A Life of Dignity for All: The Foundation of Sustainable Development

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A Life of Dignity for All: The Foundation of Sustainable Development

Anthonia Bolanle Ojo, SSMA.

The recent discussion on ecological issues is based on the fact that, even though changes have always taken place, today, the changes are more numerous and more rapid. And in many instances, they are more radical, challenging the dignity of the human person. Hence the Church, and even the whole world at this particular time speak of sustainable development. Sustainable development is the organizing principle for meeting human development goals while at the same time sustaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services upon which the economy and society depend. The desired result is a state of society where living and conditions and resources continue to meet human needs without undermining the integrity and stability of the natural system.

The foundations for the Catholic Church’s engagement with sustainable development are found in the Church’s doctrine of the goodness of creation and in her firm resolve to defend the dignity of each human being, especially the poor and the vulnerable. They also derive from her belief that people have a responsibility to work for the well-being of all humanity. The dignity of every human person, independent of ethnicity, creed, gender, age, religion, etc. is the foundation of Catholic Social Teaching (CST).

CST teaches that each and every human being has value, is worth great respect and must be free from any exploitation. Respect for human dignity in the Church’s discussion about sustainable development, therefore, implies commitment to creating conditions under which individuals can develop a sense of self-worth and security. True dignity comes with an assurance of one’s ability to rise to the challenges of the human situation. Such assurance is unlikely to be fostered in people who have to live with poverty, hunger, oppression and injustice. All these make it impossible to live a life commensurate with human dignity. However, a safe, clean and self-sufficient environment can provide human beings with all that is necessary in order to express their dignity and to live in genuine freedom and solidarity with each other. Therefore, the Church demands the provision of resources necessary for optimum human development and even human participation in their own development.

CST teaches that societal development must respect the inherent dignity of the human person. Through the principle of the universal destination of earthly goods, CST holds that the resources of the earth are provided by God for every human being. Hence it is the right of people to help themselves to the earth’s resources in order to defend their dignity. Also by the principle of subsidiarity, the Church teaches that people must be allowed to contribute to social development. This implies that it is an affront to human dignity for a government or any agency to prevent people from doing what they can do for their sustainable development. As created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27), human beings have by their very existence and inherent value, worth and distinction, and are also creative; through the resources of the earth, they can transform their own lives and their society.

This above indicates that any form of development and societal transformation must take note and respect the human person who is the beneficiary of development. Gaudium et Spes 26 clearly states that: “The social order and its development must invariably work to the benefit of the human person, since the order of things is to be subordinate to the order of persons and not the other way around.” This shows why the Church has inspired service to others, particularly to the most poor and vulnerable.

To show the urgency of sustainable development in our contemporary society, it is instructive to know that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, commonly known as the Sustainable Development Goals, are worldwide aspirations for human and societal development adopted in September 2015 at the United Nations General Assembly. The Goals’ preamble shows a remarkable synergy with the guiding principles of CST: “As we embark on this great collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind. Recognizing that the dignity of the human person is fundamental, we wish to see the goals and targets met for all nations and peoples and for all segments of society. And we will edeavour to reach the furthest behind first.”[1] The Goals also point out that, in the face of climate change and environmental degradation sustainable development cannot be achieved until we can deliver for all people equitably, and enable all people to reach their potential. Also that sustainable development can be achieved with partnerships among the public sector, private secular organizations and religious groups.  Instead of legal coercion, moral conviction and values are the driving forces behind the joint action that the goals propose. These can increase the overall impact beyond that of any organization acting alone.

As in CST, it is clear that the affirmation of the ‘dignity of the human person’ is at the center of the Sustainable Development Goals. The Catholic notion of the preferential option for the poor is aligned with the goals’ endeavor “to reach the furthest behind the first.”  It is also interesting to know that at the launch of Sustainable Development Goals, Pope Francis endorsed the goals, calling the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development “an important sign of hope.”[2]

In conclusion, sustainable development has a place in the celebration of Christmas. God came to the world in His Son Jesus Christ to affirm the dignity of the human person. This is clear in the words of Pope Francis that, where God is born, hope is born, persons regain their dignity. Yet even today, great numbers of men and women are deprived of their human dignity, and, like the child Jesus, they suffer cold, poverty, and rejection. We pray that our closeness to the Word Incarnate may be felt by those who are most vulnerable, such as the internally displaced persons, the prisoners, the sick and homebound, the elderly, victims of human trafficking and the drug trade and women who suffer violence (cf. 2015 Traditional Urbi et Orbi Message on Christmas Day).


[1] United Nations, The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming all Lives and Protecting the Planet. Synthesis Report of the Secretary General on the Post 2015 Agenda. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/majorgroups/post22015/synthesisreport, 15/12/2017.

[2] United Nations, Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld, 15/12/2017.


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