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A timely reminder about the dignity of the human person

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has recently released a document which it called a “Declaration on Human Dignity”. This document had been under consideration since 2019 and had been through a number of revisions. It is divided into two parts, one which outlines the Church teaching on human dignity and the second part which discusses different ways in which human dignity is violated in our times.


The document teaches that every person possesses an inalienable human dignity because each person is individually loved and willed by God, saved by Jesus Christ and has an eternal destiny. It is not something imparted by others or earned. We may find this statement unremarkable.

However, many civilisations of the past did not accept that all had this dignity and today many totalitarian regimes do not accept the human dignity of their citizens. This is a distinctively Christian contribution to the understanding of true human society, and is a timely reminder in the face of many contemporary issues.

The Declaration reminds us that “the vulnerable, the most insignificant, the outcast, the oppressed, the discarded, the poor, the marginalised, the unlearned, the sick and those downtrodden,” all possess this dignity (No.12). Thus, dignity is not granted to some on the basis of their gifts or qualities, and it can never be withdrawn.

One of ways in which this dignity is manifested is in the gift of human freedom.

Human beings were created by God with the capacity for freedom.

We do not act simply on the basis of desire or impulse, we have freedom. We choose how we act.

With this gift of freedom we can choose to act in accordance with “the law of love revealed by the Gospel” or decide to use this freedom to “commit inestimably profound acts of evil against others” (No 7).

In this regard the document notes that we each have an ontological dignity, a dignity that relates to our being, that comes from our creation in the image and likeness of God and our call to communion with God. This dignity can never be “annulled”.

However, the Dicastery points out that we have a moral dignity that depends on how we choose to act, and which can be “lost” if we choose to do what is evil. Actions matter.

Respecting human dignity does not mean we should have a recognised ‘right’ to do whatever we want. Rather there are both ‘duties’ and ‘rights’ which flow from recognising the dignity of the other but which “have a concrete and objective content based on our shared human nature”, which itself was created by God.

Respecting human dignity does involve respecting certain basic freedoms like the freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. However, these are not the ‘freedom’ to do and believe whatever you want, rather they can only be understood as the freedom to pursue what is true and good according to our human nature.

When the Declaration considers areas where human dignity is violated it covers a wide range of situations. One area that it does touch on is the very sensitive issue of gender theory and ‘sex change’.

While it emphasises that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, is to be respected in their ‘ontological’ dignity, it teaches that that human sexuality is a gift from God and that we can ‘lose’ our moral dignity when we do not act consistently with God’s “law of love”.

There is therefore a ‘right’ use of the gift of our sex and sexuality and a ’wrong’ use. This right use of the gift of our sexuality can only occur in the reciprocal marriage relationship between man and woman where there is an openness to the ‘miracle’ of a new human being. Anything other than this is a ‘wrong’ use and violates human dignity.

It states:

“Only by acknowledging and accepting this difference in reciprocity can each person fully discover themselves, their dignity and their identity”.

The Declaration confirms Catholic teaching that human beings are created as either male or female and that this is a ‘gift’ that should be accepted and embraced, as it cannot be changed or altered.

The Declaration goes on to teach that an attempt to make oneself appear as if the opposite sex, (what is calls a “sex change”) “threatens the unique dignity of the person”.

At a time when there is much debate in our society on the issue of gender and sex this document makes clear the timeless teaching of the Church. The Catholic faithful can only accept an understanding of gender that is grounded in biological sex, which is irrevocably set at the time of conception. To recognise a so-called ‘sex change’ would be a violation of Catholic teaching and an attack on the dignity of the human person.

Putting it in the context of the dignity of the human person emphasises that the Church’s approach to this question is always seeking to ensure the wellbeing and flourishing of the human person.

The publication of this declaration is very timely indeed. When the freedom of the Church to teach what it believes about the nature of the human person and the purpose of human sexuality is being challenged and efforts are being made to prevent the Church from teaching what it believes, this document is an encouragement to Catholics.

What we teach about the human person is not the imposition of certain moral views, but is intended to ensure the protection of the human dignity of each person.


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