‘Dignitas Infinita’ and the Roots of Human Dignity

COMMENTARY: The exploration of what dignity means in different contexts will open new avenues for discussion, apologetics and evangelization.

Copies of ‘Dignitas Infinita’ lay on a table at the April 8 Vatican press conference about the new document.
Copies of ‘Dignitas Infinita’ lay on a table at the April 8 Vatican press conference about the new document. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez / EWTN News)

Dignitas Infinita, the new declaration of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), affirms that “every human person possesses an infinite dignity” and enumerates assaults on that dignity, with particular attention to new developments in “gender theory.” 

While the sections dealing with abortion, surrogacy and gender ideology contain nothing new, the April 8 text has received “widespread praise” from many Catholic commentators who were apprehensive after last year’s declaration, Fiducia Supplicans (on blessings for “irregular same-sex couples”), proved disastrous. 

The language on gender theory was unambiguous: “Therefore, all attempts to obscure reference to the ineliminable sexual difference between man and woman are to be rejected” (58). Not only would that preclude pharmacological or surgical interventions to suppress/alter sexual characteristics, but it would appear to cover the use of language, including forms of address and prayers. 

While direct, Dignitas Infinita did not quote some of the more forceful comments of Pope Francis, who has likened women who have abortions to mobsters who hire a hitman, or has said that “today the ugliest danger is gender ideology, which nullifies differences.”

While the document restates Catholic teaching on abortion, surrogacy and euthanasia, it includes other assaults on human dignity, including poverty, war, the travails of migrants, human trafficking, sexual abuse, violence against women, marginalization of the disabled and digital violence. 

Dignitas Infinita treats such matters in brief, taking its lead from the teaching of Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes, which considers “offenses against human dignity” — a list which includes “all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures … subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where individuals are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons” (27).

The more distinctive contribution of Dignitas Infinita is to examine the roots of human dignity and then to examine ways that it can be compromised, or even lost, in a certain sense.

“It is essential to point out that dignity is not something granted to the person by others based on their gifts or qualities, such that it could be withdrawn,” the declaration states (15). “Were it so bestowed, it would be given in a conditional and alienable way, and then the very meaning of dignity (however worthy of great respect) would remain exposed to the risk of being abolished. Instead, dignity is intrinsic to the person.”

Dignitas Infinita employs the classic definition of a person given by Boethius in the sixth century: “an individual substance of a rational nature.” Citing this as the “foundation of human dignity,” the document explains that:

“as an ‘individual substance,’ the person possesses ontological dignity. Having received existence from God, humans are subjects who ‘subsist’ — that is, they exercise their existence autonomously. The term ‘rational’ encompasses all the capacities of the human person, including the capacities of knowing and understanding, as well as those of wanting, loving, choosing, and desiring; it also includes all corporeal functions closely related to these abilities” (9).

Thus the human being has “ontological dignity,” meaning that it belongs to his or her very being, not conferred by others, or acquired by himself or herself. Dignitas Infinita refers several times to the 75th anniversary of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” last year. 

“From this perspective, we can understand how the word ‘dignity’ was used in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration, which speaks about ‘the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,’” Dignitas Infinita states (14). “Only this inalienable character of human dignity makes it possible to speak about human rights.”

Dignity that is ontological, inherent, inalienable, indelible — all are ways of expressing what is found in the Declaration of Independence, namely, that it is “self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

Dignitas Infinita declares that this dignity is knowable by “reason alone” (1), but divine Revelation makes that knowledge deeper still. Dignity is inherent because men and women are made in the image and likeness of God, loved and redeemed in Christ.

The document is aware that while there is widespread agreement that human dignity exists, “the phrase ‘the dignity of the human person’ risks lending itself to a variety of interpretations that can yield potential ambiguities and contradictions.” The declaration then offers:

“a fourfold distinction of the concept of dignity: ontological dignity, moral dignity, social dignity, and existential dignity. The most important among these is the ontological dignity that belongs to the person as such simply because he or she exists and is willed, created, and loved by God. Ontological dignity is indelible and remains valid beyond any circumstances in which the person may find themselves” (7).

Moral dignity refers “to how people exercise their freedom. While people are endowed with conscience, they can always act against it.” 

Thus it is possible for a man to degrade himself by his choices. Freedom can be used to sin, but sin degrades both the freedom and the dignity of the person sinning. Thus even voluntary choices — for example, a woman who willingly agrees to be a surrogate (50) — compromise dignity. 

In a passage relevant to the Holy Father’s teaching that the death penalty is “inadmissible,” Dignitas Infinita notes that: 

“history illustrates how individuals can commit inestimably profound acts of evil against others. Those who act this way seem to have lost any trace of humanity and dignity. This is where the present distinction can help us discern between the moral dignity that de facto can be ‘lost’ and the ontological dignity that can never be annulled. And it is precisely because of this latter point that we must work with all our might so that all those who have done evil may repent and convert” (7).

The death penalty is treated explicitly, as are prison conditions: 

“The death penalty … violates the inalienable dignity of every person, regardless of the circumstances. In this regard, we must recognize that the firm rejection of the death penalty shows to what extent it is possible to recognize the inalienable dignity of every human being and to accept that he or she has a place in this universe. If I do not deny that dignity to the worst of criminals, I will not deny it to anyone. … It is also fitting to reaffirm the dignity of those who are incarcerated, who often must live in undignified conditions. Finally, it should be stated that — even if someone has been guilty of serious crimes — the practice of torture completely contradicts the dignity that is proper to every human being” (34).

Dignitas Infinita includes “two other possible aspects of dignity to consider: social and existential.” 

Social dignity refers “to the quality of a person’s living conditions. For example, in cases of extreme poverty, where individuals do not even have what is minimally necessary to live according to their ontological dignity, it is said that those poor people are living in an ‘undignified’ manner” (8).

Finally, “existential dignity is the type of dignity implied in the ever-increasing discussion about a ‘dignified’ life and one that is ‘not dignified’”:

“For instance, while some people may appear to lack nothing essential for life, for various reasons, they may still struggle to live with peace, joy, and hope. In other situations, the presence of serious illnesses, violent family environments, pathological addictions, and other hardships may drive people to experience their life conditions as ‘undignified’ vis-à-vis their perception of that ontological dignity that can never be obscured. These distinctions remind us of the inalienable value of the ontological dignity that is rooted in the very being of the human person in all circumstances” (8).

Those contemplating suicide and euthanasia often speak of a “death with dignity,” by which they mean avoiding some loss of existential dignity. The dignity of existence has somehow become obscured for them. Suicide and euthanasia remain morally unacceptable, though, precisely because, even if existential dignity is compromised, ontological dignity always remains.

While the moral teaching of Dignitas Infinita will not surprise anyone familiar with Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life, the dignity of workers and the preferential option for the poor, the exploration of what dignity means in different contexts will open new avenues for discussion, apologetics and evangelization. 

The Catholic Church affirms human dignity. Now a discussion can be had about what it means, where it comes from and whether it can be lost. That discussion will not be quite infinite, but certainly enduring.