Dignitas Infinita Defends Intrinsic Human Dignity

Anybody who has taken the time to read some of the great literature of pagan times will quickly be struck by something: while many of the ancient, pagan authors do seem to have a strong sense of moral purpose, nevertheless, human life is often treated astonishingly cheaply.

As one reads The Iliad and the Odyssey, for instance, the bodies pile up. One of the epithets used by Homer for the character Odysseus is the “raider of cities,” i.e. a man who is renowned for his ability to storm a city and steal the residents’ goods, while killing the men and enslaving the women and children. In fact, at one point in the text, Odysseus openly boasts of doing precisely this.

word dignity highlighted in dictionary

The coming of Christ, and the spread of Christianity, clearly did not extinguish the human tendency towards barbarity and violence. Even Christendom was often riven by brutal wars. And yet, one of the most potent forces that drew early converts to Christianity was the radically different way the early Christians treated not just one another, but strangers, including (indeed, especially) the weak and vulnerable.

Those people whom pagan society deemed the most worthless and dispensable, were precisely the people that the early Christians expressly showered their attentions on. From the beginning Christians not only expended immense resources in rescuing and caring for abandoned infants, but also the sick, the dying, and those who were enslaved or imprisoned.

They did so based upon an unshakeable conviction that every human being possesses immense “human dignity”—a dignity that they had simply by virtue of being a human made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27, Catechism, nos. 356 & 1702). Furthermore, this dignity was something that nobody could take away from them, and which nobody could lose, regardless of what they had done, or any other characteristics they might have.


Dignitas Infinita Affirms Inalienable Dignity

This radical idea—i.e., that humans possess an intrinsic dignity that they can never lose—is the focus of a brand-new document from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

Dignitas infinita is receiving considerable attention in the media, due to the fact that it reaffirms long-standing Catholic teaching on certain controversial issues, such as transgenderism, abortion, euthanasia, and surrogacy. I will turn my attention to what Dignitas infinita has to say about these issues shortly. However, it is worth highlighting some of the core ideas on which the document is built, and on which it primarily focuses.

As the very first line of the document explains, “Every human person possesses an infinite dignity, inalienably grounded in his or her very being, which prevails in and beyond every circumstance, state, or situation the person may ever encounter.”

In a key passage, the CDF explains how, although human beings have always possessed this intrinsic, inalienable dignity, the incarnation of Christ underlined this dignity in an extraordinary way. “By uniting himself with every human being through his Incarnation, Jesus Christ confirmed that each person possesses an immeasurable dignity simply by belonging to the human community; moreover, he affirmed that this dignity can never be lost” (no. 19), write the authors.


Church Teaching on Human Dignity Changed History

Furthermore, the document adds, in all of His actions, Christ drew attention to the dignity of every human being in a way that was truly radical, and unprecedented in the history of human civilization. As the document states:

By proclaiming that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor, the humble, the despised, and those who suffer in body and spirit; by healing all sorts of illnesses and infirmities, even the most dramatic ones, such as leprosy; by affirming that whatever is done to these individuals is also done to him because he is present in them: in all these ways, Jesus brought the great novelty of recognizing the dignity of every person, especially those who were considered “unworthy.” This new principle in human history—which emphasizes that individuals are even more “worthy” of our respect and love when they are weak, scorned, or suffering, even to the point of losing the human “figure”—has changed the face of the world. It has given life to institutions that take care of those who find themselves in disadvantaged conditions, such as abandoned infants, orphans, the elderly who are left without assistance, the mentally ill, people with incurable diseases or severe deformities, and those living on the streets (no. 19).

The document goes on to clarify that there are various ways in which the term “dignity” can be applied to a person. However, what the CDF is most interested in Dignitas infinita is so-called “ontological dignity.” This ontological dignity “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” (no. 7). In other words, this dignity can never be diminished, lost, given, or taken away. It is, rather, “intrinsic to the person.”


Gender Theory is Incompatible with Human Dignity

Considerable anxiety has been sparked in the mainstream media and leftist circles by the fact that the document goes on to apply the concept of ontological dignity to various contemporary issues, and in the process strongly reaffirms long-standing Church teaching on those issues.

One section that has received considerable attention is the section on so-called “gender theory.” And not without reason. The authors of the document clearly understood that this topic required a strong focus, given the meteoric rise of gender theory as one of the most dominant ideas of our time. Dignitas infinita leaves little room for doubt about the fact that progressive gender theory is completely incompatible with an authentic understanding of human dignity.

The CDF notes that as human beings, our purpose is to accept all aspects of our existence as a gift from God. This includes our God-given sex. “Desiring a personal self-determination, as gender theory prescribes, apart from this fundamental truth that human life is a gift, amounts to a concession to the age-old temptation to make oneself God, entering into competition with the true God of love revealed to us in the Gospel” (no. 57), states Dignitas infinita.

The authors quote Pope Francis, who states in Amoris laetitia that “creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift. At the same time, we are called to protect our humanity, and this means, in the first place, accepting it and respecting it as it was created” (no. 60).

“[A]ll attempts to obscure reference to the ineliminable sexual difference between man and woman are to be rejected” (no. 59), continues the document. Most importantly, this stricture applies to so-called “sex change” surgeries, which are essentially a rebellion against the givenness of one’s body.


Dignitas Infinita Condemns Offenses Against Life

Quoting the Second Vatican Council, Dignitas infinita notes that “‘all offenses against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and willful suicide’ must be recognized as contrary to human dignity” (no. 34).

The authors go on to explain that the Council also condemned torture, as well as “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” (no. 34).

One aspect of Dignitas infinita that is worth highlighting, is how many times it quotes other popes and councils. Some thinkers have worried that documents produced during this pontificate have tended largely to quote other documents by Pope Francis, rather than drawing upon the immense riches of magisterial teaching, especially the enormous corpus of rich theological writings by Francis’ two predecessors. In Dignitas infinita, however, St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI are all quoted many times, as well as other saints and authorities.

Dignitas infinita rightly quotes Pope St. John Paul II on the topic of abortion. This sainted pope has often been referred to as the “pope of life” because of his rich thinking on how to create a Culture of Life and to counter the culture of death. “Among all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II in a passage from his encyclical Evangelium vitae that is quoted in Dignitas infinita. The quotation continues:

But today, in many people’s consciences, the perception of its gravity has become progressively obscured. The acceptance of abortion in the popular mind, in behavior, and even in law itself is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake. Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception (no. 47).


Surrogacy and Euthanasia Violate Human Dignity

Also noteworthy is the document’s clear condemnation of the practice of surrogacy. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, the practice of surrogacy, including commercial surrogacy, has been widely accepted in our culture as benevolent and beautiful. Thus, the document’s affirmation of a need to completely prohibit surrogacy may come as a shock to some people, who have not thought deeply about the issue. However, it should come as no shock in light of Pope Francis’ recent call for a complete ban on the practice of surrogacy.

Surrogacy, notes the CDF, violates the dignity of both the mother and the child. The child, it explains, “has the right to have a fully human (and not artificially induced) origin and to receive the gift of a life that manifests both the dignity of the giver and that of the receiver” (no. 49). As for the surrogate mother, she is “detached from the child growing in her and becomes a mere means subservient to the arbitrary gain or desire of others. This contrasts in every way with the fundamental dignity of every human being and with each person’s right to be recognized always individually and never as an instrument for another” (no. 50).

The authors of Dignitas infinita also emphasize their concern at the rapidly growing practices of euthanasia and assisted suicide, which are being legalized in more and more jurisdictions, and becoming much more common in those jurisdictions where the practices have been legalized.

The authors explain that “it must be strongly reiterated that suffering does not cause the sick to lose their dignity, which is intrinsically and inalienably their own. Instead, suffering can become an opportunity to strengthen the bonds of mutual belonging and gain greater awareness of the precious value of each person to the whole human family” (no. 51). Given this, “helping the suicidal person to take his or her own life is an objective offense against the dignity of the person asking for it, even if one would be thereby fulfilling the person’s wish” (no. 52).


How to Respond to Anti-life Paganism 

It is hardly even controversial to assert that the Catholic Church’s teaching on human dignity, refined and developed over the space of 2,000 years, has been the single most civilizing influence in the history of the human race. The massive proliferation of hospitals, orphanages, and schools during the medieval period in Europe, or wherever Christianity spread, would never have happened had Christianity not proclaimed the intrinsic, ineradicable dignity of every human person. Wherever the truth of this dignity has been obscured or denied, the result has been a litany of horrors, as whole classes of humans have been systematically oppressed or murdered.

Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a time where philosophers and ethicists have openly proclaimed the idea of human dignity to be a “myth,” instead propounding dangerous ideas to the effect that human worth must be judged based upon utilitarian values, such as “quality of life,” and so on. These are not new ideas. They are the same ideas that produced the horrors of Auschwitz. They are currently producing the horrors of abortion, and the normalization of the practice of having doctors and nurses kill and mutilate, rather than heal.

Dignitas infinita is a timely reminder of the rich thinking on this topic in the Christian tradition, and its immense value in holding back the ever-threatening tide of barbaric, inhuman paganism. As the authors conclude, “in the face of so many violations of human dignity that seriously threaten the future of the human family, the Church encourages the promotion of the dignity of every human person, regardless of their physical, mental, cultural, social, and religious characteristics. The Church does this with hope, confident of the power that flows from the Risen Christ, who has fully revealed the integral dignity of every man and woman” (no. 66).

As president of Human Life International, Fr. Boquet is a leading expert on the international pro-life and family movement, having journeyed to nearly 90 countries on pro-life missions over the last decade. Father Boquet works with pro-life and family leaders in 116 counties that partner with HLI to proclaim and advance the Gospel of Life. Read his full bio here.

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  1. Dara on April 24, 2024 at 8:39 AM

    Looks as if my book “O Tempore O Mores – O Fiducia Supplicans” and other works have finally reached the Vatican.
    However with the early quotations I would like to know how it is that a dedicated Catholic who provides many services pro bono, loses everything for speaking out against a genocidal bioweapon, can drive through six States, and receive no assistance from any archdioces or diocese in the USA. Not requesting money, but assistance in quickly finding a decent rental and eventually leaves the USA.
    It was interesting to note that the status of the archdiocese or parish appears to be reflected in the status of the town or city in which they are situated. Thriving town, vibrant parish – warm and holy pastor. “6 color” flags, banners, tarot in the bookstores, mutilation of books in the library, “rainbow hair and nose rings” in the youth, heavy tattoos on citizenry… unless the pastor is new or frail, be very cautious where the occultic thrives.
    Transgenderism is a misnomer. It is impossible. However it is also a means to the end – of thwarting God’s plan for the world, a plan in which every single person has a role to play…

  2. E.Croy on April 15, 2024 at 4:24 PM

    Admittedly, I have not read the document. But the summary here reminds me right away of Cardinal Bernardin’s “Seamless Garment” of the 1970’s and since.

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