Nick Spencer describes what happened when church teaching on human dignity clashed with Christian practice.
What canon law does from the late 11th century onwards is systematise Roman law with church teaching, and it introduces concepts of church teaching relating to the ultimate value of human beings with a Roman juristic framework, if you like, and starts then to protect that human dignity.
Now of course, we’re still talking about the Middle Ages here, and you will be able to find innumerable examples of human dignity that was not only not protected but was actively and deliberately violated, and indeed by the church. But the principle is there – and more importantly, it’s a principle that is articulated right at the centre of the political spectrum. So these aren’t, as it were, what we would latterly call radical political agitators saying that human beings should be respected; this was church teaching that somehow said that all people, irrespective of their capacity or their wealth, demanded some kind of respect. And in that regard it kind of lets the genie out of the bottle – because if you have the church saying this, backing it up with Scripture and theology, if you like, you get to a kind of philosophical judo where the weight of church teaching throws or challenges at least the actual practice of Christians and churches.
So you get this idea of human dignity being voiced at the centre of, as it were, the political world. And from that point you build out the idea that if humans have a dignity, if humans are accountable finally to God, if God is the source of their value, you need to be pretty careful about how you treat them.