Monday 6. December 2021
COMECE Press 09/10/2009


Gdansk, October 8-11, 2009

Panel 2: The Human Person and its Rights - Vector and Destination of Solidarity

Maureen Junker-Kenny


In this panel on the resources which Catholic Social Teaching can offer to policy-makers and to the public debate of citizens in the different member states of the European Union, I will first lay out how human dignity is the joint reference point and criterium both of the social tradition of the Catholic Church, and of European Conventions (1). It is the source of the rights of each human person. The principles of Catholic Social Teaching which I will then examine are built on it: personhood in just institutions (2), solidarity (3) and subsidiarity (4).  I will look at the relationship between these three principles,[1] hoping to clarify the framework which the reflections of the following panels today and tomorrow will specify further: Panel 3 on the Family, Panel 4 on the distinctive European model of economics, Panel 5 on Solidarity and Panel 6 on The Global Common Good.


1. Human dignity as the source of rights of  each human person

I will first analyse the theological justification of the concept of human dignity (a), then

show which understanding of freedom corresponds to it in philosophical thinking (b), and finally exemplify it with a joint resolution from the last ten years of European debates on care for the dying (c).

a) Theological foundation of human dignity in imago Dei

Being made in the image of God is the foundation of human dignity. Gaudium et spes formulates:

"that which is truly freedom is an exceptional sign of the image of God in man... he might of his own accord seek his creator ... Man's dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within" (GS 17).[2]

Two points can be distinguished here:

  • Since every human person is made in the image of God, there is a fundamental equality between them, which needs to take shape in structures of justice. Thus, echoing Mater et Magistra (1961), that the human person is the "author, creator, and end" (MM 218-220), GS 63 draws the conclusion: "Man is the source, the focus and the end of all economic and social life."
  • We are images of God in our freedom. Here, the Second Vatican Council can draw on insights and proposals developed in more than 100 years of Catholic teaching on social matters. In the 1840s, a time of failed democratic revolutions and of the first industrial revolution carried out by workers with no rights, the German bishop W. E. v. Ketteler demanded both labour laws and the right to freedom of religion. When Vatican II in Gaudium et spes and in Dignitatis humanae and Pope John Paul II in core encyclicals made it their basis that the human person "might of his own accord seek his creator ... out of conscious and free choice" (GS 17), two shifts occurred:

(1)   The truth of the person becomes decisive, the personal free response to God's call which is not a truth that can be objectified.

(2)   At the same time, a new understanding of the state-church relationship has been inaugurated. The State is required to ensure freedom of religion, both negative and positive, individual and collective. But as the reverse side of freedom of religion, the State is accepted as neutral regarding world views.

So the very core of Christian anthropology, being made in the image of God, leads the Church to affirm human dignity.


b) Philosophical basis of human dignity: a transcendental, not an empirical understanding of freedom

While European documents in biomedical ethics still refer to "human dignity," North American ones typically invoke "autonomy."  Not every philosophical understanding of freedom, autonomy or liberty is compatible with human dignity.

It was a philosopher based in a town across the bay from Gdansk, Immanuel Kant in Königsberg, who defined dignity in contrast to everything on which a price can be put: "That which has no price has a dignity."[3] For him, the root of dignity is the human "capability for morality." This "capability" belongs to every human being and is present also when it is not actualised or expressed; so being in a state which makes it impossible to exercise this capability - being a patient in a coma, a person with a mental impairment, or an embryo - does not mean this human being does not have it in principle. It is not a feature that can be demonstrated empirically, it is a "condition of the possibility" of human conduct. "Capability" in connection with morality means underlying competence, not empirical performance. National legislation in bioethics within Europe is divided according to which concept of autonomy is used: a liberal Utilitarian understanding based on John Stuart Mill which equates autonomy with independence from others, or a deontological one based on Immanuel Kant's concept of "principled autonomy" also towards oneself.[4]

The foundational nature of human dignity based on the capability for principled autonomy is missed when it is interpreted

  • not as the source of rights, but itself merely as one right among others,
  • as a quality derived from, not the foundation of, self-determination,
  • as one among other criteria listed at the same empirical level, such as, "right to self-determination and their related rights to bodily integrity, privacy and dignity."

Only when it is related to a transcendental concept of freedom/autonomy that honours the conviction that we are not at our own disposal, can human dignity keep its pivotal function

  • in the UN and the European Conventions of Human Rights as their source,
  • as the basis for consensus formation on universal principles in pluralist societies,
  • as supreme principle towards which all others are oriented and by which positive law is to be judged.

One European document which has adopted this Kantian understanding of human dignity as the basis of a consensus across its many member states, is Recommendation 1418 of 1999 of the Council of Europe.

c) A transcendental concept of dignity as the basis of protecting the "Human Rights and Dignity of the Terminally Ill or Dying" (Council of Europe Rec 1418/99)

"(3)... Dignity is a consequence of being human. Thus a condition of being can by no means afford a human being its dignity nor can it ever deprive him or her of it.

(4)... Pain, suffering or weakness do not deprive a human being of his or her dignity.

(5)... One possesses dignity and its subsequent rights not due to the recognition of other human beings, but due to one's descent from them.

(6) An individual's dignity can be respected or violated, yet it can neither be granted nor lost. Respect for human dignity is independent of factual reciprocity. Respect for human dignity is also due where reciprocity is not, not yet or no longer possible (i.e. towards patients in a coma). To believe that human dignity may be divided or limited to certain stages or conditions of life is a form of disregard for human dignity."[5]

Thus, dignity is independent of a person's actual state, but it allows one to criticize empirical conditions insisting on equal dignity. It demands the basic structures of a society to be just as a matter of the right of the human person, not as an optional charitable action to some of them. I want to briefly characterise and link each of the three principles of Catholic Social Teaching.


2. Personhood in Just Institutions

"The Church in the course of centuries has worked out in the light of the Gospel principles of justice and equity demanded by right reason for individual and social life and also for international relations." (GS 63)

Several years before the American social philosopher John Rawls wrote his Theory of Justice (1971), had Gaudium et spes demanded "equality of opportunity" as something the basic structure of society owes to its citizens, not as a matter that can only be left to voluntary initiatives. The Bishops' Conferences at Continental (CELAM, Medellin 1968, Puebla, 1972) and at global level (Synod of Bishops) spelt out the Gospel's "preferential option for the poor" as a demand to the structures of society and recommended "cooperation with our separated Christian brethren for the promotion of  justice in the world" (1971, III).

It is spelt out so clearly in the epoch-making documents of the Catholic tradition at Papal, episcopal and ecumenical council levels that the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church (2004) only needs to spend two pages on it. In his most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (June 29, 2009) Pope Benedict XVI  invokes Pope Paul VI's encyclical Populorum Progressio (1967) which took Pope John XXIII's Mater et Magistra's call for justice at a global level and the defense of Human Rights in Pacem in Terris (1963) to the level of a right to development, appealing to peoples "to become the artisans of their (own) destiny" (PP 65).

It is necessary to emphasize the core principle of justice even in Europe against a neo-liberal trend to disconnect the concept of liberty from any embedding in intersubjective and structural responsibility. For example, is healthcare a right, or should caring for the poor and the sick be left to the private initiative of philanthropic sponsors and charitable citizens? A recent Consultation Paper of the Law Reform Commission in Ireland denied that there was a right to healthcare.[6] Against such moves towards de-solidarisation, it is an important part of solidarity - the second principle of Catholic Social Teaching -- to insist on the principle of justice.


3. The Principle of Solidarity

a) Its Historical Role  in Liberating Middle and Eastern Europe and Ending the Cold War

The citizens of Gdansk have been witnesses to the world-transforming power of solidarity. It is a privilege to be invited to the city where the Iron Curtain began to be unravelled through the courage of its workers to unite and resist even Martial Law.

b) At the Intersection of Two Biblical Orientations: Justice and Love

Solidarity as a principle stands at the intersection of two eminent biblical orientations: justice and love. It has both a personal and a structural dimension: as a virtue, it is a personal, voluntary commitment, as "social love," but it equally pertains to the structural orientation of a society towards the Common Good.

c) The Need for Mentalities of Solidarity in a Constitutional State

Legal theorists, philosophers, cardinals and cultural analysts have rediscovered a thesis formulated by the Constitutional lawyer E.-W. Böckenförde in the 1960s: The State cannot "create" the mentalities which it needs for its functioning and for its renewal, it has to "presuppose" them. The risk the State has taken for the sake of freedom is to trust that the indispensable task of fostering dispositions of solidarity and caring will be able to be realised by moral communities of self-organised citizens, among them the churches. The debate between Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and the philosopher Jürgen Habermas at the Catholic Academy in Munich 2004 on "The pre-political moral foundations of a free state" is about what sustains a free commitment to Human Rights and mutual cooperation in the convictions of citizens.[7]


4.      The Principle of Subsidiarity

Government "should, by its very nature, provide help (subsidium) to members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them "(QA, 79).

Formulated in Quadragesimo Anno (1931), this principle that originated in Catholic Social Teaching is now a basis for the distribution of responsibilities in the European Union. The Conference "Europe of the Regions" demanded it together with federalism as the two "architectural principles" of the Community, and the Maastricht Treaty (1992) endorsed it. At its social ethical origin, it implies two ideas:

  • that the human person in her dignity is self-motivated, striving of her own accord towards the good, bringing initiative and the desire for competence to her work, and
  • that there are different levels of organisation and "spheres" of justice (M. Walzer) with their own measures of excellence which are to be facilitated, not suppressed by the State, since the lower levels allow for greater direct participation.

Our conference is an example of subsidiarity in two respects:

- between representatives of the European community at its different levels, and those of the Roman Catholic Church;

- of subsidiarity within the Church, universal and particular, through members of  their national bishops' conferences, and their joint commission, the COMECE in the EU. The decisive documents written by national, Continental, and global Bishops' Conferences belong to Catholic Social Teaching just as much as Papal encyclicals and constitutions of the Second Vatican Council. The US bishops' letter on "Economic Justice for All" (1986), the CELAM conferences of Medellin and Puebla, the Synod of Bishops on Justice in the World (1971), "Work is the Key" from the Irish Catholic Bishops, the joint papers from the Catholic and the Protestant churches in Germany on social matters from the economy to Advance Care Directives are such examples of subsidiarity at work. It is put into practice when bishops communicate with the sensus fidelium of the people, and with the theological and interdisciplinary work of theologians.

To develop a culture of debate is one of the major services the Churches can provide to the local civil societies within Europe and to the emerging European public sphere. It will delimit the privilege of un-elected expert cultures to base legislation on "consultations with interested parties" and individualised written submissions, and instead provide a forum in which citizens can form and articulate convictions on the future shape of their societies, local and Continental.

Catholic Social Teaching as the reflected expression of one particular religious world view in the public sphere provides a critical framework that relates to each other

  • (1) The singularity of each person called by God
  • (2) Justice as a structural criterion required from the institutions of the political and economic system, not merely as a voluntary and optional initiative demanded of fellow-citizens
  • (3) Solidarity as the mentality the state cannot itself create
  • (4) Subsidiarity as the awareness of "spheres" of justice, each with different internal criteria and empowering practices which require debate on which orders of priorities will best contribute to realising human dignity in a participative democracy.

I would like to end not with the technical terms of a sustained intellectual tradition of social thinking, but with the poetic words of the Polish winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, Wistawa Szymborska. Her poem Possibilities (Möglichkeiten) expresses her preferences: for concrete solidarity, for the lumen naturale, for exceptions from the rule, for sharing the earth in peace, for imagination and hope for meaning - close enough to classical documents such as Gaudium et spes.

"Ich bin mir lieber als Menschenfreund

denn als Freund der Menschheit...

Lieber behaupte ich nicht,

der Verstand sei an allem schuld.

Mir sind die Ausnahmen lieber...

Ich mag die Erde lieber in Zivil.

Die eroberten Länder sind mir lieber als die erobernden...

Die Hölle des Chaos ist mir lieber als die Hölle der


Die Märchen der Brüder Grimm sind mir lieber als


Ich mag die Nullen lieber lose

als zur Zahl formiert.

Die Zeit der Insekten ist mir lieber als die der Sterne...

Lieber frage ich nicht, wie lang noch und wann.

Lieber ziehe ich selbst diese Möglichkeit in Betracht,

dass das Sein einen Sinn hat."[8]


[1] For an excellent account, see A. Anzenbacher, Christliche Sozialethik: Einführung und Prinzipien (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1998), 178-224.

1.       [2] The Leuven moral theologian Johan Verstraeten considers the pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes "a landmark in the development of catholic social teaching" and as having "paved the way towards a more open attitude in which social analysis and diversity of context are taken into account." "Catholic Social Thought as Discernment," in Logos. A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 8 (2005) 94-111, 94.

[3] "In the kingdom of ends, everything has either a price or a dignity. If it has a price, something else can be put in its place as an equivalent; if it is exalted above all price and so admits of no equivalent, then it has a dignity... that which constitutes the sole condition under which anything can be an end in itself has not merely a relative value - that is, a price - but has intrinsic value - that is, dignity" (BA 77). I. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H.J. Patton (New York: Harper, 1964, 102-3.

[4] Cf. the Cambridge philosopher Onora O'Neill, Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics (Cambridge: CUP, 2002). For her, the progressive reduction first of Kant's "principled autonomy" to Mill's individualism, and then of Mill to consumer choice, marks a "breathtaking simplification of ethical justification in and beyond medicine. The single requirement of respect for individual autonomy, under a strikingly weak interpretation that demands no more than respect for informed consent requirements, is seen as a complete basis for all ethical justification in medicine (perhaps also in science and biotechnology)." She sees it as an ill-thought out move to replace Kant with Mill: Once "we interpret autonomy simply as independence from others, the tension between autonomy and trust is unsurprising" since "trust belongs with relationships and obligations; individual autonomy with rights and adversarial claims." (ix)  She points out its discrepancy to the real needs of patients "who need competent and voluntary help from others" (48).




[5]Recommendation 1418/1999, on the "Protection of Human Dignity and the Human Rights of the Dying and the Terminally Ill" accepted in June 1999 by a large majority of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (with only 6 countervotes). The Council of Ministers welcomed on several occasions the recommendation, and the European Court of Human Rights based its decision in the case of Diane Pretty and other cases explicitly on this recommendation. The recommendation can be found on-line under:, the explanatory memorandum under


[6] It immediately qualified requests for positive treatment measures expressed in Advance Care Directives as a "darker side" of the autonomy argument (p. 14) which has "'exorably extended to become a claim of a right to health care,' ushering in a new era of patient consumerism" (p. 16). It deems it "unlikely that the courts would recognise a general right to health care" (p. 21) in Ireland.


[7] Cf. J. Habermas/J. Ratzinger, The Dialectics of Secularization. On Reason and Religion, trans. B. McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006)

[8] W. Szymborska, Die Gedichte, 257f.


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