that keep certain people down and boost other people up. We befriend those who make us uncomfortable. We offer our money if it helps, sure, but mostly we offer our butts in chairs.

We sit and we listen. We sit and we become the learners, not the instructors. We sit and we become the weak, not the mighty. We sit and simply be with people. We get to learn that we aren't the saviors. There may be a time for action that comes, but for a good long while we sit down and shut up. We listen to the marginalized, we listen to our neighbors. We have our butts in chairs.

And while we listen, we honor the image of God in our neighbor.



Peter Maurin is one of the most radical and lovely Catholics that I've had the honor of becoming familiar with post-humously. Dorothy Day often credited (or some say, blamed) him for starting the Catholic Worker movement, but as he was more of an odd duck and less of a charismatic leader than Dorothy, his place in history has been rather muted. I feel pretty certain he's a saint.

In her autobiography The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day describes Peter in a way that I believe epitomizes Jesus' desire for how we would relate to the other. Living up to this description would be a worthy life goal for all of us; imagine how differently the world would see Christians then.

“{Peter} did not begin by tearing down, or by painting so intense a picture of misery and injustice that you burned to change the world. Instead, he aroused in you a sense of your own capacities for work, for accomplishment. He made you feel that you and all men had great and generous hearts with which to love God. If you once recognized this fact in yourself you would expect and find it in others. It was seeing Christ in others, loving the Christ you saw in others. Greater than this, it was having faith in the Christ in others without being able to see Him. Blessed is he that believes without seeing.”
(If you've been around long enough you may remember I've quoted part of that before. It moves me like nothing else can.) 

Peter's contribution to Catholic Social Thought remains largely through Dorothy's extensive writings about him in her books and journals, as he wasn't the prolific writer that she was. She even wrote a book entirely about him that I haven't read yet but still feel confident in recommending to you.

His own writings were short and sweet and came to be known as "easy essays". They are compiled on the Catholic Worker website, and here is an example:

1. To give and not to take
    that is what makes man human.
 2. To serve and not to rule
    that is what makes man human.
 3. To help and not to crush
    that is what makes man human.
 4. To nourish and not to devour
    that is what makes man human.
 5. And if need be
    to die and not to live
    that is what makes man human.
 6. Ideals and not deals
    that is what makes man human.
 7. Creed and not greed
    that is what makes man human.

To nourish and not devour.

May we live our lives in such a way towards all.

May we be willing to be corrected, able to be changed, and open to being wrong.

May we honor the dignity of the human person in every neighbor we encounter.


Thanks for joining me for this series. You can read the post before this one here and stay tuned for the next one, the call to family, community, and participation, in the next two weeks.





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Someday, the light will shine like a sun through my skin & they will say, 'what have you done with your life?' & though there are many moments I think I'll remember, in the end, I will be proud to say, I was one of us.

(Brian Andreas, Storypeople)

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