Vol 22 No 3 2015

Dignity Beyond Rights

Tina Beattie


This article considers recent debates and conflicts between the Holy See and secular voices at the United Nations with regard to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and the language of gender. While recognising that Pope Francis has ushered in a more conciliatory and open approach to such issues, deep differences still remain over the nature and extent of rights in relation to issues of sexuality, procreation and gender. The author asks if the language of dignity rather than rights might afford a better perspective from which to approach these issues. Focusing in particular on the maternal capacity of the female body, the author explores the concept of dignity in Catholic social teaching, in engagement with Martha Nussbaum's feminist interpretation of Amartya Sen's capabilities approach. The author argues that the shared Aristotelian perspectives of Nussbaum and Catholic social teaching contribute to a rich dialogue between the two, but ultimately the Catholic understanding of dignity surpasses that of any secular theory of human rights or dignity, including that of Nussbaum, because it makes human dignity ontological and not dependent on either citizenship or rights.