The Evolution of Dignity by Kyle Nicholas

August 20, 2018

On August 2, 2018 the Vatican announced that Pope Francis approved a new change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The death penalty is now “inadmissible” in all circumstances. As in any development in a tradition, this move is both novel and yet not discontinuous.

Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, argued that only in cases where public safety from the offender could not be guaranteed was the death penalty permissible. Since this is a near impossibility with modern techniques of confinement, it means the death penalty is a near impossibility. Pope Benedict XVI continued this line of thought and committed his own papacy to working with other countries to abolish the death penalty.

Pope Francis joins this push by connecting opposition to the death penalty with human dignity. I am particularly interested in one statement in the new Catechism, which reads, “today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” What is this “increasing awareness”? Like any concept, dignity has a history. Pope Francis’s decision is the continuation of a certain trajectory within the history of the idea of dignity — a history not limited to Catholicism.

We use the word dignity in all sorts of ways. Some actions are undignified — like wearing a Chicago Cubs hat to dinner with the Queen. Or, we think some ways of disrespecting individuals transgresses against their dignity — such as in the case of annual dwarf-tossing contests. The philosopher Friedrich Schiller thought dignity was the ability to stand up straight and remain composed and resolute in the face of hard circumstances. Some, like the Catholic Church and conservative bioethicists, love talking about dignity. Others, like Ruth Macklin and Steven Pinker, dislike the concept.

These different ways of characterizing dignity come from an impressive discussion of the ins and outs of the concept by the philosopher Michael Rosen. His history shines light on Pope Francis’s decision.

One way to characterize dignity is as rank within a certain natural order. Starting with Cicero and continuing through much of the Latin Christian tradition, dignity was understood as rank. Because humans share a sensitive nature with the animals, and yet our rational capacities lift us above them, we can rise in contemplation to the divine or sink into animality and brute instincts. We were created, in the words of Psalm 8, “just a little lower than the angels.” When dignity is equated with rank, humans have less dignity than these angels, but more than animals. Humans also might vary in nobility from one to the other. Yet, since this idea was connected with certain capacities, and we are marred by sin, dignity becomes unstable. Since it is a rank we inhabit, then it is something we can lose. Anybody who lowers themselves too far might be put to death.

The second way to characterize dignity is as inherent worth. This is a relatively modern version of dignity, often traced to Immanuel Kant. Because of the use of dignity in modern political documents such as the German Grundgesetz and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and because of certain developments in Catholic and Protestant thought about the person, this is the idea of dignity we are most familiar with today.

Dignity here is intrinsic to the person and is not reducible to material circumstances or decisions. This is what John Paul II calls the “transcendent dignity” of the human person and the secular philosopher George Kateb calls dignity as an “existential” and not merely moral value. With the idea of an intrinsic worth that transcends circumstances and decisions, we see how something like the death penalty becomes at the very best problematic. To punish even a heinous crime with death would be to extinguish the transcendent aspect of the person for material transgressions — this is the definition of disproportion. This move from rank and order to existential or transcendent worth is why Catholic and secular views can overlap, and why the inclusion of dignity in several founding charters remains so fruitful for politics and law.

How did we make this transition? Is it a legacy of the Enlightenment, as secularists might believe, or of Christianity, as apologists argue? The answer is both: and to some extent neither. Or so argues the German philosopher and sociologist Hans Joas. Joas is interested in why in the modern age we moved to place more emphasis than ever upon the inherent worth, and subsequently individual rights, of the person.

Joas develops his account in contrast to two “myths”: the myth of Christianity and the myth of the Enlightenment. The “myth” is that either is fully responsible for our present concern with individual worth.

Christianity did endow the human with unparalleled worth; it was a moral revolution. In some early stories, Christians plucked discarded children from the trash and raised them, shared all their possessions in common, and broke down distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female. Yet, for Joas it is one thing to start a moral revolution and another to unweave the full implications without falling into distortions. Christianity often fell woefully short of its teachings on the worth of the person. In addition to Crusades and the persecution of heretics and the Jews, we can take a look at this infamous gem of misanthropy: a late 12th century treatise by Pope Innocent III, entitled On the Misery of the Human Condition.

“For sure man was formed out of earth, conceived in guilt, born to punishment. What he does is depraved and illicit, is shameful and improper, vain and unprofitable. He will become fuel for the eternal fires food for worms, a mass of rottenness… Man was formed of dust, slime, and ashes; what is even more vile, of the filthiest seed. He was conceived from the itch of the flesh, in the heat of passion and the stench of lust, and worse yet, with the stain of sin. He was born to toil, dread, and trouble; and more wretched still, was born only to die.”

The second myth is the Enlightenment myth. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment did add value to the person in a way that was both continuous and novel to the Christian tradition. As much as we point to Pico della Mirondola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1496) or Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments (1764) as freeing us from the “dark” ages, however, these centuries of thought are tangled up in colonialism, chattel slavery, racism, nationalism, and the mechanized slaughter of the 20th century.

The real change, Joas argues, is the rise of the idea of the “sacredness” of the human person from both Christian and Enlightenment traditions. Think about the worst crime in modern society: homicide. This wasn’t always the case. For a long time the worst crime was blasphemy (against the sacredness of God) or attempted regicide (against the sacredness of the King). Browse through a medieval penitential, and you’ll often be surprised that even some sexual activities require greater penance than homicide.

Our present condition then is marked by a centuries-long migration of sacredness from God and king to the core of the individual person. Avoiding atheism, this is what one tradition in modern Christian ethics came to call “personality” and it played a fundamental role in the social ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. For King, according to social ethicist Gary Dorrien, personality is an analogous repetition of the divine in the soul of each human being, and as such is the most sacred thing in the universe.

While Joas shows that a certain de jure recognition of the sacredness of the human person exists today, he warns us that we must remain vigilant to the ever-present possibility of its de facto destruction by other institutions and ideologies. Sacredness can migrate from its proper place in an individual person to an institution or ideology: to the Party, say, or to the “white race.”

The sacredness of the person over all institutions and ideologies is one part of what we today call dignity. Some Catholics will take issue with Pope Francis’s decision, especially with regard to the consistency with past teachings about the natural law. Yet, for those who accept the story I recalled here, Pope Francis’s decision must be regarded as nothing short of inspired.

Kyle Nicholas is a doctoral student in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at the University of Virginia.