Dignitas Infinita—Infinite Dignity. A Compendium of Catholic Ethics—and a Missed Chance

Ingeborg G. Gabriel is a professor emerita at the University of Vienna.

The declaration Dignitas Infinita (DI) was issued by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith with the explicit approval of the Pope on 8 April 2024. It had been in preparation for five years and was intended to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December 2023. Its belated publication was due to an ecclesial process of discernment described in the “presentation” at the beginning of the document.

In its Introduction, DI affirms “the indispensable nature of the dignity of the human person in Christian anthropology.” In the first three parts, which comprise about half of the declaration, DI deals with the theological and anthropological foundations of human dignity (paras. 1–32), a term that has accompanied Christian thought since its beginnings. (As one commentator observed, the term was found in the Missale Romanum from the sixth century.) In its fourth part, DI treats a wide range of violations of human dignity in the present world (paras. 33–62).

The Introduction distinguishes between four forms of dignity: ontological, moral, social, and existential, whereby ontological dignity is the precondition of all (para. 7). It also insists, however, on the importance of moral dignity, thus bridging a gap that plays a central role in some ecumenical discussions. The way humans actively “exercise their freedom” and act with responsibility shows that human dignity has basically a relational character (paras. 22, 25ff). To live in social dignity requires social conditions that make it possible for people to live dignified lives. The term existential dignity is introduced to stress that persons who are unable to “exercise these capabilities due to various limitations or conditions” do not lose their dignity (para. 9).

In the following section, “A Growing Awareness of the Centrality of Human Dignity,” the document affirms the historical progress that has been made regarding respect for human dignity. It begins with antiquity, stressing biblical and theological contributions. God has endowed every person with natural dignity, and Christians believe that Christ has restored and elevated the dignity of all humans, bringing it to its fullness (paras. 19–21). Citing Pope Francis, who stresses the importance of the UDHR and calls human rights a “milestone on the long and difficult path of the human race” and “one of the highest expressions of the human conscience,” DI sees its (critical) function as “resist[ing] attempts to alter or annul the profound meaning of that Declaration,” thus setting the tone for the treatment of the following issues (para. 23).

After fundamental reflections on human freedom (paras. 24­–32), the fourth part lists “grave violations of human dignity” (paras. 33–62), reiterating mainly well-known Catholic positions. It is worth mentioning, however, that the death penalty is to be rejected “under all circumstances” (para. 34). The persisting evils of poverty, war, human trafficking, and sexual abuse, as well as the “travail of migrants,” are denounced in strong words. The passage on human trafficking as “a disgrace to our societies,” which “profoundly disfigures the humanity of the victim” and “at the same time, dehumanize[es] those who carry it out,” thereby is particularly intense (para. 42). Sexual abuse in society and in the Church gravely violates human dignity, “leaving deep scars in the hearts” of the victims (para. 33). The document also speaks out strongly against all forms of violence against women, discriminatory (including legal) provisions, sexual exploitation, polygamy, femicide, etc., thus underscoring that women have the same dignity and rights as men (paras. 44–46). One may add that this first part of the list reiterates major concerns of the Pope, for which he has engaged strongly during his pontificate.

The following paragraphs treat central themes of ethics: abortion, defending unborn life as the basis of all other human rights (para. 47); surrogacy, describing it as a “grave violation of the dignity of the woman and the child” and calling for it to be outlawed (paras. 48­–50); assisted suicide; and discrimination against people with disabilities (paras. 51–54).

Most public attention has been given to a section on “gender theory” (in the singular!) (paras. 55–59). After affirming that any “person regardless of sexual orientation” is to be respected and not to be (unjustly) discriminated against (para. 55), DI treats “gender theory” extensively. The understanding of the authors is that gender theory introduces new rights, canceling the fundamental difference between the sexes. With “its claim to make everyone equal” it constitutes a form of “ideological colonialization” (para 56). Sex changes (except in cases of genital abnormalities) are a “concession to the age-old temptation to make oneself God,” sexual difference being the “greatest possible difference between living beings” (para. 58)—a position that may be theologically questioned (Galatians 3:28). Even if for good ethical reasons one may object to some extreme positions in this field that should be criticized outright, the space accorded to the issue and its treatment are not convincing. One may even ask whether it does not echo a certain zeitgeist. The fourth part on ethical questions then finishes with a statement on the dangers of digital violence (para. 61f).

Overall, DI provides an overview of Catholic teachings on moral and social issues. Its merit lies in binding them together. As Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli stressed in his editorial on Vatican news, distributed by the Vatican Press Office with copies of the document, this was indeed one of its intentions. This may also be presumed from the introductory “presentation” on the meeting of Pope Francis with the Head of the Dicastery, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, on 13 November 2023. At this meeting, the Pope asked for the insertion of social issues, which can now be found in the first part of the fourth section. The message of the interconnectedness of individual and social issues as a “seamless garment” is of importance in the current context, when societies, politics, and churches are polarized along these ethical lines.

DI must, however, also be seen as a missed chance. Albeit the term rights appears 48 times, the interconnectedness between human dignity and human rights remains rather vague. This despite the insertion of two strong statements by Pope Francis on the question. Thus, although in the Angelus marking its 75th anniversary Pope Francis called the UDHR “a master plan” on which progress has been made, many steps are still to be taken and there have also been regressions (para. 63).

The declaration takes this up but is more skeptical in tone. No reference is made to human rights as a dynamic concept deeply anchored in Christian faith and Catholic social teaching, as acknowledged in Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. There is no mention of freedom rights, social rights, and democratic rights as ways to enhance human dignity. What is most surprising, the right to religious freedom (which often clashes with freedom of opinion) is left aside.

This is to be regretted. Human dignity is under pressure today from a variety of angles—legal, philosophical, and moral. Philosophically, a self-assertive and widespread evolutionism blurs the difference between humans and animals; a utilitarian positivism also blinds to the notion of human dignity (and to ethics in general). Anti-universalist approaches set national and other identities as absolute. All these currents endanger the foundations of human dignity and negatively affect political life. Underscoring the basic Christian belief that humanity constitutes one family as well as affirming human dignity and human rights would have been a much-needed service by the Church. A hermeneutics of recognition and not of suspicion could have supported a humanist universalism, which is under much stress today. On this basis, critical notes on specific issues have their rightful and indeed important place.

The aim of Vatican II was to stress the alliance between Christians and secular human rights voices advocating human dignity. This heritage needs to be revived by the Catholic Church. With its 1.4 billion faithful, the Church can and must be a potent force for good in our time. Speaking up for human dignity, human rights, and international institutions (as in the Apostolic Exhortation Laudate Deum) could help safeguard a universal approach much needed in a globalized world.

The 75th anniversary of the UDHR would have been a good occasion to show this commitment to the global public as well as to the Catholic world. This would, however, have necessitated a timely publication (such as Laudato Si’published some months before relevant UN summits) as well as a presentation that demonstrated the Catholic Church’s engagement with human dignity and human rights on a global level, in cooperation with other actors (again, similar to Laudato Si’). Such Catholic engagement can, after all, be vital for improvements in all fields concerning human dignity and human rights in the decades to come.

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