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The Wellspring of Human Dignity
Imago Dei: Its Meaning and Consequences
The dignity of the human person is the foundation of Catholic moral theology, as well as Catholic social teaching. Seeing all people as possessing equal dignity as humans, this concept is essential for the establishment of universal human rights and precludes any violation of them. It derives from two Catholic doctrines, based both in natural and divine law—namely the human person as made in the image of God (imago Dei) and the solidarity of all peoples, with the second depending upon the first.
While it is possible to recognize and respect human dignity without these doctrines, their denial will inevitably lead to its destabilization and the eventual realization that, without them, human dignity is ultimately arbitrary and determined by circumstance. Therefore, it is imperative to grasp and assert the truths of the imago Dei and solidarity for the defense of human dignity and the rights rooted in it.
The original source and consistent grounding for the Catholic belief in the dignity of the human person is the doctrine of the imago Dei, that all people are equally made in the image of God in their very natures.
Created with unique, immortal souls from conception, whose immaterial intellects reflect the pure intellectual spirit of God in its infinite openness to truth and goodness and whose bodies, as integral to the human person, express their souls and their intrinsic orientation to God, every human person is an icon of God. As such, the freedom (especially religious), responsibility, wonderment for truth and longing for the good in every person must be respected as rights incumbent upon their inherent dignity.
Further, all people are equal in dignity from this shared iconography of soul; while society is inequal, for better or worse, according to social status, wealth, power, education, etc., all people are equal in dignity, and so sins such as racism, sexism, abuse of the poor or hatred of the rich are all prohibited by Catholic teaching in accordance with human dignity.
The final perfection of this doctrine is Jesus Christ who, in his Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection, took up human nature unto his divine Self, sanctified it as the means of our salvation and, through the Sacraments, enabled all people to participate in the new creation of his divinized humanity. In this way, he revealed the destiny of all people in the perfect union of God and man in himself and so provided the imago Dei and human dignity with an eschatological basis which goes beyond mere human rights and instead calls all people to the vocation of the Body of Christ. Everyone, therefore, must be treated as children awaiting adoption and incorporation into Christ, as Jesus’s brethren in the family of God.
From this origin, Catholic social teaching asserts the doctrine of solidarity, according to which all people, as made in the image of God and destined for heavenly marriage to the divine Bridegroom, share the same royal nature. Accordingly, no person can authentically see themselves or others are truly separate or fully independent, as though their actions influence only themselves, ignoring the sufferings of others and the evils perpetrated in society which may or may not impact them personally.
Instead, solidarity mandates a recognition of the interconnectedness of all people and the responsibility each person bears to society, from its first foundation in the family and in friendship, to one’s local community and nation and even to the global human society. By the imago Dei, each person is linked to every other; we are all our brother’s keeper, even for those we will never meet in parts of the world we will never visit.
The highest example and fulfillment of solidarity is the Church; as the Body of Christ, the communion of the Church connects everyone, both those already members within it and those oriented to it by their intrinsic vocation to union with Christ. The Eucharist perfects this communion and reveals its end in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in the New Heaven and Earth, (Rev 19:7) when all people will be united with greater intimacy than even husband and wife in this fallen world.
Both of these doctrines, the imago Dei and solidarity, bear great implications for Christian ethics.
They are the wellspring of human rights and equality; they are expounded in the other tenets of Catholic social teaching, including subsidiarity, participation and care for the environment. They require concern, prayer and action on the part of every person to combat the evils of the world which violate them—including religious persecution, abortion, euthanasia, unjust wars, crime, sexual exploitation, inhuman poverty and environmental degradation. They carry great theological consequences, with the art of iconography becoming a reflection of the very nature of the human person as an icon of God the Divine Artist and with Christology being the ultimate means for understanding the human person and society.
From an individual perspective, these doctrines require a sense of personal responsibility for oneself and others, inspiring actions which, even in small and limited ways, can help to promote human dignity and refute its offenses.
Human dignity derives from and depends upon the creative love of God, who makes all people in his image out of sheer gratuity, without any obligation on his part.
We deserve none of the gifts which he gives us, much less this first blessing of dignity, yet by his willing it, it is so, and thus all people must recognize and respect it.
Ultimately, love for others—and therefore all ethics, morality and human law—is ordered to love of God and flows from that love. For this reason, no person should be treated idolatrously, as a false image, but rather seen as an icon of God, pointing to him while never losing any of the dignity given to it by God, no matter how disfigured and maligned its reflection may appear.
By the salvation of Christ, the image of God—corrupted by sin—can be restored to likeness, and therefore all Christians are called to help wash away the grime of sin in themselves and others, so that the whole world may reflect God and the brilliance of his glory ever more luminously.