Dignitas Infinita. A Theological Commentary

Antonio Autiero is Emeritus Professor of Moral Theology at University of Münster (Germany).

The title of the Declaration of the Vatican Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, published on 8 April 2024, merits particular attention, due less to its originality (since it takes up an expression recurrent in earlier texts by the papal magisterium) than to the evocative space—both interesting and provocative—created by the image of the infinite in the adjective chosen to describe the dignity of which the document speaks.

Dignity—A Recurrent Theme

This is not the first text in the magisterium of the Catholic Church addressing the theme of human dignity. It has done so at Vatican II (Dignitatis humanae) and in various statements in the postconciliar period. Dignitas infinita is the fruit of a lengthy preparatory phase going back to 2019. Its introduction (paras. 1–9) outlines the trajectory of this teaching, as if wishing to recapitulate and condense it. It makes abundant reference to earlier texts of the magisterium to inculcate the idea of continuity that is not to be ignored. As an entry point to the subject, it also clarifies the semantic wealth of the concept of dignity. It distinguishes the concept’s ontological, moral, social, and existential dimensions and clearly indicates the foundational importance of an ontological approach. This factor is not insignificant, as it creates the key to both reading and interpreting the text. Prioritizing an ontological understanding, with other dimensions linked to it, expresses a clear foundational orientation and supplies the argumentation with a particular solidity.

Simultaneously, however, an inevitable abstractness in the theoretical framework is to be expected, as is a static and narrow quality in the consideration of the concrete problems that are tackled in the final section of the document. In fact, it would have been possible to overcome the rigidly ontological framework, but the document should have been complemented with a more decisive and clear phenomenological approach that would have been no less rigorous but would certainly have been more balanced, flexible, and promising from a hermeneutical point of view. Such an approach helps contextualize even such a fundamental theme as dignity. It gives weight both to its personalistic tenor and to the historical dimension in which being a person develops; the perception of dignity becomes incarnate, and the expression of the rights linked to this dignity evolves.

Sections of the Declaration

Following its Introduction, the Declaration is structured in four sections. The first three elaborate a foundational reading of the concept of dignity, touching on its presence in classical philosophy and in the biblical-theological perspectives of the Christian tradition. There is a brief comparison with the currents of modern philosophy without, however, suggesting the real scope of their significance for anthropology and moral theology. This leads to a somewhat functional consideration of freedom, without expressing its foundational role for the individual and for his or her dignity, and without referencing freedom’s emancipatory resources for constructing more humanity (paras. 22, 25). Greater attention to the perception of modernity, without casting suspicion on it, would accord well with the richness of meaning dedicated to the theme’s theological reconstruction in the document’s second and third sections. The interweaving of creation, incarnation, and resurrection (para. 20) as loci that reveal human dignity creates a framework of meaning for dignity. And the anthropological substratum of this framework consists in the genuine appreciation of the person and of his or her freedom and responsibility. To avoid falling back into anti-modern regurgitations, it is necessary to hold fast to the link between dignity and freedom. This factor is indispensable and unconditional.

It is along this axis of thought that the document establishes the foundation for a precious instrument of dialogue with modern culture in its philosophical and anthropological articulations. Placing the theme of dignity at the center of the encounter with the secular world entails a tremendous opportunity for reciprocal enrichment. For the church, an essential condition is the active esteem and appreciation of the path taken by humanity in the perception of the dignity of every person and of his or her inalienable rights.

The Church’s Task on Behalf of Dignity and Rights

On the other hand, it is important that the Church give an account of the path it has taken over the centuries and intends to continue taking in recognizing the centrality of the dignity of every person, and this document consciously contributes to such an account. This also requires, however, a critical consciousness that does not ignore the resistance and slowness that weighed down and held up certain processes of emancipation, thanks to the perspective of a Christian anthropology that was abstract and divorced from reality.

The emphasis in paragraphs 17 through 21 on the theme of dignity in connection with the idea of the human being as the image of God is certainly significant, and it takes on authenticity and power if we do not forget the tormented path that had to be traveled before this was genuinely attributed to every human being. The adjective “infinite” in the title not only declares that dignity has neither limits nor conditions. It also affirms that the recognition of this dignity is linked to an endeavor and task that is not yet finished and will never be finished.

In this sense, the category of dignity does not relate to the sphere of a defined norm of moral evaluation. Rather, it establishes an open horizon of meaning and constructs a heuristic of orientations that makes it possible to discern the real in a creative manner and to decide how to act. Thinking of dignity as a principle that generates movement, rather than as a barrier defined once and for all time in its normative rigor, means keeping open the spectrum of recognition of the real and of its complexity. It means knowing how to find orientation, through discourse and dialogue, for the moral choices that must be made.

When we speak of dignity, we must hold together its value in establishing the horizon of meaning and its heuristic contribution to moral decisions. The link that binds these is provided by the consistency/dignity of the person and the person’s responsibility for his or her own freedom and for that of others. If this equilibrium is broken, the concept of dignity becomes a postulate through which resolving incumbent moral questions is thought possible, but without having recourse to the necessary mediations.

Where Dignity Is Put at Risk

The document complements discussion on the foundation of dignity in its first three sections by relating various concrete ethical topics to the theme of dignity in its fourth section. Thirteen questions address wide-ranging problems of poverty, war, migrations, sexual abuse, violence against women, human trafficking, abortion, surrogate motherhood, euthanasia, treatment of persons with disabilities, gender theory, sex change, and digital violence.

The obvious breadth encompassed here bears witness to the wide moral sensitivity in which the magisterium of Pope Francis has successfully educated us. This sensitivity is capable of perceiving the personal, interpersonal, social, and structural dimensions of the moral questions of our age, with the aim of relating them to the radical question of human dignity that is threatened or trampled underfoot.

Nevertheless, the questions taken up in the document’s fourth section have a heterogeneity—regarding not only their dimensions but also their complexity—that means they are touched on only in brief paragraphs. This lack of breadth and depth goes so far that both the structure of the argumentation and the effect of the normative formulations are nullified. The simplistic reduction of the problems in some passages, in addition to a lack of discursive elaboration, means that the moral judgment becomes apodicticб in the form of a black-and-white painting: everything allowed, or everything forbidden, regardless of the circumstances. Because of the above-mentioned ontological approach to the basis of dignity, the normative judgments in the final section end up being constructed with a logic that works with principles and deductions.

The recourse to clichés, without studying the questions at an appropriate depth, makes a negative impression and prompts the question whether there is a genuine respect for the existential condition—and hence for the dignity—of the persons involved (as in the passage on sex change, in paragraph 60). Similarly, the paragraphs on surrogate motherhood (paras. 48–50) and on gender theory (paras. 55–59) display a limited consideration of the complexity of these questions. In the former, we are faced with a moral rejection that is the fruit of an argumentative short circuit, with no differentiation of the typology that is in fact at issue here. The current discussion on this thorny issue shows that it is not always and not only a practice of commercializing a woman’s body as a pregnancy substitute but that it can also be a solidaristic, nonprofit practice of helping women who are struggling to carry out a pregnancy. Furthermore, it should not be underestimated that a request for prohibition on a global scale (para. 48) opens the door to reactionary projects being aired in political programs in so many parts of the world.

The treatment of the question of gender does not go beyond a partial understanding and shows no willingness to look more deeply at the highly diversified and well-documented findings that gender studies have produced for some time now. The document employs a rigid and severe vocabulary; notably, paragraph 56 is one of the few passages in which a superlative adjective expresses a moral evaluation: “gender theory . . .  is extremely dangerous.” This suggests the rigidity of a definitive verdict that is irreformable. This is all the more remarkable given that the latest book by Judith Butler, the most representative author of studies in the field, was published a month prior: Who’s Afraid of Gender? (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2024). Butler questions the amount of fear surrounding the term gender and calls for debate and dialogue on related themes, precisely so as not to fall into preconceived concepts that are constructed and given emphasis without an adequate knowledge of the questions involved.

It would be a pity if the Declaration Dignitas infinita were to be employed as a shield to ward off all dialogue. What is at stake for the dignity of every person lends greater urgency to the competent study of these questions. And it lends greater plausibility to the unwearying exercise of argumentative patience in tackling the moral problems of our world.

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