As we have seen, Catholic Social principles in general, and Human Dignity and Rights in particular, have substantial basis both in divine revelation and in the doctrinal patrimony of the Church. These principles are beautifully elucidated in the magisterial tradition of the Church – but it would be incorrect to say that Catholic Social Teaching began with the publication of magisterial documents. Rather, throughout the ages the Church has used her teaching authority in order to help deepen and apply her social principles to specific historical circumstances.
Human dignity: Freedom, Equality, Sociability
The Church’s magisterium builds its understanding of human dignity on the belief that human beings are free, rational creatures. Human dignity demands that individuals act according to a reasoned and free choice – as opposed to following blindly or under pressure. The Church’s magisterium consistently notes that human freedom is freedom for; that is, it is a capacity to accept God-given moral law as the way to find authentic fulfillment. This means that freedom is not an end in and of itself, but rather a means to aid human beings in realizing our ultimate end: union with God.1 This is very different from a contemporary understanding of freedom, which is seen as absolute. Freedom is not absolute; it is a gift from God that helps the human person to make choices that are consistent with true good and in this way to grow both as an individual and in society.
Freedom necessitates the removal of injustice so that human dignity may flourish, and this is true on both the individual and societal level. On the individual level, women and men need to engage in an unwavering search for objective truth (in accordance with a conscience properly formed) in order to be able to make honorable and principled decisions that help them to seek the good. On the societal level, freedom is exercised in the midst of a community (family, society, Church, State) as work in pro of the common good (a concept which will be discussed later in this Vox Clamantis series). With this in mind, society’s institutions are always meant to serve the dignity of individual human beings: “Individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution. That is necessarily so, for men are by nature social beings.”2
Human dignity also presumes equality among human beings. Since man is created in the image and likeness of God and has been redeemed by Christ, neither class, culture, nationality, place of birth, race, or sex justify any violation of the dignity and rights of any person:
Therefore, although rightful differences exist between men, the equal dignity of persons demands that a more humane and just condition of life be brought about. For excessive economic and social differences between the members of the one human family or population groups cause scandal, and militate against social justice, equity, the dignity of the human person, as well as social and international peace.3
Equality does not mean “sameness.” God created human beings with numerous differences that add to the beauty of our human family. However all human beings are equal in dignity, which has been bestowed on us by God. This is why the Church has worked tirelessly through the ages to promote the dignity of workers, women, those exploited by human trafficking, etc (just to name a few).
Finally, human beings are social beings; that is, they are relational and can only survive and thrive in society – understood as a community of knowledge and love. Societies exist to help men and women to be good stewards of God’s gifts. However, this is not always the case. Due to egotism and prideful selfishness, asocial behavior looks to achieve individual good. Men and women, however, should promote the common good in a spirit of communication, cooperation, and solidarity, out of love for themselves, others, and God. Pope Benedict XVI observes that institutions are not enough to guarantee “the fulfillment of humanity’s right to development”; because “integral human development is primarily a vocation… it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone.”4
Human rights: Universal, Inviolable, Indivisible
The magisterium also upholds that human rights are universal, inviolable, and indivisible. They are universal because all men and women are rational beings and are capable of enjoying them. They are inalienable because, as we have discussed, they are inherent to the dignity of women and men; thus, any violation of human rights does violence to the intrinsic dignity of the human person. They are indivisible because their aim is to further, safeguard, and generate the material socio-economic, political and cultural aspects that conform to the common good of the individual and of society.5
That does not mean, however, that human rights are always applied the same way. Although human rights are universal, the magisterium does acknowledge that rights are always applied within the particular circumstances in which humans find themselves. In other words, there area diverse ways of applying the principles of human rights depending upon historical, social, and cultural differences. Instead – the magisterium insists on certain common principles that should be applied. First and foremost among these is the necessity for a consistent ethic of life: life must be protected from conception to its natural end.6
Finally, the Church’s magisterium recognizes the connection between human rights and the duty to uphold those rights through responsible participation in society. This includes opposing unjust public policies that either (1) denigrate or deny human rights or (2) seek to proliferate and multiply spurious claims of human rights.7
The Church continues to play a crucial role in the promotion and protection of human rights and dignity. In our final post, we will consider how the principles of human rights and human dignity can be applied in our contemporary world.
(1) See Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), #1731, 1732.
(2) Mater et Magistra, 219. Also see Gaudium et Spes, 29 §4.
(3) Gaudium et Spes, 29 § 3.
(4) Caritas in veritate, 11.
(5) Centesimus Annus, 22.
(6) See Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, ed., Consistent Ethic of Life (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1988), 1-2.
(7) See International Theological Commission, In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at the Natural Law , 91. (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2009).