Julie Andrews famously sang in The Sound of Music that a very good place to start is at the very beginning. Let’s begin our consideration of human dignity, then, in the first book of the Bible. In Genesis (1:26) God said: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” By our very existence, then, we can safely say that every one of us has a God-given worth. God made each of us out of love, in His own image and likeness. Can it be any clearer that each and every one of God’s children is of equal value?
In the 1996 document, The Common Good, the bishops of England and Wales speak to us about the importance of human dignity: “Christ challenges us to see his presence in our neighbour, especially the neighbour who suffers or who lacks what is essential to human flourishing. In relieving our neighbour’s suffering and meeting our neighbour’s needs, we are also serving Christ.” They continue, “We should regard the discharge of those responsibilities as no less important than fulfilling our religious duties and indeed as part of them.” Giving dignity to every person is clearly central to our Christian calling.
Bishop Alan also spoke about this during the recent Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes. He said, “The message of Lourdes is that every single person alive on this planet matters.” No matter whether or not society considers a person to be useful: God created each of us, and as everyone is created in God’s image as his children, we are all sisters and brothers of Christ. It is our responsibility, therefore, to care for each other in the way we would care for Christ, from the beginning of life to its natural end. Jesus says, “What you do to the least of these – you do unto me.” (Mt 25:40). Bishop Alan said that those caring for the sick are “serving Jesus Christ Himself.”
In considering human dignity, we may rightly think of the unborn child, or the elderly or disabled. We could suggest it covers the dignity of people at work and it rightly does. We can also consider everyone having the right to live in a peaceful society and being able to be part of a community, or giving preference to the poor. We need to walk with those on the margins of society who feel, or indeed are, rejected by others. The effects of how we care for the environment will affect the lives of the poorest. All of these issues are raised when we consider the dignity of the human person. All of these issues are Principles of Catholic Social Teaching and they all flow from the first – Human Dignity.
Our neighbour, as Bishop Alan reminds us, includes every person on the planet. We’re not just talking about the people around us. This expanded understanding of who our neighbour is stretches our responsibilities. Which brand we choose in the supermarket will affect the livelihood of someone, somewhere. Does my bank invest ethically? What consequences will my life choices have on my sisters and brothers in another country?
This month, look around and begin to notice where people are showing dignity to others in your parish – and also in the wider community. What one thing might I be able to change, to give dignity to my neighbour, either here in East Anglia or further afield?
Pictured above, Bishop Alan speaks about Human Dignity during a recent Lourdes pilgrimage.