"Dignitas Personae": On the Originality of Every Human Person | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 29, 2009 | Ignatius InsightDignitas Personae: On the Originality of Every Human Person | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 29, 2009 | Ignatius Insight


"The body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells. The embryonic human body develops progressively according to a well-defined program with its proper finality, as is apparent in the birth of every baby." -- Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae, #4 (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Dignitas Personae: On Certain Bioethical Questions," September 8. 2008, L'Osservatore Romano, December 17, 2008.)

"The originality of every person is a consequence of the particular relationship that exists between God and a human being from the first moment of his existence and carries with it the obligation to respect the singularity and integrity of each person, even on the biological and genetic levels. In the encounter with another person, we meet a human being who owes his existence and his proper characteristics to the love of God, and only the love of husband and wife constitutes a mediation of that love in conformity with the plan of the Creator and heavenly Father." -- Dignitas Personae, #29.


On the February 22, 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when Cardinal Ratzinger was its Prefect and John Paul II was pope, published a very significant Document called Donum vitae, the Gift of Life. On the 8th of September, 2008, the same Congregation, now headed by Cardinal Levada, with Benedict XVI pope, in view of the importance of human life, produced a further reflection on the subject matter of the earlier document.

The title of the newer Document is Dignitas personae. It sets out to do what the title suggests, namely, to spell out in reasonable terms just what this dignity implies particularly concerning the conception and birth of human children and the best conditions of their flourishing. In other words, the "gift of life" is the basis of the "dignity of the human person." This gift implies a giver who, ultimately, can account for what it is to be human, something parents themselves do not make but are, in their love, the occasion and co-operative agent of each particular human child who comes to exist in this world.

"The teaching of Donum vitae remains completely valid, both with regard to the principles on which it is based and the moral evaluations which it expressed," Cardinal Levada wrote. "However, new biomedical technologies which have been introduced in the critical area of human life and the family have given rise to further questions, in particular in the field of research on human embryos, the use of stem cells for therapeutic purposes, as well as in other areas of experimental medicine" (#1).

The Document considers certain questions, the evidence available concerning them, and a judgment on the validity of what is discussed. The argument is straight-forward and unambiguous. If something is still open to discussion on the matter of fact or principle, Dignitas personae says so. But in each case, it makes an informed authoritative judgment about the issue at hand. Here, the Church is primarily concerned with what is the truth of the issue, not whether anyone observes it. Men need to know what is right in their decisions about whether or not to live rightly.

Is such a Document merely the Catholic Church giving its own "private" opinions about delicate contemporary topics? I think not. In this area, even though revelation may reinforce what is open to reason, the Church speaks primarily from and to reason.
In presenting principles and moral evaluations regarding biomedical research on human life, the Catholic Church draws upon the light both of reason and of faith and seeks to set forth an integral vision of man and his vocation, capable of incorporating everything that is good in human activity, as well as in various cultural and religious traditions which not infrequently demonstrate a great reverence for life (#3).
This statement is a good example of what is distinctive about the Catholic mind in general, namely, that it does not limit itself to a reductionist science or a view of reality that eliminates some available evidence from its consideration. By knowing the limits of science, it knows the broader scope of reason and the human condition.

Thus, "science (is) an invaluable service in the integral good of the life and dignity of every human being." Christians are encouraged to enter the sciences that directly relate to the human good. Science, when properly understood, can assist the poor and weak. This scientific product must be brought humanly close to those who need it. Both comfort and hope can thus be offered to actual persons. "These (comfort and hope) give meaning to moments of sickness and to the experience of death, which indeed are part of human life and are present in the story of every person, opening that story to the mystery of the Resurrection."


Clearly, the Document has the whole person in mind, including his transcendent end. The Document is meant to be intelligible not just to the "Catholic faithful," but also "to all who seek the truth" (#3). In view of the increasing dangers to human life in this area, one might suspect that, in pursuit of political or scientific "goals," there are not a few who do not "seek the truth." The Church is aware of the widespread refusal of many, including not a few leading Catholics, to admit and put into effect and into law what is true about the human person.

The basic thesis of Donum vitae is recalled as the guiding principle of Dignitas personae.
The fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say, from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the fist place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life (#4).
Clearly, the Church has taken its stand on this principle that logically follows from our understanding of the wholeness of an individual human life, including its transcendent end.

This is not presented as a "private" opinion. It is affirmed as a universal truth open to all minds as such whatever their background. The Church is quite aware of and spells out the various historical and scientific arguments that would seek to bypass this principle by claiming human life does not really begin till later stages in pregnancy or even, as some maintain today, after birth itself. In the light of what we know today about the origin of human life, it is clear it begins in conception. From this fact, all other conclusions and judgments in the Document consistently follow.

The first conclusion that is drawn is one of natural law. "This ethical principle, which reason is capable of recognizing as true and in conformity with the natural moral law, should be the basis of all legislation in this area" (#5). What it is to be a human person does not as such "develop" or "evolve" from conception. It is already there. "The human person has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person" (#5). With this judgment, the Church definitively rejects the many earlier theories based on a notion of "ensoulment" that came after conception. It also rejects those newer proposals to deny humanity to the human fetus or the human child on birth so that it can be judged "fit" to live.

The origin of the human child, moreover, in view of what it is, should only have its origin in marriage, not in scientific laboratories. "The origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and in the family, where it is generated through an act which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman. Procreation which is truly responsible vis-ˆ-vis the child to be born 'must be the fruit of marriage.'" (#6). Marriage is not simply intended to be a human institution. In what it is, it is intended to be the proper and only place where human life should be begotten and brought forth. One might say, on this basis, that the Church is hopelessly romantic—which it is—but in defending the dignity of the person, it is defending what love itself is intended to be.

The coming to be of new human life is a gift, not a right. The proper relation of a man and a woman is the only place where the good of the begotten child can properly flourish and be recognized in its origins in a relation of a man and a woman. Anything else that pretends to be marriage or a place for the inception of human life is, in principle, a violation of the dignity of an actual child.

"By taking the interrelationship of these two dimensions, the human and the divine, as the starting point, one understands better why it is that man has unassailable value: he possesses an eternal vocation and is called to share in the Trinitarian love of the living God" (#8). The vocation is true of every child, whether healthy or not. The notion that deformed or superfluous children can be eliminated assumes that their dignity is subject to human presumed needs. It is the other way around: the needs of the child determine the actions of the ones naturally designated to care for it.


The Church then bases its judgments on the particular problems that the Document brings up on two fundamental principles: 1) "the unconditional respect owed to every human being at every moment of his or her existence, and 2) the defense of the specific character of the personal act which transmits life" (#10).

We may or may not like to hear what is said because we are practicing or experimenting with approaches that violate one or both of these principles. However, "the intervention of the Magisterium falls within its mission to contributing to the formation of conscience, by authentically teaching the truth..." (#10). One needs to ponder what is said here. When we think of, say, Catholic or other politicians or scientists actively engaged in promoting actions that violate human dignity, the Church is primarily concerned with their consciences and ultimately the salvation of their souls. It knows the dignity of the child, however killed, experimented with, or abused, remains and is intended for eternal life.

In a sense, this Document is primarily concerned with the souls of those who violate this given human dignity. There is a long history in mankind of rejecting a known truth, but that truth needs always to be reaffirmed as such. The abuse of a thing, no matter how wide-spread, does not obviate the force of the principle.

These are the principles of Dignitas personae. What follows are a series of issues and a judgment about them. They are: 1) "Techniques for assisting fertility," 2) "In vitro fertilization and the deliberate destruction of embryos," 3) "Intracytoplasmic sperm injection," 4) "Freezing embryos," 5) "Freezing of oocytes," 6) "The reduction of embryos," 7) Preimplantation diagnosis," 8) "New forms of interception and contragestation, 9) "Gene therapy," 10) "Human cloning," 11) "The therapeutic use of stem cells," 12) "Attempts at Hybridization," and 13) "The use of human 'biological material' of illicit origin."

Obviously, these are all the current, controverted topics, about which the Document speaks with full knowledge of the particulars involved. I do not intend here to go into each one. This Document can easily be found online. In each case, the Congregation states what is proposed, what is at stake, how it relates to the two basic principles of the dignity of the child and the nature of marriage. No doubt, many things we are now doing—notice abortion itself is not directly treated as it is obviously a major violation of the dignity of the person—are supported by law or practice. In this sense, the Document is a judgment on modern society in the name of the human person which this same society is by natural law designed to protect.

This is not a "negative" Document. "There are those who say that the moral teaching of the Church contains too many prohibitions. In reality, however, her teaching is based on the recognition and promotion of all the gifts which the Creator has bestowed on man: such as life, knowledge, freedom and love" (#36).

Chesterton once remarked, speaking of the Commandments, that though they often seem "negative" what in effect they do is make possible all the wonderful things we are free to do if we do not do what is wrong or forbidden. This is, I think, the effect of this Document. If we do not do, individually or as a society, what we are not to do as it violates our dignity, we are free to live the live that God intended for us, a life that really does enjoy the gift of children and the adventure of their lives.

The Church is not na•ve. "Human history shows, however, how man has abused and can continue to abuse the power and capabilities which God has entrusted to him, giving rise to various forms of unjust discrimination and oppression of the weakest and most defenseless..." (#36). Clearly today, these weakest and most defenseless are the unborn and those born by immoral processes of man or science.

Yet, while knowing what goes on, the Church also sees that "human history has also shown real progress in the understanding and recognition of the value and dignity of every person as the foundation of the rights and ethical imperatives by which human society has been, and continues to be structured" (#36).

Thus, "Behind every 'no' in the difficult task of discerning between good and evil, there shines a great 'yes' to the recognition of the dignity and inalienable value of every single and unique human being called into existence" (#37). If we ask the question today, "Who is in fact looking after what is best for each human person?" it is the one who insists on that person's dignity, from birth to natural death. It is the one who understands that this person, in fact, is ordained to eternal life.

The alternatives to this truth, when examined, as this Document does, all conspire to make man and woman less than they are, less than they would want to be if they were whole, if they knew themselves. They are to love each other and beget children, as Benedict says in Spe Salvi, for their "eternal life." This purpose is what they tell the priest in rite of baptism is their intention for this, their child. The dignity of the person does not serve science or politics or our wishes, but rather gives direction to them so that they can freely be what they are intended to be.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Columns, Essays, and Book Excerpts:

"The Dignity of the Person Must Be Recognized..." | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
"Always More Than Is Seen": Benedict XVI on the Meaning of Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Case Against Abortion | An Interview with Dr. Francis Beckwith, author of Defending Life
What Is "Legal"? On Abortion, Democracy, and Catholic Politicians | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond L. Dennehy
The Dignity of the Human Person: Pope John Paul II's Teaching on Divinization in the Trinitarian Encyclicals | Carl E. Olson
What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
Introduction to Three Approaches to Abortion | Peter Kreeft
Some Atrocities are Worse than Others | Mary Beth Bonacci

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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