Elusive Dignity
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
January 2007

Like many parents, I have certain questions I like to repeatedly ask my children. A favorite is "What is the most important principle of Catholic social teaching?" The correct answer is: "Respect for the life and dignity of every human person."

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church puts it this way: "The whole of the Church's social doctrine . . . develops from the principle that affirms the inviolable dignity of the human person." The human person possesses this dignity by virtue of being created in the image of God. It is not something that is earned or can be taken away. It is something that is "part and parcel" of being human.

All the Church's teaching on social matters-- such as human life, work, family, community, the economy, government, and education-- draw from this basic principle.

Viewed in the context of Catholic teaching or even philosophy, the principle is, perhaps, easy to accept. However, in the so-called "real world," people often think of something else when they talk about dignity.

People usually think of dignity as something a person has because of his or her own acts, as in: “He walked with dignity to the podium,” or as something reflecting how another is treated, as in "He treated the prisoner with dignity." People typically do not view dignity as something all persons always have.

Even the application of Catholic social teaching can create confusion, since we often urge adoption of policies that will "treat people with dignity" or address "undignified" work, health, or living conditions. What we really mean is that policies should treat people with the dignity they have by virtue of their creation in the image of God. That, of course, is a mouth-full and is not always easily understood within a society where dignity is something given or taken away.

Failing to recognize the
inherent dignity in human persons leads to reducing people and communities to things that can be manipulated according to our own sense of what is dignity.

Consider the oft-heard statement, "There's no dignity in living like that.” It could be meant as a criticism about how a person lives, a judgment on the person’s environs, or as comment on how society failed the person. In other words, what dignity actually is depends on the speaker’s own opinion.

Some people go further, arguing that dignity does not always exist. I recently read a good example this. According to news reports, a severely mentally disabled nine-year-old girl has received a series of treatments to keep her physically a small girl. I will not address whether the parents and physicians made the right decision. Rather, what caught my attention was a widely publicized statement by an ethicist defending the acts, saying: "If the concern has something to do with the girl's dignity being violated, then I have to protest by arguing that the girl lacks the cognitive capacity to experience any sense of indignity."

To this guy, dignity is a non-issue if the individual cannot "feel dignified."

Bob Dylan captures the elusive nature of dignity in a world that does not see the inherent dignity in every person in the aptly titled song "Dignity." The song includes the lines:

Wise man lookin' in a blade of grass
Young man lookin' in the shadows that pass
Poor man lookin' through painted glass
For dignity


Searchin' high, searchin' low
Searchin' everywhere I know
Askin' the cops wherever I go
Have you seen dignity?

As Christians, we know where to find dignity. It is there in every human person. Our laws and policies should respect and value that dignity – that image of God-- that is already there.

In Monica Hannan’s book
The Dream Maker, North Dakotan Patrick Atkinson, founder of the God’s Child Project, which helps children and families in Guatemala, El Salvador, Malawi, and the United States, puts it this way: “Christ sometimes hides a little deeper, so sometimes we need to look a little harder to find Him. He’s always there, though, so be sure to say ‘hi.’”