We begin our exploration by examining what the scriptures have to say about human dignity and human rights. We turn first to the book of Genesis:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day (Genesis 1:26-31, RSVCE).
Indeed what great dignity we have been given by the mere fact that human beings have been created in God’s image and likeness. Human beings were created specifically to have dominion over the rest of God’s creation. Man was created for a special purpose apart from creation, with an essence that reflects God’s likeness and image. The sanctity of human life as something set apart from creation for a specific purpose is also seen in the calling of Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). Here the Lord hints at another dimension of the life and dignity of the human person: Aside from being created in God’s likeness and images, human persons are endowed with a specific calling, a vocation to fulfill according to the gifts that the Lord gave him or her.
Clearly then, the scriptures give us a solid basis for a theology of the dignity of human life. It is for this reason that in giving the law to Moses, God commanded that the rights all of his people are to be ensured, even those who are outside of Israel’s company: the orphan, the widow, and the resident alien (See Deuteronomy 10). The prophets seem to be continually calling Israel back to this task when they neglect the poor and oppressed. For example, the prophet Jeremiah chides King Jehoiakim, king of Judah for his excessive building at the expense of the poor. He says “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing, and does not give him his wages” (Jeremiah 22:13). Those who are blessed with much have a duty and a responsibility to ensure the human rights and dignity of those who do not: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
Likewise the New Testament is filled with commands to respect the dignity of all people. Jesus explicitly recognizes the dignity of all human persons in the parable of the “Good Samaritan” (See Luke 10:25-37). A man falls victim to robbers while on the road from Jerusalem and is passed by both a priest and a Levite who refuse to help the man. While we do not know the explicit reasons why they passed by, it is clear that in doing so they are choosing to ignore the life and dignity of the injured man. On the other hand a Samaritan traveler, a man who is clearly outside of the Jewish establishment, stops and generously cares for the injured man. He even pays for the man to stay at an inn in order to recover. The Samaritan’s action points to the inherent dignity of all human beings regardless of race, culture, religion, etc. Jesus reminds the scholar of the law to whom the parable is addressed that God’s love and care for humanity is based in man’s inherent dignity as sons and daughters of God (See 1 John 3:1-2).
Jesus also affirms the dignity of all people during the dialogue with the woman at the well. The woman, also a Samaritan, is taken aback by Jesus’ willingness to break Jewish societal and religious customs. She expresses her shock to Jesus, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman for a drink?” To which Jesus replies, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:9) This answer explicitly shows that Jesus sees to the heart of all people, recognizing their God-given dignity; his openness to all people transcends all human constructs.
St. Paul also preaches this message of human dignity in his first letter to the Corinthians. In his exhortation to the Christian community at Corinth, Paul reminds the people, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Paul recognizes that the human body is something unique, and with this simple statement gives expression to the truth of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in each human being. The Catechism number 1265 explains this scripture more fully as a continuation of the human being as the Imageo Dei, and becomes a reality in each baptized person. Human beings are not born with this indwelling, but by receiving the sacrament of Baptism, God recreates the person and allows them to share more fully in the life of God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Thus by grace God elevates human nature to that of an adopted child of God, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.
As a direct result of the human being’s inherent dignity, human beings have certain rights and responsibilities. Catholic Social teaching affirms that human dignity must be protected in order that all people have the ability both to live and to do so with decency. The New Testament Scriptures provide ample evidence to support this principle as well:
The first and foremost is Jesus’ own healing ministry as seen in all four Gospels, but particularly in the synoptic Gospels. Rather than allowing people to live with sometimes life threatening illness, Jesus chooses to heal and feed people both physically and spiritually. Jesus’ choice outlines our own responsibility to uphold the rights of others. His emphasis on the interconnectedness of humanity in God can be seen in the famous discourse in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew:
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:37:40).
Thus each person has a responsibility to care for those whose human dignity and rights have been violated. The responsibility is seen as one of justice: by helping to restore a person’s dignity you are giving back to that person something that is owed to them by virtue of their sharing in the human family.
While all people are called to this responsibility, Jesus also makes it clear that it is especially relevant for those who have the means to assist, namely the rich. In the sixteenth chapter of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, a poor man who is covered in sores. Lazarus is plagued with illness means that he is unclean, and outside of the Jewish community:
[Lazarus] would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. When the poor man died, he was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side (Luke 16:21-23).
Jesus makes it clear that the rich have a particular responsibility to care for these people on the fringes because the gifts they have received are to be used for the good of all persons. St. Paul also echoes this message to the Corinthians: “[W]hoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6).
Numerous other Biblical examples could be cited in support of the principles of human dignity and human rights. The question becomes, “Whose responsibility is it to uphold these principles?” In addition to each individual’s responsibility for upholding human dignity, the Acts of the Apostles makes it clear that it is also a communal responsibility. The early Christian community sought for the needs of all so that they may live with decency: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common […] There was no needy person among them” (Acts 4:32,34). This serves as a reminder that all of the gifts that have been given to us rightfully belong to God, and as such must be used in order to meet the needs of all persons. This extends to all levels of society, from the local community to the entire human family.
In our next post we will consider the principle of Human Dignity and Human Rights from the point of view of the Church Fathers.