In the first chapter of Genesis we find the foundation for human dignity. Genesis teaches that the human family was created in the image of God:
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
The human family was created in the image of God who blesses us and calls us to bless one another. The man and the woman are created equal and are called to multiply and fill the earth.
In Genesis 3 we read the account of how the human family was misdirected by our first parents to focus on personal selfish interests rather than living in the presence and service of God. The rest of the Old Testament recounts the painful and bloody consequences of this decision with the entire human family being born into a broken world. And into this broken world came the healing presence of Jesus Christ.
In Jesus’ time, illness and physical ailments were not seen simply as personal misfortunes; they were seen as punishments from angry gods, leading people to be excluded from their communities. This is most stringently seen in those who were victims of leprosy, abandoned to the outskirts of society. So in healing the sick, the lame, the lepers, Jesus was not simply taking care of physical ailments, he was reintegrating the people into the larger society. He was restoring to the person the meaning of life, to live in community with God and others.
The promotion of human dignity has a social dimension which transcends the care of individual persons in need.
In curing blindness, Jesus opened and expanded the person’s world, making it possible for him to be less dependent on others for basic needs, and giving him the gift of seeing those he loved and those who loved him. In John 9 we see that the healing of the man born blind also led to discovery of true faith in Jesus.
In curing the deaf or mute, Jesus was giving the person the ability to communicate with friends and neighbors (Mark 7: 31–37). In curing paralysis, Jesus was giving them the opportunity to become active members of their communities (Mark 2: 1–12).
One good example of Jesus’ healing ministry leading to reintegration into society is found in Luke 17: 11–19. Ten lepers approached Jesus, keeping their distance, while pleading to him for mercy. Jesus told the men to show themselves to the priests, and as they went they were made clean. As they were now clean the priests allowed them to return to their loved ones. Only one showed gratitude to Jesus. He was a Samaritan, someone who was considered socially unclean by the Jewish population. The social outcast provided the example of faith and gratitude, and whose faith was praised by Jesus.
The ministry to the sick and dying was also central to the ministry of the Church. We see this specifically in the letter of James 5:13–15:
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
Historically the Church has played a leading role in Western civilization in the founding of hospitals and hospices for the care of the sick and dying. Much of this work has been done by religious communities of men and women founded for the specific purpose of ministry to the sick and the elderly.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has also realized that the promotion of human dignity has a social dimension which transcends the care of individual persons in need. Sinful social structures are creating conditions of persistent illnesses and short life expectancy among the poor of the world. This is the consequence of so many living without clean water, inadequate food, poor sanitary conditions, and lack of basic medicines to relieve common ailments.
The Christian response to the ills of the world today includes the concern for social reforms that address the basic living conditions of the poor and marginalized. They also include increasing the availability of health care so that those on the outskirts of society, the poor, the disenfranchised young people, and the elderly can experience the healing work of Christ.
Foundational to a Christian understanding of human dignity is the recognition that every person is created in the image and likeness of the living God and is redeemed by Jesus Christ. To be truly Christian in our beliefs and actions means treating them with dignity and justice and supporting reforms that lead to a more meaningful and healthy life worthy of the dignity of true children of God.
The common home of all men and women must continue to rise on the foundations of a right understanding of universal fraternity and respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic. This common home of all men and women must also be built on the understanding of a certain sacredness of created nature.
Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, 25 September 2015Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.