Human Dignity, Human Rights, and the Image and Likeness of God

Nathaniel Wood is the associate director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, where he serves as managing editor of The Journal of Orthodox Christian Studies and the blog Public Orthodoxy.

The Vatican declaration Dignitas Infinita bears witness to the somewhat ambiguous relationship between human dignity and human rights. The text itself affirms what became the prevailing understanding in the latter part of the twentieth century, enshrined in seminal documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: namely, that rights “derive from the inherent dignity of the human person.” Although this treatment of dignity as the basis of rights bears Catholic influence through the contributions of figures like Jacques Maritain, the documents themselves tend to employ a minimalist concept of dignity. By strategically avoiding philosophical or religious specificity, the documents gain broad support from those who hold to various conceptions of dignity, allowing signatories to affirm human rights based on their own culturally specific conceptions.

Challenges arise, however, once one moves beyond formal affirmations of dignity and assigns it particular content. Varying conceptions of dignity lend themselves to different, sometimes competing, approaches to rights. This is especially true with older theological accounts of dignity that were, historically, alternatives to emerging liberal accounts of individual rights. In that case, dignity, precisely by functioning as the foundation of rights, makes possible an “internal” critique of certain human rights trends that religious critics consider wedded to secular individualism.

This problem is on display in Dignitas Infinita. Celebrating dignity as the basis of rights, the declaration also contests how dignity is “misused to justify an arbitrary proliferation of new rights” (para. 25). Particularly, it rejects—here echoing a common trope in theological critiques of liberalism—approaches to rights rooted in “an isolated and individualistic freedom” according to which the obligatory force of rights-claims is grounded in little more than individuals’ “subjective desires and propensities.” Against this “subjectivism,” Dignitas Infinita advances an objective basis for rights, drawing on the older Catholic theology of dignity linked to an objective moral order. The key operative theological concept, in this case, is humanity’s creation in God’s “image and likeness.”

Its use of this image/likeness scheme puts Dignitas Infinita in the company of another recent Christian engagement with human rights, namely the Russian Orthodox Church’s (ROC’s) 2008 statement on its Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom, and Rights. This document, like Dignitas Infinita, utilizes the theology of image and likeness to challenge subjectivist and individualist approaches to rights. Here the image/likeness scheme “moralizes” rights, linking dignity to supra-individual standards of moral behavior and in turn contests rights-claims associated with behaviors the Church considers morally objectionable.

Basic Teaching, infamously, is part of the ROC’s larger anti-liberal and anti-Western agenda, which seeks to curtail rights allegedly alien to Russia’s supposed “traditional values,” including LGBTQ+ rights. The general tenor of Dignitas Infinita is far less cynical than that of Basic Teaching, but given the former’s critique of “gender theory,” the two documents together raise questions about the compatibility between a conception of dignity based in the image/likeness scheme and certain rights for sexual and gender minorities increasingly embraced by Western countries.

In both documents, the image/likeness scheme undergirds what Dignitas Infinita calls a “dynamic perspective” on dignity centered on moral growth. In short, some Christian theologies distinguish between the “image” and the “likeness” of God in the Genesis creation narrative (Genesis 1:26). Whereas the image refers to the human person’s innate kinship with God that makes communion with God possible, the likeness is an acquired similarity to God, the human person’s actual participation in God’s perfection—what is sometimes called “deification” or theosis. The image, though innate, is teleological; it is the person’s orientedness toward becoming like God through free response to the objectively good.

When dignity is mapped onto this scheme, it also assumes a teleological character: dignity is both intrinsic to one’s humanity but also something that one “grows” through moral choices. This “dynamic” view thus reflects a polysemy already present in popular usage of the word dignity. We can use the word to describe, for instance, a person’s worth or high status, which they possess simply by being who they are, or we can use it to refer to a manner of behavior befitting that status (e.g., to conduct oneself “with dignity”).

In this vein, the ROC’s Basic Teaching distinguishes between the innate dignity of the divine image and so-called “dignified life” (para. I.2–3). While dignity is strictly speaking inalienable, Basic Teaching also specifies that a person “preserves his God-given dignity and grows it only if he lives in accordance with moral norms.” By contrast, habitual sin, or leading an undignified life, “darkens” innate dignity so that it becomes “hardly discernible” (para. I.5).

Dignitas Infinita employs similar notions. All persons possess the inalienable dignity of the image, but they “attain their highest dignity” by growing into the likeness “to the extent that each person responds to the good” (para. 22). Immorality, however, “can wound and obscure human dignity,” even if, strictly speaking, it does not erase it.

Thus, in both cases, the teleological orientation of one’s innate dignity is “fulfilled” by one’s opting to lead a morally dignified life, and it is frustrated by the decision to live immorally. As moral theology, this is hardly objectionable. The difficulties arise when this dynamic dignity is treated as the ontological basis of human rights, as is done in both Basic Teaching and Dignitas Infinita. Here is the rub: if rights derive from a dignity that is only fully realized through objectively moral choice, this would seem to place rights, ultimately, into the service of a substantive theological ethics. But this is at odds with the religious and ethical neutrality to which liberalism, and its rights doctrine, ostensibly aspires.

Basic Teaching makes the consequence quite clear: rights-claims can be limited when they conflict with morality. As Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill has stated, “Human rights must not conflict with moral norms that are recognized by most people as desirable behavior.” Yet the moral orientation of dignity makes it possible to frame restrictions on certain rights-claims not as a rejection of human rights but as their affirmation. If rights uphold dignity, and dignity is grown through moral choices, then the Patriarch can conclude that “people have the right to be shielded” from immoral influences that would threaten dignity—presumably justifying, for instance, Russia’s legal restrictions against “gay propaganda.” Taken to an extreme, this logic could support Patriarch Kirill’s infamous 2022 Forgiveness Sunday sermon pointing to pride parades as justification for the invasion of Ukraine, which the Patriarch frames as a “preservation of the right . . . to stand on the side of divine commandments.”

Dignitas Infinita is not a tool of Russian geopolitical machinations, as the ROC’s Basic Teaching is, and it should be read as a more honest effort at Christian reflection on human rights. However, its argumentative similarity to Basic Teaching—its reliance on the image/likeness scheme and its use of a substantive conception of dignity to challenge certain liberal rights—does reinforce the uncertainty surrounding the dignity-rights relationship. If human rights derive from human dignity, then dignity cannot only be a formal placeholder. The substance of dignity cannot but shape how we understand the nature of rights and negotiate competing rights-claims.

The question that remains is to what extent a Christian theological account of dignity based in the image and likeness of God is reconcilable with liberal accounts.

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