by James Beauregard
Human Dignity continues to be a topic of debate, and there are a range of opinions about it, from the need to defend it to arguments that there is no such thing. As personalists are typically concerned with the issue of human dignity – see, for example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on personalism – this is worth pausing to consider.
Recently, the Catholic Church at the direction of Pope Francis, made an official change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the death penalty, and human dignity loomed large in the official change in church teaching. The Catechism has in the past acknowledged that the state has the right, in principle to utilize in capital punishment for the protection of public order. This is acknowledged in the new nitration of article 2267 of the Catechism: “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.”
This same article acknowledges that, “the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” In light of the dignity of persons, the Church has changed its official teaching on the death penalty to state:
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
In a letter to the bishops of the Catholic church in February, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes frequent reference to one of the twentieth century’s most widely known personalists, Karol Wojtyła/Pope John Paul II, who, during his papacy commented multiple times on the death penalty, most notably in the Encyclical Evangelium vitae, where he wrote, “a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of ‘legitimate defence’ on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.”
The new teaching on the death penalty immediately has two broad implications. First, it can no longer be argued that the church supports capital punishment, if only in the most limited circumstances. Second, it commits the church to working worldwide for the abolition of the death penalty.
Newspaper accounts in the United States have been reporting on this daily for the past week, as the United States is one of the few western democracies that still allows the death penalty for capital crimes. The reporting has focused in particular on Republican politicians, who as a group tend to favour the death penalty as part of their law and order position. Democrats, on the other hand, are traditionally opposed to capital punishment. It will be interesting to see how this new debate plays out, because it will place in the public consciousness once again the issue of Republican Catholic politicians having to take a stand for or against the church’s teaching. One American governor, himself a Catholic, has already publicly stated that an execution scheduled in his state will be carried out as planned. To date, criticism of Catholic politicians taking positions contrary to church teaching has fallen mostly on Democratic politicians favouring abortion.
The thread of dignity runs throughout these conversations. Dignity is fairly straightforward to assert from a religious perspective in terms of the Imago Dei. We are created in the image of God, and herein lies the source and guarantor of human dignity. It has a source beyond this world and cannot be either given or retracted by any institution. When one approaches the question of dignity from the perspective of philosophy, grounded as it is in the resources of reason rather than faith, the task becomes more difficulty. This can be seen historically in the human rights documents that emerged subsequent to the Second World War such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which acknowledge human dignity as foundational for human rights, but did not seek to define what specifically dignity is. This was left to subsequent generations, and no satisfactory or universally acceptable understanding of human rights has yet emerged.
What might a personalist understanding of human dignity need to consider? In conclusion I would pose some questions for personalist philosophers and any other interested parties on what might need to be considered in order to develop an adequate understanding of and foundation for human dignity.
What do we mean when we say the word “dignity” (some working definition or description)
What understanding/description of persons ought to be operative in considering the question of dignity?
How closed or open-ended should an understanding of dignity be, given the open-ended nature of persons? (Neither too narrow as to rule out some persons, nor too broad so as to be meaningless).
Is there a transcendental basis for human dignity, and if so, what might it be? (on the grounds of reason, can an argument for aspects of the human person that are transcendent be made, and if so how?).
What might be the proper relationship between an understanding of human dignity and the various political structures of our world? (Can the state grant or deprive one of dignity, or does the state have an essential role in pro90moting and protecting human dignity?)
 Pope Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5. Both this document and the letter to the bishops cited below are available on the Vatican website, www.vatican.va.
 Letter to the Bishops regarding the new revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 02.08.2018.
 John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html.
 Of note in this regard, personalist philosopher Jacques Maritain, who served for several years as the French ambassador to the Vatican, had a role in crafting this document.