Human creation in the “image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:26) is the very foundation of Catholic social thought. Of course, many religions and philosophies affirm the dignity of the human person, but Christianity is noteworthy for the distinctive way that it elevates the spiritual principle that we humans are capable of intimate relationship with God and sanctified by Christ’s salvific grace.  This transcendent dignity depends not on any accomplishment, education, wealth, or association with any race, nation, or ethnicity.  Nor is it imaginably taken away by any contingent circumstances; our inherent dignity perdures despite any birth defect, disease, crime, poverty, or membership in any suspect group.  Human dignity necessarily involves human life, rights, development, and empowerment.

Human life. In Evangelium Vitae (1995), Saint John Paul II focused on the inviolability of human life and proclaimed a “gospel of life” over against a “culture of death” [12].[1] The Pontiff argued that the right to life was the most basic human right [2].  Without defending the right to life, we cannot further the common good since it is the right to life “upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop” [101].  John Paul condemned murder [57], procured abortion [58], euthanasia [65], and capital punishment (except where the death penalty is the only way to defend society, but “such cases are very rare if not practically nonexistent” [56]).

Human rights.  From its foundational commitment to human life and dignity, the Catholic social teaching tradition developed a high regard for the framework of human rights. The Catholic human rights tradition reached a high point in affirming civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights in the encyclical Pacem in Terris, promulgated by Saint John XXIII in 1963, just fifteen years after the fledgling United Nations issued its Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Rights actually give content to human dignity in relationship to persons, systems, and structures.  Some rights protect human dignity “in its bodiliness: the right to life, bodily integrity, food, clothing, shelter, and some minimum degree of health care.”[2]  Other rights relate to being able to work, free economic initiative, and adequate working conditions and just wages.[3]  Still others (such as the rights to assembly and association) defend our dignity in social interactions.[4]

Integral human development.  In the context of the development of nations, Pope Paul VI in Populorum Progressio (1967) put forward a broad, complex, and demanding concept of development.  More than just economic in nature, development must be integral in two senses: the whole person and every person. Development engages the individual in personal responsibility for self-fulfillment. To achieve authentic development we must move “from less human conditions to those which are more human”: from material deprivation of life’s essentials, the moral deficiencies of selfishness, and oppressive social structures… to the possession of necessities, knowledge, culture, respect for others’ dignity, cooperation, a desire for peace, and spiritual values [21].

EmpowermentCatholic thought has evolved from just protecting workers and the poor to promoting their empowerment as “artisans of their own destiny”[5]—individually, as workers and citizens, and as poor nations.

Empowerment is a process of engagement that increases the ability of individuals, families, organizations, and communities to build mutually respectful relationships and bring about fundamental, positive change in the conditions affecting their daily lives.[6]

This understanding rests on three principles: (1) People are the primary agents of change; (2) empowering changes happen through participative relationships; and (3) the human person is both social and spiritual; what affects one aspect of the person, affects the other.[7]

[1] Numbers in brackets refer to paragraphs in the respective documents.

[2] David Hollenbach, SJ, Claims in Conflict: Retrieving and Renewing the Catholic Human Rights Tradition (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), p. 95.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (1967), no. 65.

[6] A Catholic Charities Framework for Empowerment (Alexandria, Va.: Catholic Charities USA, 1998).

[7] Ibid.