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Infinite dignity and its enemies

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 12, 2024

Math test: What is infinity minus 5?

The question makes no sense, because infinity cannot be measured. Infinity cannot expand or contract; it is boundless.

God is infinite. His creatures are not. But Dignitas Infinita begins with the provocative sentence: “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.” Therein lies some potential for serious confusion.

The DDF document emphasizes the ontological basis of human dignity, “created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed in Jesus Christ.” Yes, but to speak of infinite human dignity may involve some difficulties. (True, Pope John Paul II once said that human dignity is infinite; but he made that remark at a public audience, not in a magisterial document that had been carefully prepared and edited over a five-year period.) Let's proceed with caution.

The problems arise not when the Vatican document explains the basis of human dignity, but when it applies the concept to specific moral problems. And since that is the very purpose of Dignitas Infinita— to apply the Catholic understanding of human dignity to the problems of our age— this is not a trivial complaint.

If I possess infinite dignity, it cannot be altered. I cannot add to it; I cannot subtract from it. But we all know, as a matter of both logic and experience, that we can either enhance or degrade our dignity. Reception of the sacraments adds to our dignity; sin detracts from it.

And isn’t this the central message of Dignitas Infinita: that some actions and attitudes are incompatible with human dignity? When we treat other people with contempt, we offend against their dignity, and in the process degrade our own. When we engage in behavior that violates our dignity, we debase ourselves; we lose dignity.

The DDF document is clear in its teaching that surrogate motherhood, sex-change surgery, and gender ideology are offenses against human dignity. It follows, then, that those who promote these errors are degrading their own dignity and offending against the dignity of the people they mislead. As I sought to explain in an earlier comment on the document, Dignitas Infinita does not spell out these consequences of ignoring human dignity.

Yes, surrogate motherhood is wrong, and kudos to the DDF for making that point clearly. But then what should we say to the health-care personnel who are involved in the process? What should we say to the relatives and neighbors of couples arranging for surrogacy? If we are all obliged to defend human dignity— both our own and that of others— and we are— then some serious consequences flow from the logic of the Vatican document. It is not enough to say that these offenses violate human dignity; we have a moral obligation to oppose them.

In many cases, that moral obligation could include a duty to let neighbors know, as charitably as possible, that they are diminishing their own dignity by their actions. In that context I found it noteworthy that as he introduced the document, Cardinal Fernandez could not find a way to explain why the Catechism teaches that homosexuality is disordered.

We are all fallen beings, disordered in various ways. When we succumb to our disorders, our temptations, we violate our own dignity. The weakness of Dignitas Infinita lies its failure to distinguish between the infinite dignity that Christ offers us, insofar as we participate in the life of the Trinity, and the very limited store of dignity that we accumulate and/or squander by ourselves.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ewaughok - Apr. 14, 2024 12:26 PM ET USA

    Thanks, again Mr Lawler! Your two columns plus the link to Robert Royal have been very insightful. As I read the document, it seems like many of the documents that the present Patriarch of the West: a Romanticism that doesn’t bother with exactitude (leave that to the “doctors of the law). Instead go for the emotional hook, the popular cause, the poetic bon mot. Sin and subsequent repentance, no need to go there … “the snail’s on the thorn, all’s right with me world!”

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Apr. 13, 2024 5:44 PM ET USA

    However, there is one conclusion the Declaration draws that does require its problematic opening premise. And that is its novel assertion that “the death penalty… violates the inalienable dignity of every person, regardless of the circumstances.” On the basis of this claim, Dignitas Infinita lumps capital punishment together with murder, abortion, euthanasia, and other actions that are always and intrinsically evil, evil of their very nature and not just because of circumstances. This teaching is no less alarming than the assertion that human beings possess infinite dignity, because it contradicts the clear and consistent teaching of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes. And it is arrived at precisely by way of the idea that human dignity is infinite, so that it “prevails in and beyond every circumstance, state, or situation the person may ever encounter.” It is this extreme claim about human dignity that grounds the Declaration’s apparent judgment that an offender can never be executed no matter how depraved his actions and no matter how dangerous he remains. Since such an extreme judgment would conflict with scripture and tradition, it is one the Church will have to repudiate. And this constitutes a further reason for her to reject the extreme claim about human dignity that licenses it.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Apr. 13, 2024 4:23 PM ET USA

    This is an excellent analysis of the confusion resulting from claiming that humans have infinite dignity. Thank you for your analysis.

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Apr. 12, 2024 10:46 PM ET USA

    Yes well put. The infinite comes from life with the Trinity via sanctifying grace. Problems? Yes the preliminary remarks re homosexuality the disconnect between Scripture/Tradition re the death penalty. Re the context of disorder/order Card Fernández would do well to consult the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. All sin involves departure from the order of God.