What Is Humanity’s Infinite Dignity?

COMMENTARY: We are not infinite as God is infinite, of course, but our dignity is not quantifiable and is indeed radically open-ended, as we are raised by way of participation into God’s inner life.

Pope John Paul II waves to the crowd in Le Bourget during his official visit in France on June 1, 1980. Later in the year he would travel to Germany and speak of 'infinite dignity' during an Angelus address on Nov. 16, 1980 in Osnabrück. This address inspired the name of the recent papal document.
Pope John Paul II waves to the crowd in Le Bourget during his official visit in France on June 1, 1980. Later in the year he would travel to Germany and speak of 'infinite dignity' during an Angelus address on Nov. 16, 1980 in Osnabrück. This address inspired the name of the recent papal document. (photo: Georges Bendrihem / Getty)

When I was in Rome last October covering the Synod on Synodality I had dinner with a rather well-known priest friend who is frequently, but mildly, critical of Pope Francis. 

I asked him why his critique of the Pope is not as harsh as some others who accuse this Pope of heresy. He responded by saying that “it is important to keep in mind that we want an intact papacy left in place once this Pope is gone.” Therefore, he continued, accusations of papal heresy from various sectors, mainly on the internet, serve no valuable purpose and actually work to undermine the legitimacy of the office itself. 

All popes face some legitimate criticism, and that is to be expected. And some popes perhaps deserve strong criticism when they make serious pastoral and juridical missteps. But to accuse a pope of heresy is another matter entirely and should be reserved for only the gravest and most glaring of situations. 

I was reminded of those statements this past week, after the release of the new declaration from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), entitled Infinite Dignity (Dignitas Infinita), which was greeted almost immediately by all manner of harsh criticisms directed primarily at the document’s opening assertion that human beings have an “infinite dignity” that cannot be lost even if we sin. 

Accusations of heresy were immediately tossed around on social media from various pundits, the main claim of which was that it is contrary to the faith to assert that human beings have an infinite dignity. Their claim is that only God can have infinite dignity since he alone is an infinite being, and humans, being finite, cannot possess any trait that is infinite. 

There is no need to go into great detail comparing the various theologies in play; because when taken in the full context of the entire document, it is quite clear that it is in no way claiming that human beings are ontologically “infinite” in the same way that God is. To assert such a thing would be, of course, blasphemous and idolatrous. 

Therefore, a charitable reading of what the text means by “infinite dignity” would look deeper and see that what is being alleged is that because we are made in God’s image and likeness, and because we are loved into existence by an infinitely loving God, then our dignity is in truth infinitely “immeasurable” in an unbounded sense. We are not infinite as God is infinite, but our dignity is not quantifiable and is indeed radically open-ended, as we are raised by way of participation into God’s inner life. 

Indeed, in Section 6, the text quotes Pope Francis, who directly links our dignity with the fact that we are loved by an infinite love: “From the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has invited the Church to “believe in a Father who loves all men and women with an infinite love, realizing that ‘he thereby confers upon them an infinite dignity.’” 

This is hardly an assertion that our dignity is infinite as a stand-alone property that exists in a competitive stance over and against God’s dignity. Our dignity is clearly then only “infinite” in an analogous and thoroughly derivative sense and implies that our dignity is a reflection of the divine glory. 

Even St. Thomas Aquinas affirms in the Summa Theologiae (ST) that things other than God can have a “relative infinity.”

In a wonderful essay on his Substack, Taylor Patrick O’Neill of Thomas Aquinas College makes this point beautifully: 

“It is worth noting that St. Thomas explicitly says in ST, q. 7, a.2: ‘Things other than God can be relatively infinite … but not absolutely infinite … .’ The example that he gives is wood being finite in its own form but infinite in regard to the number of shapes it can take on. But this distinction can be applied to many different ways in which a created thing can have properties called infinite.”

Furthermore, the title of this document comes from a statement made by Pope St. John Paul II in an Angelus address on Nov. 16, 1980, in Osnabrück, Germany (cited in Footnote 1 of Dignitatis Infinita). In that address, John Paul stated: “In Jesus Christ, God has shown us in an unsurpassed way how he loves each human being and thereby bestows upon him infinite dignity.” The German words he uses, which have been usually translated as “infinite,” are unendliche Würde, which can also mean, as Jared Staudt states, “unending or unbounded dignity.” 

The fact that Dignitas Infinita grounds its title in this statement from John Paul gives us a strong indication that it is in this sense of “unending or unbounded” that it too is using the term “infinite.” Therefore, the various condemnations from various sources of the document for its use of the term “infinite” seem to me to be hyperbolic and uncharitable. 

Furthermore, we should not look a gift horse in the mouth. This text reaffirms in strong language many traditional Catholic teachings that many thought it was actually going to undermine and, therefore, awaited its release with trepidation.

That is not to say that the text is without its faults and cannot in any way be criticized. I am thinking here of its appeal to the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights as a bit anachronistic since the United Nations clearly no longer adheres to such views. There is also the issue of the death penalty, which I oppose, but for different reasons than given in the document. But as one who has himself at times been critical of various aspects of this puzzling papacy (e.g., the Synod on Synodality and Fiducia Supplicans), I think it is important that our analysis of the various documents from the DDF be sober, intelligent, charitable and without a broader agenda. Otherwise, we run the risk of appearing as mere agenda-driven rhetoricians engaged in blunderbuss scattershot attacks from the hip.

But claiming that human beings have an “infinite dignity” is not in my view one of those faults. And I think that the attempt to spin it into some kind of a heretical statement arises out of a desire to criticize for the sake of criticizing in order to undermine the document as a whole. 

I am reminded in all of this of a character from the wonderful book by C.S. Lewis called The Great Divorce. In this fantasy tale of heaven and hell, a woman from hell who has taken the bus ride to the vestibule of heaven meets up with someone from heaven who greets her and invites her to repent. Her chief sin was one of grumbling. The narrator of the story wonders why someone would be in hell for mere grumbling. But he is told that she was not a mere grumbler, but had, in fact, become one with her grumbles. In short, she was nothing but a grumble now. 

Let us take that to heart, and let our criticisms be out of charity and grounded in a measured sobriety. If not, we run the risk of becoming nothing but a grumble.

(I would like to thank my friend Andrew Likoudis for his help in the research for this essay.)

Pope Francis (R) embraces new Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich after he appointed him during an Ordinary Public Consistory for the creation of new cardinals on October 5, 2019 at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

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