To any vigilant person who can detect deepening flaws in the fabric of the ambient culture, the fundamental concept of human dignity is under assault throughout society. A person is no longer seen as unique, precious and unrepeatable. On the contrary, he or she is too often nothing more than a statistic. Moreover, “dignity” is readily predicated as a reason for refusal of medical treatments, as well as for euthanasia and so-called “physician assisted suicide.”
What, really, then, is human dignity? As Professor William E. May has argued, the concept of dignity is profound and complex. Three “types” can be identified: (1) inherent dignity, reflecting the image of God the Creator; (2) the dignity achieved through making moral choices; and (3) the dignity acquired by virtue of becoming God’s sons and daughters. (Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Life, 2nd ed., OSV 2008)
The first – that dignity possessed by all “members of the human race” – simply means being fashioned in God’s very image. This concept of human dignity belongs inherently to all (in Dr. May’s words) “living members of the human species” precisely because of humanity’s reflecting the image of God (Ibid.). Thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that the “fundamental reason for dignity is that every person is called “to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life.” (Nos. 356, 7) This primary concept of human dignity entails responsibility, of course, because it reminds all humans to safeguard their status by defending their right to make free and informed decisions.
The second type of human dignity, in Dr. May’s view, is that which persons are called to embrace by “freely choosing to shape [their] choices and actions in accord with the truth.” (Catholic Bioethics) It is one thing to claim this kind of dignity by virtue of being made in the image of God; however, it is another thing to fulfill this by doing the right thing. Vatican Council II strongly reasserted this in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. (No. 17) This kind of dignity clearly requires the exercise of freedom; informed freedom. Hence, the need for the free consent of a patient for medical treatment.
The third and last kind of dignity is that by means of which the gift of divine life is bestowed upon those cared for or treated as manifestations of Christ himself, the divine Healer.