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What ‘dignity’ really means

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What do we mean when we use the phrase “human dignity”? For instance, those who advocate “dignity in dying” generally mean something very different from a traditional Christian perspective on what it means to be truly human. Thus, Human Dignity in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition (Bloomsbury), edited by John Loughlin, provides a thoughtful, necessary and scholarly contribution to this debate. Subtitled “Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant Perspectives” it is a collection of discrete essays by individual scholars. I would add that, despite its academic provenance, it can be read by an educated lay readership.

In his introduction, Professor Loughlin reminds us of the importance of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, formulated in response to the atrocities of the war and the assault against human dignity. What is its relationship to the Judaeo-Christian belief that we are “made in the image and likeness of God”? He indicates the range of this enquiry, from Cicero’s argument that man’s capacity for reason gives him an intrinsic dignity, through Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’s rejection of the Biblical tradition, followed by the reductive outlook of Marx, Darwin and Freud.

The book’s firm conviction that we are “homo religiosus” as much as “homo sapiens” and “homo faber” is borne out by the essay titles, such as “The Holy Trinity as Source of Human Dignity according to St Thomas Aquinas” by Richard Conrad OP; “The Beauty of the Person in Christian Thought and Art” by Timothy Verdon; “Recovering Human Dignity: John Paul II’s Personalist Philosophy” by Miguel Acosta; and “Bioethics and the Secular Belief of Inherent Human Dignity” by Calum MacKellar.

A book so packed with scholarly argument can hardly be summarised in a blog. I can only offer some glimpses of the themes: such as Dr Vladimir Latinovic’s discussion of Psalm 8 which describes human beings in a famously poetic image as a little lower than the angels; John Loughlin’s argument in his essay that the Renaissance, contrary to what leagues of history students have been taught over the years, was not a “radical break with medieval Christendom” – despite the powerful influence of Jacob Burckhardt (a Protestant), that the Renaissance “glorified the individual and personal autonomy”; and Timothy Verdon’s reflection on the effect Piero Della Francesca’s “The Baptism of Christ” (now in the National Gallery) might have had on the monks of the Camaldolese Priory of St John the Evangelist ,who first saw it as it hung above the alter in their chapel in Borgo San Sepolcro.

Verdon writes that “We should imagine specific spiritual tension…that [the monks’] lives be changed on the model of Christ”, who is shown at the moment of his entry into his public ministry, reflected in his calm recognition and dignified acceptance of his destiny. This observation for some reason reminded me of a phrase once used, almost as a throw-away thought, by my late parish priest. He had a great love and knowledge of the Holy Shroud, traditionally revered as the burial-cloth of Christ. He had studied and contemplated this enigmatic and soulful “imago Dei” all his priestly life, such that every physical feature was engraved in his imagination.

In one Holy Week homily he happened to refer in passing to Christ’s “long sensitive fingers and broad generous palms”. It was a brief, salutary, almost shockingly personal reminder that, as this excellent book argues from many different angles, all human dignity ultimately flows from our relationship to Christ, God incarnate, so movingly depicted in his sacred humanity by artists such as Della Francesca throughout the ages. The essays do not make light reading – but they repay serious study on a subject of crucial concern for everyone, whatever their creed or ethnicity.