What comes to your mind when you think of a person with dignity? Perhaps someone who is educated, graceful, with impeccable manners. Perhaps someone you look to as a role model. What about the homeless man begging on the street corner? Do you think they have the same dignity as a person with money and manners?
Recently on St. Joseph’s Workshop, Fr. Matthew Spencer, OSJ was discussing where our human dignity really comes from, and how to recognize it in others – and in ourselves. He said:
“How would you describe dignity? How would you explain to someone else that every human person has dignity? Do you even believe that? I mean, maybe we have to take a step back and ask if you really believe that every single human being – even the worst of sinners out there, even the person who has chosen the most horrible path in life – has a dignity that can’t be taken away from them. A dignity that is theirs, that not even the worst sin in the world can strip away.
It is the grounding of human morality to know that each person has a deep, abiding dignity that nothing and no one can take away. From the moment of conception in the womb onward into eternal life – each of us has this dignity that is so important.
See, the world might describe human dignity as your sense of self-respect or self-worth. Some kind of physical or psychological integrity. But that’s not what human dignity is when we describe it as Catholics. We look at it as the fact that we image God Himself. We are made in the image and likeness of God.
We talk about every human person having dignity not because you’re capable of doing something great in the world, not because you’re so well-educated and really smart and you’re going to change the world through your intellectual prowess. I hope you do, but that’s not what gives you your dignity.
It’s not your bank account, it’s not your skills, it’s not the sufferings you’ve endured. It’s that we’re made in the image and likeness of God. Did you notice that it’s nothing we did to deserve and it’s nothing that we did to earn? It’s simply part of our human nature, and a gift from God.
The fact that each one of us has this great dignity, that we reflect God ourselves in the human person, is the reason why we can look at the moral life and say it’s important to respect every single human person, it’s important to love every human person – saints and sinners alike. People who agree with you and people who disagree with you, we are called to respect that dignity in them.
The problem is that we don’t always respect that dignity within us or within others. And I would particularly like to look at why it is we don’t see that dignity within ourselves. Why is it that so many people in this world look at themselves in the mirror and hate themselves, loathe what they see? Why is it that so many people, as beautiful as they are or even as tragic as they might be, will look and conclude that they are therefore not loveable, not able to the loved?
Of course we know it goes back to original sin. Theologically, we look back and we see the sin that infected human nature, that Jesus came to take away from us. So we know the root cause of it is sin. But sin perpetuates sin. So the reason it continues in our own time is that we continue to have a life of sin, we continue to have a life of vice.
And we do it because we’re seeking out some sort of happiness. As disordered, as misguided as that might be, we’re still seeking happiness. Every normal human person wants happiness, right? Every sane person wants happiness. Their definition of happiness might be very different from yours or from mine, but every right thinking human individual wants to be happy.
So many people who are despairing in life, who have lost a sense of their own human dignity, are there because of the inability to forgive other people, because of the inability to be grateful toward other people, to be grateful for what they have, to be grateful to the Creator who has blessed them so much.
When we don’t have the right virtues in place, when we don’t have the right patterns of behavior in place, we end up looking at our lives, hating ourselves, thinking that we’re worthless, and living our lives without realizing the kind of dignity that we have. It manifests itself in our lives of sin, it manifests itself in our attitudes and approaches towards life.
I mean, I guess I look at all of this and, whether it’s the people that I meet in ministry or the people that I meet online, there is a yearning and a desire for me to actually help people realize how much they are worth in the sight of God. How much God loves and cares for them. How do we do that? Well, I think it’s by reminding them that they are loveable, that they are loved, that God wants nothing more than their happiness, and that is only found in right relationship with Him.”
Listen to the full discussion below:
St. Joseph’s Workshop with Father Matthew Spencer airs weekdays from 9:00 – 10:00 a.m. Pacific.