Dignitatis Humanae: Teaching for a Vanishing World

Editors’ Note: Please click here to read an important message from Robert Royal about how YOU can help keep The Catholic Thing appearing daily, and make a contribution to our mission to the Church and the world.

We have been marking this month the fiftieth anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, or “On the Dignity of the Human Person.” It was one of those remarkable documents, relatively brief, but momentous. For it marked the truly catholic reach of the Church in affirming the sense of the “human person” as a bearer of unalienable human rights, including a right to religious freedom even when that religion does not find its ground in the truths professed by the Church.

But 1965 was a turning point in many ways, with the advent of “the pill” and a boost of energy in the sexual revolution. With each victory in that surge, it has become ever clearer that the movement is fueled by the passion to reject every vestige of moral teaching that cast up barriers to sexual liberation. The world has been so inverted since Dignitatis Humanae that the “culture war” now treats as contested ground the very meaning of “dignity,” the “human person,” and “religion” itself.

One friend of many years tried his hand with a book on Human Dignity. He insisted that “human beings have an incomparably higher dignity [than members of other species]. They matter more because of what they are: members of the human species, with unique and incomparable traits and attributes.” But what exactly makes humans higher, with that claim to “dignity”?

Dignitatis Humanae was clear on that point from the first moments: Dignity attached to “beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility.” Dignity begins then with the capacity for reasoned judgment over matters of right or wrong, and the capacity then to bear obligations. Only one kind of creature understands what is means to respect a promise or a “commitment” even when it no longer coincides with his interests.

My friend, writing as an academic however, declined to take that capacity for “moral” judgment as central to the matter. He found the distinct nature of human beings in the freedom to “become different through an upsurge of free creativity.” But of course the question, surely, is whether we can look upon the things we create and pronounce them good or bad. We could have the breathtaking creativity of a Bernie Madoff in fraud, a mark of no small genius. That is not the creativity that my friend has in mind, though only humans can pull it off.

And when we find all about us people quite evidently wanting in creativity –people with a perpetual dullness – do they have less human dignity? Might they be then less human, with a lesser claim to our respect?


I raise the question because my friend says that “a life is a life. . .if anything is sacred, a life is.” And yet, if dignity attaches to every human being, and if all life is sacred, what about that human being in the womb? But my friend performs a familiar shift: he insists that the “fetus” is emphatically not a “person”; it is a “potential life.” He sees then a moral claim for the innocent life of a “potential person,” set against a denial of “dignity” to the pregnant woman, for if she were denied an abortion, she would be converted “into a mere instrument of a purpose not her own.” Of course, when the matter is viewed with a moral lens, the common sense question is how a person can find her “dignity” in killing a thoroughly innocent being.

Abortion continues to stand, for the academic writers, as the “hard nut to crack.” If they want to claim dignity for all human beings, they have to explain why they omit from their protection this group of small humans. If personhood depends on a capacity for creativity already manifested in works, then the liberal mantra of “equality” is quietly, but decisively, cast aside.

Dignitatis Humanae was generous in its openness even to exotic forms of religious experience, and in its willingness to respect the earnest search for the divine. But in our own day, we find lawyers defending “religious freedom” and refusing to reject any claim of religiosity as illegitimate. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has been seeking recognition under local laws, and two years ago one of their exhibits was accepted, next to a Nativity scene, in Tallahassee.

The argument is made that we can spot religious groups that are pretextual or “insincere.” But these people are quite serious that the mockery of Christianity is their religion of anti-religion. And if there is no substantive test here, why can there not be a Church of Insincerity?

In Dignitatis Humanae, the problem was handled in this way:

[S]ociety has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion. [But the laws should] be controlled by juridical norms which are in conformity with the objective moral order.

In other words, the assumption was that the laws that barred homicide and fraud and the most obvious wrongs, would also screen out the bogus movements offering themselves as “religions.” The problem now, of course, is that there has been a flight from the recognition of laws finding their ground in “the objective moral order.” What we have now is a positive law that forces Catholic Charities to fold if it refuses to place children for adoption with homosexual couples. The same laws would punish bakers and florists if they will not celebrate a same-sex marriage.

And so, yes, Dignitatis Humanae: an enduring teaching for a vanishing world, that it falls to us now to restore.

Hadley Arkes

Hadley Arkes

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College. He is also Founder and Director of the Washington-based James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Human dignity is dishonored by unjust law. Positive law legalizing murder of innocents is contrary to the meaning of justice itself. As Aquinas says Dr Arkes the object of justice is right ST 2a2ae 57, 1c. A right always concerns what belongs to someone and that right is removed from a human life. The latter is the term used by Rehnquist in Casey which avoids the controversy of person. No such right as you know is found in the Common Law of England and neither according to the standard set after Roe in Moore v East Cleveland 1997 is it “deeply rooted in this Nations history and tradition.” That standard is consistent with Common Law which incorporates Natural Law. A positive law should stand only by the will of the people even if it unfortunately defies the will of God. That is also the unfortunate reality of our Constitutional system. Disobey it even if it incurs sanction. Strike it down by legal process. Latest surveys show a majority are not in favor. Yet as you show academics often do not follow right reasoning. Can controversy be the ground for renewed litigation?

  • PCB

    ‘“(A) life is a life. . .if anything is sacred, a life is.”…But my friend performs a familiar shift: he insists that the “fetus” is emphatically not a “person”; it is a “potential life.” He sees then a moral claim for the innocent life of a “potential person,” set against a denial of “dignity” to the pregnant woman” – it is interesting, in our society, where there is seemly a willingness to impart rights to our deceased citizens, to extend the protection of our laws, of our courts, beyond this life; to those, who while no longer possessing the potential for life, seemly remain enough human, though they be called a “corpse”, to retain enough of their former dignity, that they may continue to assert their right not to be abused, assaulted, kidnapped or, otherwise treated, “in a way that would outrage reasonable community sensibilities” (text in quotes taken from State of Ohio, Abuse of Corpse legal code language, 2927.01B). These protections, present under so-called, “abuse of corpse” laws, generally extend even to the cremated human corpse.

    We, as a society of human persons, recognize that a human corpse possesses a worthiness of dignity, despite no longer possessing any potential for life, and despite emphatically no longer being a person in the living sense of the word. And, we know this intuitively, without the need for philosophical or scientific debate as to: “when and at what point does a person become a corpse?”

    Whereas, in the case of the cremated human corpse, it is unlikely under most circumstances, using current DNA testing, that it could ever be established definitively beyond all doubt, that the ashes are in fact human, or ever were human, still we are willing to concede that ashes found in a box in a building where human cremations are known to take place, that those ashes for all sake of argument, are deemed to be human and thus worthy of protection from abuse.

    And, yet, even with the advances in embryology, where science can identify with amazing precision, everything biological that makes a human, biologically human, to be present in a child in the womb, to paraphrase Prof. Arkes elsewhere, “no larger than the period at the end of this sentence”, we are unwilling as a society to concede that that thing, what medical science calls a “fetus”, found living, growing in a woman’s womb, a place in which humans are known to reside until birth, for all sake of argument, should be deemed human and worthy of protection from abuse.

    So, “of course, (as Prof. Arkes states above), “the question, surely, is whether we can look upon the things we create and pronounce them good or bad.” But also that we may look upon these created things and pronounce them “true”.

    • Jill

      This is such a great point, one I’d never heard before. With all credit to you, PCB, I copied a couple of your paragraphs and posted them on my Facebook page. I hope you don’t mind. Let me know if you do and I’ll delete my post.

      More dignity and respect to a corpse than to a living fetus…. What a brilliant clarifier of the lunacy of our world.

      • PCB

        Dear Jill, by all means, feel free to post – thanks & best wishes.

    • Quo Vadis

      The “rights of a corpse” ? It is even worst than that as animal rights activists are determined to extend human right to chimps as they again go to court to fight.

      Yet a “fetus” is just a blob of tissue…..

  • Michael Dowd

    How do we handle Islam which believes in forced conversions and is considered by many to be a political movement of domination disguised as a religion? Because Islam condones the use of terrorism as part if their program of conquest should not Islam be declared illegal?

    And shouldn’t abortion be considered a form of terrorism where innocents are murdered to satisfy individual lifestyle desires or the religion of self?

    Is murder now OK if it serves the interests of one’s religion?

    Seems to me we have some fundamental thinking issues as madness has come upon us.

  • Manfred

    All one has to do is read Cardinal Newman’s Biglietto Speech to know tjat Dignitatis Humanae threw away our Catholic birthright. Newman studied his way from Angicanism to Roman Catholicism by studying the writings of Fourth Century Fathers. He came to realize that only Catholicism was true and he uprooted his life in his mid-forties when he announced his conversion.
    Vatican II was the first “Pastoral Council” and the results of it were predictable. The Church would no longer have a Magisterium to teach: It would now serve as a Counselor. “How do YOU feel abouit abortion or sodomite marriage?” as now YOU are paramount in the decision process. Is this not the argument of Justice Anthony Kennedy? BTW, there are 40,000 christian sects in the world today. Barack Hussein Obama, the most anti-religion, pro-abortion, pro-sodomy President this Nation has ever known, is often described as being a christian.
    As long as the Church insisted there was only one true Faith and It was the source of this Faith in the world there was a purpose to Its existence. Every human being is created by God and it possesses a soul which never dies. Once the Church abandoned Its role of protecting and nurturing each soul, It opened the door to Its own irrelevance which is evidenced every day.

    • ThirstforTruth

      It was/is Jesus Christ Who said there was one Way, Truth and Life, He Himself, and He established His Church, the Catholic Church, to preserve this Truth, until He comes again. There was/is only one True, Catholic, Holy and Apostolic Church that exists today and that is His Church, the Church we know as the Catholic Church. It has never stopped teaching Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life for all who want salvation. All salvation can only come this way…through Jesus Christ. The Church has never stopped teaching this though many falsely claim this changed at Vatican II. Those people have been duped by the Evil One who started first with Adam and Eve…and will continue to persist winning souls over to his side until Christ comes again, this time in victory over the evil one.

  • Bro_Ed

    1. On the light side: “One friend of many years tried his hand with a book on Human Dignity. He insisted that “human beings have an incomparably higher dignity [than members of other species].”

    How did he determine this? Interviews?

    2. On the serious side: In Catholic School, back in the Forties, we were taught in religion classes that the soul was not infused into the body until 70 days (I think it was 70) after birth. Even in the Sixties, when we suffered a miscarriage and tried to have the baby baptized, we were told “no need”. The soul had not yet arrived. Somehow, over the years, the time cycle advanced and now we hear infusion occurs at conception. Why did that change, when, and how?

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      On the vexed question of “ensoulment,” in its 1987 Instruction, Donum Vitae the CDF says: : “The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. This teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable”

      A problem arises over the case of monozygotic twinning. If a zygote splits, than as Miss Anscombe, an eminent Catholic philosopher and anti-abortion campaigner put it “Neither of the two humans that eventually develop can be identified as the same human as the zygote, because they can’t both be so, as they are different humans from one another.” – Something that obviously follows from the transivity of identity: if B is identical to A and C is identical to A, then B is identical to C.

      Of course, she insisted that the zygote is a “living individual whole whose life is—all going well—to be the life of one or lives of more than one human being.” But that does not solve the problem of “ensoulment.”

  • Deacon John

    Professor Arkes, please do not say “Dignity begins then with the capacity for reasoned judgment over matters of right or wrong, and the capacity then to bear obligations.” Clearly the unborn, young children, and the mentally challenged do not (yet) have this capacity. May we then infer that since they are not able to do this they may be considered as “life unworthy of life” if it suits our will? Dignity may be associated with this capacity but does not derive or begin from it.
    Our dignity comes not from any physical or mental capability but from the fact that we are formed in the image and likeness of God. Saying otherwise leaves one open to deciding who has dignity and when.

    • Dave Fladlien

      John: I disagree with your implicit assumption, which seems to be that there is only *actualized* capacity, as in an adult as compared to an infant. In fact, I think that the capacity for reasoned judgment exists in an inherent potential form in the infant (or the unborn which is simply a form of infant), whereas it does not exist in, say, a cow, and therefore that capacity must be imputed to the infant.

      That being the case, it does not follow that Dr. Arkes’ statement leaves the door open to infanticide or abortion, etc. It is precisely the fact that the ability of reasoning exists in potential, though not yet in actualization, which makes abortion or infanticide wrong. So while clarification to avoid ambiguity might be a good idea, I think Dr. Arkes’ statement that you quote is correct as it stands.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      I agree with your assessment Deacon. Princeton professor Peter Singer universally considered a prominent ethical authority teaches humans lacking the capacity for rational thought should be afforded the same rights to life as animals here meaning mercy killing. You identify the true value of every person whether handicapped or otherwise if not having reached rational discourse. Although I don’t believe Dr Arkes intended to convey the opposite. He is isolating the dignity attached to being made in God’s image with the capacity to reason.

    • Mrs. Harris

      Yes, this was my thought also. I have had many conversations with people who try to argue that the severely disabled or brain damaged or those in a persistent vegetative state are no longer persons nor truly human beings. They use this then to turn around and claim that a fetus is also not a person nor a human being until it is capable of rational conscious thought. Of course they always move the goalposts around and use such shifty language, you can’t ever get them to pin down an exact point at which someone “becomes” human or loses their inherent humanity. It’s very arbitrary.

    • Greg

      Dr. Arkes did not say it begins with the proficient capacity, he said it begins with the capacity. Honestly, I fail to see why you and your joiners are taking such exception. If you believe a fetus is a human person, from the moment of conception, then you must also believe the fetus has the capacity Dr. Arkes wants to point out in his remarks. You cannot be a human person without it.

  • Joe_NS

    Only a “potential” life. Let’s explore that a moment.

    An aborted fetus likely has 80 years of life in store for him or her. Eighty years of living, breathing pleasure and pain from his beginning to her end, eight decades of love, hatred, disappointment, regrets, and achievements; and parents and children and grandparents; and friends, good and bad; the panoply of life coming right up, the whole mad, sad, and irreplaceable business: art and music, also literature, for instance, reading A Remembrance of Things Past in French or Don Quixote in Spanish or The Magic Mountain in any language; or watching Friends or Friday the Thirteenth or Citizen Kane or The Elephant Man; or 80 years of hearing, hearing The Byrds or Dylan, loving Sinatra and hating Beyoncé; or feeling warmth, cold, satin, or skin or rainwater on the cheek; or smelling rosemary and wood smoke; or driving muscle cars with lake pipes; eating hot-fudge sundaes; ogling girls in bikinis; passing exams and failing exams. Have I even mentioned what the eyes have in store?

    Everything that might be precious and held dear—or not—and would not be parted with without a screaming fit or a fight, it is all good enough for some of us, it appears—for which one prays that some of us are thankful, else some of us are soulless automata—but for some reason are not for him, neither for her, not for the as-yet-unborn “potential” human being; of whatever age or sex is obviously irrelevant, because, even considering miscarriages, what the future holds for a zygote is very probably what is in store for a nine-month fetus or newborn baby in a cradle, just as, I thank God, it was for me, for mine. Is there any serious disagreement in the point? One-minute or nine-months old or a year and a day, length of life is all but guaranteed—until and unless an accident befalls him or her or a very, very bad mother bravely puts her foot down and decides she may have life and love “But you? Sorry. For you? A trash bag.” Why is that?

  • Hadley Arkes

    We must ever be attentive to the possibility that something we put down could be misconstrued, but I guess that Deacon John has never read anything I’ve written on this matter over the past forty years, or especially my book First Things, for he would have understood at once that his reading of me here had to be bizarre. The “capacity for reasoned judgment” is contained in us–as one reader recalled my words–when are no larger than the period at the end of this sentence. No, it is not a matter of determining when human beings are capable of understanding syllogisms and diagramming sentences. In the context, I thought people would understand that I’m saying: that the notion of dignity begins with the understanding of a moral being, the only kind of being who can bear obligations, reason about matters of right and wrong. Only that kind of being can perform the kinds of acts that command admiration and respect, and find his dignity in doing upright, rightful things. I’m grateful to Dave Fladien and Fr. Morello for offering the reading they were sure was correct. I guess that, even within the precincts of the Catholic Thing, it is unsafe to assume that anyone knows more of what I’ve written than what he has read on the page at hand. I would indeed refer people to my book First Things, ch. XVI, for my fuller views on this matter.

    But apart from that, I too, find PCB’s account of the law in Ohio, on the treatment of corpses, to be especially interesting–and telling.

    • Manfred

      Dr. Arkes: Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade, Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefill v. Hodges all followed since Dignitatis Humanae. These would have been unthinkable prior to the Second Vatican Council. There were six catholics on the Court for Obergefill, and, I believe, Lawrence.

      • Dave Fladlien

        “These would have been unthinkable prior to the Second Vatican Council.” I strongly disagree. This statement assumes that everything that happens which impacts religion is the result of V2, which can’t possibly be true. As Dr. Arkes pointed out in his article, the “pill” happened, the sexual revolution happened, and way beyond all that, also the war in Viet Nam happened, etc. Modern technology rose from the invention of the semiconductor to the modern world of communications and computers, which have brought people into a here-to-fore unimagined closeness and interaction. The world could not have stayed the same in anything as vital to people’s lives as religion, and the Church would have lost far more ground than it did if it took an attitude of demanding respect while refusing respect to others.

        I had never read Dignitatis Humanae, until this afternoon. I think it’s a very good document. We have to win the battle for souls in the world we have, not the one that was there 60 years ago, and can never be again.

  • lwhite

    “Dignitatis Humanae was generous in its openness to even exotic forms of religious experience, and in its willingness to respect the earnest search for the divine.”

    It was generous to opening the door to denying human dignity by basically teaching that the one, true religion isn’t important for either one’s salvation nor as one’s duty to believe and practice as revealed by God – and taught by the Church throughout Her history. Did God reveal in the Old Testament that man’s dignity was found in the pagan practices of worshipping false Gods? Did Jesus Christ reveal that man’s dignity was found anywhere outside of Himself who is the only Way, Truth, and Life? Have any of the Fathers, Doctors, Saints, or Holy Popes ever taught that human dignity is found in “exotic forms of religious experience”, or in any other religion except the Catholic religion founded by Jesus Christ? Of course not.

    I find nothing to celebrate when the teaching of the Church became Masonic/Modernist.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Dignitatis Humanae affirms freedom of conscience in these terms: that men are not to be coerced to believe. The principle is that God expects us to give our assent and our love in freedom. It prohibits proselytization. Nonetheless it affirms conversion “by the power of the word of God”. It is addressed to those seeking the faith as well as those possessing it. Unfortunately we can read into statements unintended meaning. Hadley Arkes on Dignity highlights “reasoned judgment over matters of right and wrong.” My conviction is that the signature of God on the human soul that distinguishes him from all creatures and defines humanness is precisely the ability to judge between right and wrong.