Upon hearing of the Catholic Church’s bioethical positions, many secularists are likely to react with abject horror. Faced with such vehement objections to his beliefs, a Catholic wishing to discuss these matters with a secular friend may easily fall into despair. Fortunately, however, there is a clear way forward: Despite having been raised in a post-Christian culture, today’s secularist unwittingly accepts more Catholic tenets than he realizes. The Catholic’s job, therefore, is to show him that Catholicism upholds his beliefs better than does his own ideology. When it comes to bioethics, the best way forward is to appeal to the concept of dignity.

This concept has a strong prevalence in a large variety of secular literatureprobably due in large part to the influence of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2009, Nora Jacobson conducted a large-scale, multidisciplinary literature review, and found that the term ‘dignity’ is usually used as a principle that refers to the “universal quality of value that belongs to every human being simply by virtue of being human.” Despite this apparent agreement on what the term refers to, very little agreement is established concerning how the term should be applied. Ethical literature, for example, contains many instances in which practices as varied as euthanasia, embryo adoption, fair wages, and proper treatment of the elderly are all defended on the basis of dignity.

In reaction to this lack of consensus on how to apply the concept of dignity to ethics, a new school of thought has arisen the existence of which Steven Pinker attributes in his “The Stupidity of Dignity” to Ruth Macklin’s editorial “Dignity is a Useless Concept.” Macklin believes that the multifarious usage of dignity in contemporary discourse has rendered the term useless. Furthermore, on those rare occasions when dignity is used meaningfully, it simply refers to a person’s “rational thought and action.” It follows that recognition of a person’s dignity amounts to nothing more than respect for that person’s autonomy. For Macklin and her followers, the concept of the ‘dignity of the dead’ is utterly meaningless, since the dead can neither think nor choose. Similarly, there is no reason not to experiment on human embryos, or use them to help sterile couples have children, since, those embryos lacking autonomy, concern for their dignity is unnecessary.

In the contemporary Catholic realm, however, there exists a profound unity in the understanding and application of the concept of dignity. Donum Vitae evokes dignity in order to stress that equal respect must be given to man’s animality and rationality, on which basis the 1987 document argues against such practices as experimentation on human embryos. John Paul II maintains this understanding of dignity in Evangelium Vitae, but adds to it a social emphasis, deploring poverty and racism on the grounds that they violate the dignity of the person. Pope Benedict XVI’s writings on dignity stress the person’s capacity to know and love God, which entail certain spiritual and material needs that must be met in order for him to achieve that end. Finally for the current Pontiff, we hear of dignity mostly in the context of work, which “allows the individual to be fully realized as such, with his or her attitudes and intellectual, creative and manual capacities,” and which “wounds” dignity when absent.

This variety in usage represents not a cacophony of appeals to different concepts that all fall under the same term, but rather to the deepness of the Catholic understanding of the dignity of the person and the multiplicity of ways in which this can be expressed. For all the thinkers above, dignity is first and foremost a consequence of man’s being created in the image and likeness of God. But for all of them it also involves man’s being created with a particular nature, one of both body and soul, neither of which can be overemphasized to the detriment of the other. Finally, in this strain of thought dignity refers to man’s capacity to know and love God, which itself commands from every other person a respect for the needs that it entails. It is on this understanding of dignity that the Church defends her teaching on bioethical issues, such as the protection of life from conception until natural death, the right of each person to be born through the marital union of a man and a woman, and the prohibition of using human embryos for scientific experimentation.

Although it may seem at first that the Church’s understanding of dignity is irreconcilable with the way dignity is understood by modern secularists, significant overlap exists. The Catholic and the secularist can both agree that dignity refers to something special about the human person. They can also agree that this special something is the source of human rights. It is unlikely, however, that the secularist will have a developed understanding of what this special something is. If pressed for a definition of dignity, the secularist will be forced to think about what it is that makes each human person special. Though he may be tempted to abandon his devotion to dignity when faced with the vapidity of his understanding, he will be unlikely to do so, as such would force him to desert the concept that served as a basis for his understanding of human rights. It is more likely that he will reflect upon humanity and conclude that what makes a person unique and special is his ability to understand and direct his own lifehis rationality.

At this point, the secularist is a step closer to the Catholic understanding of dignity, but another difficulty is likely to surface. Though the modern secularist lives in a post-Christian society, he also lives in a post-Cartesian society that finds it difficult to believe in man as a body-soul unity. The secularist is therefore likely to understand ‘respect for rational nature’ not as Catholics do, but as Macklin does; that is, he will begin to uphold a ‘respect for autonomy.’

But there is still a way forward. ‘Respect for autonomy’ shows itself to be remarkably flimsy if taken as a fundamental ethical principle. To start, in order to act autonomously, a person must be of sound mind and body. But from this it follows that a person would lose his most fundamental right while asleep, ill, or drunk. In order to be consistent, therefore, it would be more sound to argue that a person’s rationality ought to be respected. But if this is taken to mean respect only for the external manifestations of a person’s rational thinking, then there has been no increase in consistency. It would make more sense to argue that a human being is rational by nature. But this point is only a step away from the Catholic understanding of dignityall that is needed is some reflection on the body-soul unity of man and the origin of his rationality.

Though I have here traced but one example, possibilities for this sort of dialogue abound. By finding the Christian seeds that modern culture has placed in the hearts of even the most ardent secularists, the Catholic can encourage them to grow by showing the secularist the richness of the tradition whence they came.