His image and likeness

Perhaps no concept in human history could be said to have had such a profound influence in the fields of medicine, philosophy, law, theology and politics as the idea of human dignity. No other guiding social principle has been so widely invoked while remaining so vague and ill-defined as to allow it to bear mutually exclusive interpretations. Although human dignity is the core belief of the pro-life movement, advocates of euthanasia have made the term their own by their repeated appeals for the right to die with dignity. 

Such apparent contradictions have resulted in the concept being attacked by both secularists as well as Catholics. On one side critics such as psychologist Steven Pinker see it as a thinly disguised attempt to impose Catholic morality on modern society.1 At the same time, the leading Thomist philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre has condemned it as “puzzling and possibly dangerous”.2

It is hardly surprising then that the news that the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), Victor Manuel Cardinal Fernández, is drafting a document on human dignity has been met with a degree of scepticism.3 It is worth, therefore, considering the major threats human dignity will face in the years ahead. But first, it is essential to set out what is meant by human dignity in a Catholic sense.

The source of human dignity

Set out briefly and in the plainest terms, human dignity is the status shared by all members of the human family without exception, simply by virtue of being the imago Dei, that is, of being created in the image of God. (Gen 1:26–27 and Wis 2:22) And since the source of this status lies outside individual human beings, it cannot be revoked, renounced or forfeited. 

In previous eras, less focused on individualism than our own, human dignity was also understood as man’s position in the order of creation — above the animals, plants and inanimate objects but below God and the angels. This is reflected in Psalm 8:3–8:

“For I will behold thy heavens, the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars which thou hast founded. What is man that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man that thou visitest him? Thou hast made him a little less than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honour: and hast set him over the works of thy hands. Thou hast subjected all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen: moreover the beasts also of the fields. The birds of the air, and the fishes of the sea, that pass through the paths of the sea.”

And, while man is the master of the material world, in some respects humans have a status above even the angels. As St Thomas Aquinas points out, by their corporeal existence, men and women have been given the capacity to cooperate with God’s creativity through the propagation of new human beings — “man proceeds from man, as God from God”.4

It is man’s rational soul and our capability to choose the good and reject evil that determines the degree to which we as individuals resemble God. There are, however, no circumstances in which we cease to bear the image of God in the sense that we might lose our innate dignity. 

To fully understand human dignity, it is necessary to distinguish between the types of dignity that exist and are often conflated.5 These are:

i. dignity of merit, based on rank or social status

ii. the dignity of moral stature, which can be lost through acts of evil

iii. the dignity of identity, which remains after death

iv. universal human dignity, in Catholic tradition the imago Dei

The church has always recognised that dignity persists after death and therefore requires human remains to be treated with “respect and charity, in faith and hope in the Resurrection”.6 The burial of the dead is a corporal act of mercy. Methods of composting or liquefaction of human remains that have emerged in recent years are considered to be inappropriate.

The source of confusion

On one level, some of the contradictions that have dogged the concept of human dignity lie in diverging views of human nature and anthropology. In the most influential alternative interpretation to the Catholic understanding of the concept, Immanuel Kant argues that human beings should never be treated as means to an end but as ends in themselves. This rules out all forms of exploitation. In Kant’s philosophy, however, autonomy is “the ground of the dignity of the human and of every rational nature”.7

Whereas dignity in the Catholic sense is the indelible imprint of God on the human soul, Kant’s focus was rational thought. And, despite being primarily concerned with moral autonomy, the logical extension of this ethic means that today those incapable of exercising autonomy can be designated “non-persons”, regarded as either not fully human or not truly alive. The implications of this have led to the dehumanisation of the profoundly disabled, the mentally incapacitated and babies (before and after birth), leaving them at the mercy of an increasingly demoralised medical profession. 

The priority of the DDF must, therefore, be an unambiguous reaffirmation of the ineliminable character of human dignity from the first moment of life until its natural end. It must then address the most serious of the threats which, if left unchecked, are capable of overturning civilisation itself. 

  • As unborn children have been systematically stripped of legal protection, abortion has become the single greatest cause of death in the world. The global abortion lobby is now poised to have access to abortion universally recognised as a human right.
  • The exploitation of the remains of unborn children, through the harvesting of their tissues and the propagation of fetal cell lines, has become so widespread that it is endemic in the world of scientific research.
  • Voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide have spread so rapidly and become so ingrained that they now threaten the autonomy and self-determination of patients and have increased the paternalistic power of the medical profession as a law unto itself.
  • The rejection in much of the developed world of the understanding of the human being as a unity of body and soul has dissolved the distinction between male and female. 
  • While the IVF industry commodifies children, the market for surrogate babies has flourished, partially in response to the demand from same-sex couples.
  • With increasingly hysterical claims of ecological catastrophe, growing numbers of people see humanity as a parasite that no longer deserves to survive. 

This is not an exhaustive list. Not even in the darkest days of the twentieth century were the assaults on human dignity so numerous and so widespread as they are today. These are issues which need to be addressed as a matter of urgency by the Church.

The fault lines in the papacy

In June 2012, a conference at Oxford University, England, brought together historians, philosophers, lawyers, judges and theologians for an interdisciplinary discussion of human dignity. It was jointly chaired by Lady Brenda Hale, a Justice of the UK’s Supreme Court, and Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster. The conference was organised by Professor Christopher McCrudden and resulted in Understanding Human Dignity, a book of more than 700 pages.8 While Professor McCrudden was promoting this book at an event in the Berkley Center at Georgetown University in April 2014, he explained the ongoing debate among academic lawyers about the theological significance of human dignity. He noted that there is an equivalent debate among theologians in the opposite direction as to how far should the tradition be open to secular thinking on dignity. “Incidentally,” he added, “if you want to understand where the fault lines are in the papacy of Pope Francis, it might be quite a useful place to start.” This offhand remark has proven to be insightful. 

  • In September 2013, a matter of months after his election, Pope Francis made headlines for criticising the Church’s “obsession” with the issues of abortion, gay marriage and contraception. The following month, he was quoted in La Repubblica as saying, “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” 
  • In January 2015, he said Catholics should not “breed like rabbits”. 
  • In May 2015, in Laudato Si, Pope Francis wrote, “Human beings too are creatures of this world, enjoying a right to life and happiness, and endowed with unique dignity.” However, man is no longer set over visible creation but is seen as a threat to plants and animals including “fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms”.
  • In a visit to the USA in October 2015, the Pope staged a meeting with one of his former students and his same-sex partner.
  • In February 2016, he indicated that the use of contraception was justifiable during an outbreak of the Zika virus in Latin America, which was believed to have caused children to be born with microcephaly.
  • In June 2016, Pope Francis said that the great majority of sacramental marriages are invalid, while suggesting that cohabiting couples can have “real marriages”.
  • In May 2018, he ordered the revision of the Catechism to describe the death penalty as “inadmissible”, abandoning both scripture and tradition in the name of an “increasing awareness that the dignity of the person”. This of course reflects the secular awareness of human dignity promoted by various European nations that have abolished capital punishment while legalising abortion and euthanasia.
  • In January 2019, he told reporters that sex education must be given in schools.
  • In October 2020, he declared his support for same-sex civil unions.
  • In November 2023, the DDF announced that transgender Catholics could become godparents and a few days later, Pope Francis invited a group of “trans women” to the Vatican.
  • In December 2023, he personally authorised the blessing of same-sex couples by signing Fiducia Supplicans.

In each of these cases, Pope Francis has adopted secular ways of thinking that contradict the Church’s perennial understanding of human dignity. The emphasis on this teaching has changed over the centuries as political, economic and technological developments have given rise to new threats. But at no point has the teaching been reversed.

The two pillars of creation

Shortly before his death in 2017, Carlo Cardinal Caffara addressed the Rome Life Forum on this very issue:

“The reason why man should not shed the blood of man is that man is the image of God. Through man, God dwells in His creation. This creation is the temple of the Lord because man inhabits it. To violate the intangibility of the human person is a sacrilegious act against the sanctity of God. It is the satanic attempt to generate an “anti-creation”. By ennobling the killing of humans, Satan has laid the foundations for his “creation”: to remove from creation the image of God, to obscure his presence therein.


“There are two pillars of creation: the human person in its irreducibility to the material universe, and the conjugal union between a man and woman, the place in which God creates new human persons ‘in His image and likeness’. The axiological elevation of abortion to a subjective right is the demolition of the first pillar. The ennoblement of a homosexual relationship, when equated to marriage, is the destruction of the second pillar.”9

If we are to understand the diabolical disorientation that has taken hold of the Holy See, we must first recognise that at the centre of Satan’s attempt to generate an “anti-creation” lies a distorted concept of dignity that appeals to man’s pride. No doubt, when the document from the DDF is published it will be examined closely. And while we can hope that it will signify a return to an authentic magisterium, bishops, priests and theologians must be prepared, if necessary, to resist any further secularisation of the Church’s teaching on human dignity.


1. In “The stupidity of dignity”, The New Republic (New York, 28 May 2008), a broadside launched against the opponents of embryonic stem cell research in 2003, Pinker derides the concept stating, “Whatever that is. The problem is that ‘dignity’ is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it.” In “Dignity, rank, and rights”,The 2009 Tanner lectures at UC Berkeley (2009) 151 NYU public law and legal theory working papers, the positivist legal scholar Jeremy Waldron accuses Pinker of being politically annoyed by the “Catholic” use of the word due to the positions that it conveys.

2. Alasdair MacIntyre “Human dignity: a puzzling and possibly dangerous idea?” presented at the Fall Conference of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, 11-13 November 2021. 

3. See for example Robert Royal, “Memo to Tucho”, The Catholic Thing, 12 February 2024.

4. Summa Theologiae, Part I, Q 93 “The end or term of the production of man”, Art 3 “Whether the angels are more to the image of God than man is”.

5. This list is adapted from the work of Leonard Nordenfelt, (ed) Dignity in the Care of Older People (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

6. CCC 2300.

7. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, (trans) Allen W Wood (Yale, 2002), p 54.

8. Christopher McCrudden (ed), Understanding Human Dignity (Oxford 2013).

9. Cardinal Caffarra: “We are no longer witnesses, but deserters, if we do not speak openly and publicly”, 20 May 2017.