Where has the idea of “human dignity” come from? What is its intellectual genealogy? 

In evolutionary history, we understand all the ways in which a creature takes on slightly different form over time as the genetic structures adapt and change in an attempt to fit their circumstances. The same is true in exploring the genealogy of philosophical and theological history. What this means is that a simple phrase like “human dignity” carries within it the “genetic” memory of debate and discourse as men and women attempt to reach the essential truth about mankind that it attempts to speak to. What makes us distinct? Where is our dignity located? Why is it worth conserving? What does it ask of us?

David L. Schindler and Nicholas J. Healy, Jr. capture some of the history of the debate over human dignity in their book Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity: The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. An interesting excerpt:

The opposition between Murray [freedom, rights] and Lefebvre [truth, duty] appears to be, and in a crucial sense is, fundamental. … Regarding the operative dignity of man, Lefebvre says that it “is the result of the exercise of his faculties, essentially intelligence and will.” (20). “To the perfection of nature is added to man a supplementary perfection which will depend on his actions” (20). Man’s operative dignity, thus, “will consist in adhering in his actions to truth and goodness” (2). It follows for the Archbishop that “if man fails to be good or, if he adheres to error or evil, he loses his dignity” (20). In a word, for Lefebvre the dignity of the human person, in the operative sense, “does not consist in liberty apart from truth … Liberty is good and true to the extent to which it is ruled by truth”(22).

Lefebvre’s problem with the teaching of Dignitatis humanae, in sum, is that it roots the right to religious freedom not in this operative dignity of man, which consists in “the actual adherence of the person to the truth,” but rather in the ontological dignity of man, which “refers only to his free will” made in the image of God (33). In the view of the Declaration, “any man, regardless of his subjective dispositions (truth or error, good or bad faith), is inviolable in the actions by which he operates his ‘relation’ to God” (31). But, according to Lefebvre, this is false: “when man cleaves to error or moral evil, he loses his operative dignity, which therefore cannot be the basis for anything at all” (33).

Thus, regarding the logic of Lefebvre’s and Murray’s positions with respect to each other: on the one hand, Lefebvre recognizes that there is in man a “transcendental relation to God” and a “divine call” that founds man’s duty and dignity, and hence his right to search for the truth. But this relation and call have been profoundly affected by sin, to the extent that man’s original natural orientation to truth and God are now conceived as only “potential,” not yet in any proper sense actual or effective. Hence the operative dignity of man, the dignity that truly qualifies him as a subject of the right to religious freedom, is for Lefebvre tied to the exercise of his faculties of freedom and intelligence in the actual realization of truth and goodness in relation to God. Murray, on the other hand, locates human dignity, for purposes relevant to man’s being recognized as a subject of the right to religious freedom, in man’s exigence for exercising initiative, abstracted from man’s relation to the transcendent order of truth.