Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Why ‘Infinite Dignity’ falls short

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 09, 2024

As my colleague Jeff Mirus has pointed out, there are strong points in Dignitas Infinita. But another friend, Robert Royal, has observed that with this document from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), as with so many formal statements during this pontificate, what is good is not new, and what is new is not good.

Take the title, for starters: “Infinite Dignity.” God has infinite dignity. Man does not. The distinction is important to maintain, even when we are defending human dignity.

We as Christians accord enormous dignity to the human person because each of us is made in God’s image. One major strength of the new Vatican document is its explanation of “the ontological dignity of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed in Jesus Christ.” This immense dignity is not something man-made; it is not something that we could create for ourselves, nor is it something that society has granted to us. It comes from the only possible source of “infinite dignity.”

Dignitas Infinita explains the “ontological dignity” of the human person well, overcoming the confusion that might be created by the title. The document explains that no condition, no matter how degrading, can detract from this innate dignity. A helpless infant, a fettered slave, a comatose patient: all retain the same fundamental human dignity. By the same logic, even someone who has put himself into a degrading condition—a drug addict, a career criminal—cannot strip himself of that ontological dignity.

Roughly half of Dignitas Infinita is devoted to explaining the Catholic understanding of human dignity. This, the strongest portion of the text, cites a range of authorities ranging from the Church Fathers through the Second Vatican Council to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The philosophical and theological groundwork is carefully laid.

But the purpose of this text is to apply that conceptual framework to contemporary problems. And there Dignitas Infinita falls short.

First, the familiar “seamless garment” approach of the text—providing a long list of affronts to human dignity, including war, poverty, exploitation, and human trafficking—blunts the force of the document’s condemnations of abortion, euthanasia, and sex-change mutilation. As Pope John Paul II explained in Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor, not all of these public issues are commensurate. Some issues involve prudential judgments, on issues such as how best to help the poor. Other issues involve intrinsically immoral acts such as abortion. No political candidates today are advocating violence against women, the way some are promoting unrestricted violence against the unborn.

The “seamless garment” approach makes it too easy for complacent Catholics to escape the sting of authentic Church teaching, drawing whatever lessons they like from the document while passing over unwelcome challenges. There are so very many problems on the list; the world is far from ideal. But Dignitas Infinita does not help us to sort out which problems deserve top priority.

On the contrary, the document places heavy stress on some issues that have not, until recently, been priorities of the Catholic Church. For example, Dignitas Infinita argues that the use of the death penalty is a clear affront against human dignity. Which is an odd argument to raise, since St. Thomas Aquinas saw capital punishment as a defense of human dignity.

And here we come to the second major problem with the DDF analysis, which is the failure to point out that someone who is guilty of acts that violate human dignity thereby injures his own dignity. This is not to say that he forfeits the ontological dignity of a human person; that cannot be done. But sinful actions have consequences.

If it is wrong, for instance, to mutilate one’s sexual organs (in what is now known under the Orwellian term “gender-affirming surgery”), then those who voluntarily undergo that process—along with the doctors who perform the operations—are diminishing their own dignity. We must continue to treat them with respect, but we cannot applaud their actions or treat their altered condition as healthy.

Or take the case of homosexual couples, whose sexual acts are also listed in this document as a violation of human dignity. While the word “homosexual” does not appear in the DDF document, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez did address the issue during the press conference introducing Dignitas Infinita. When questioned about the Catechism teaching that homosexuality is “disordered,” the Vatican’s top doctrinal official did not defend the Catechism text. As Reuters reported:

He said that the point of Catholic teaching was that same-sex unions cannot match “the immense beauty” of heterosexual ones, and the Church “could find more apt words to express” this.

Here is the unhappy result of an effort to find “infinite dignity” even in people engaged in undignified acts. Cardinal Fernandez cannot find a way to say, in charity, that homosexuals should resist their disordered impulses—as every sinful person should resist the disorder of temptations. Instead he can only say that an act that cries out to heaven for vengeance falls short of the “immense beauty” of the marital act.

And thus I reach my final complaint against Dignitas Infinita. Given that the world today faces unprecedented assaults against human dignity, where is the fire in this message? Where is the stirring call to arms: the challenge to the world’s Catholics to rally to the defense of our ontological dignity?

Where in this document is the passage that will steel the resolve of Catholic college students, so that they will not assent to a university policy that requires them to treat a man as a woman? Where is the rhetoric that will encourage corporate executives to resist the pressure to adopt personnel policies based on gender theory? Where is the warning to Catholic health-care personnel that they cannot participate in “gender-affirming” surgery without engaging in gravely sinful actions? Dignitas Infinita tells us why we should not accept offenses against human dignity. It does not tell us how to resist the tide.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ewaughok - Apr. 14, 2024 11:54 AM ET USA

    Thanks, Mr Lawler! But maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on Cardinal Tucho (and his boss, by extension). They’ve got more urgent matters on their hands (Tucho touched on them explicitly in his book, “Mystical Passion: Spirituality and Sensuality”). So rejecting St Augustine on Just War, St Thomas Aquinas and St Robert Bellarmine on the Death Penalty, deploring the words of the Catechism … hey, don’t be so legalistic!

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Apr. 12, 2024 1:39 PM ET USA

    If a homosexual couple asks for a blessing, what the couple is asking is for a priest to bless what makes them a couple. This is nothing more than asking for the blessing of an attack on human dignity--what makes them a couple. Thus, how can this blessing follow from what this document claims to promote--human dignity? Actions speak louder than words. The blessing of a homosexual couple (action) speaks louder than Dignitas Infinita (words).

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Apr. 11, 2024 4:07 AM ET USA

    Cdl Fernandez uses a classic tool of sophistry to redefine terms (e.g., infinite dignity) to reach a purported proof that certain acts (e.g., examples in Mr. Lawler's essay) are permissible. His redefined premise is false, and therefore his argument fails. QED

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Apr. 10, 2024 8:13 PM ET USA

    ID is a preparation for saying that same-sex couple homosexuality has its own dignity and beauty, it's just not the same and lesser than homo-sapien male to female couple marriage dignity and beauty...this is why it is deliberately left out of those things offensive and wrong against human dignity and beauty...just satan putting his evil pieces into place in preparation for worse evils and justifications....

  • Posted by: dkmayernj8551 - Apr. 10, 2024 8:14 AM ET USA

    Helpful commentary. The document sounds like a lengthy yet ultimately perfunctory exercise in checking some (but not all) boxes. Glad the author read it so others don't have to.