Infinite Love and the (In)dignity of Christ: Reflections on Francis’s Theology of Infinite Human Dignity from Infinite Divine Love

Greg Marcar is a research affiliate and teaching fellow at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI), University of Otago (New Zealand). He is a co-editor of Søren Kierkegaard: Theologian of the Gospel (Wipf & Stock 2021) and  Security, Religion, and the Rule of Law: International Perspectives (Routledge 2023).

Dignity and Its Discontents: A Foundationless Foundation?

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) begins with the assertion that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights . . . and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” One of the co-drafters of the UDHR, René Cassin, likened its Preamble and Articles to the parts of a temple portico, with Article 1’s affirmation of dignity, liberty, equality, and fraternity forming the foundation block of this structure.

  Despite dignity’s prominent and even foundational place in the conceptual architecture of international human rights, the invocation of dignity faces a number of conceptual difficulties, not least of which is that “dignity” admits of more than one distinct meaning. In Dignity: Its History and Meaning, Michael Rosen traces the way in which the concept of dignity accumulated several meanings. To begin with, dignity may be said to have roots in Roman and medieval conceptions of a dignitas that stemmed from the status one held within one’s society. This stands in comparison to its other usage today, in which dignity connotes that someone, qua human being, possesses an intrinsic worth.

To posit that dignity grounds the rights of human beings or their moral obligations toward one another therefore raises the immediate follow-up question: to which kind of dignity are you referring? This ambiguity is compounded by the fact that, as Oscar Schachter points out, human dignity is mentioned by all nine U.N. Conventions pertaining to human rights, but is nowhere given a concrete, explicit definition. Any kind of answer to the question of “which” dignity is being invoked is thus conspicuously absent.

A second and related difficulty attending dignity discourse concerns how to normatively ground or justify the idea that all human beings possess an inherent dignity. Akin to the question of what exactly grounds the universal “rights” of every human being, answers to this question risk excluding some human beings, or being arbitrary and/or speciesist. Arthur Schopenhauer thus famously condemned the notion of dignity as nothing more than “the shibboleth of all the perplexed and empty-headed moralists” and those who invoke it as purveyors of “empty phrases,” “cobwebs,” and “soap-bubbles.” Dignity under this view would be a foundationless foundation for human rights.

Infinite Dignity from Infinite Love?

Amidst such questions over the meaning and normative grounding of dignity, Dignitas Infinita was presented on 8 April 2024 by Cardinal Victor Fernandez in his capacity as head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. In Dignitas Infinita, a striking grounding for human dignity is given:

From the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has invited the Church to “believe in a Father who loves all men and women with an infinite love [ama infinitamente], realizing that “he thereby confers upon them an infinite dignity [dignità infinita]” (para. 6).

Theologians have previously argued that the love of God confers upon human beings a particular dignity or worth. In Justice: Rights and Wrongs, for instance, Nicholas Wolterstorff notably argues that “if God loves a human being with the love of attachment, that love bestows great worth on that human being.” What makes Dignitas Infinita stand out, however, is its claim that the infinite love of God the Father confers upon all human beings an “infinite dignity.”

This statement is made by Pope Francis in his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (para. 178), and cites an Angelus address of Pope John Paul II from 16 November 1980. In this Angelus, John Paul II specifically addresses the condition of those living with disabilities. He speaks of how God’s love is the foundation for one’s hope and courage in life, before going on to state that God in Jesus Christ has shown how he loves every person in an “unsurpassable” (insuperabile) way and that this thereby bestows upon every individual “infinite dignity” (dignità infinita). Immediately after making this statement, John Paul II states that those who live with disabilities are loved in a particular way by God in Jesus, who loves individuals not in spite of their particular weaknesses and vulnerabilities but because of them.

One might note here that John Paul II’s message is related but subtly different from that of Francis. In John Paul II’s Angelus, it is not an “infinite” or unlimited divine love that is invoked, but an “unsurpassable” and special love, particularly for those who might otherwise be marginalized or dispossessed within society.

In Evangelii Gaudium, by contrast, Francis not only ascribes an “infinite” divine love as the explanation for human beings’ “infinite dignity”; he makes clear that this claim is connected to soteriology:

To believe that the Son of God assumed our human flesh means that each human person has been taken up into the very heart of God. To believe that Jesus shed his blood for us removes any doubt about the boundless love which ennobles [nobilita] each human being (para. 178).

In becoming incarnate and voluntarily dying upon the cross, God in Christ demonstrates his infinite (or boundless) love for humanity—a love that, we might then say, infinitely dignifies or “ennobles” (nobilita) every human being.

This emphasis on Christ’s salvific outreach to humanity becomes even clearer with reference to opening paragraphs of Evangelii Gaudium, in which Francis asserts that because “God never tires of forgiving us” so also “[n]o one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love” (para. 3).

In a 2016 interview titled The Francis Project, Cardinal Fernandez is asked about the “most significant” sections of Evangelii Gaudium. He responds by listing several that “lay bare the heart of [Pope Francis],” the first of which is the paragraph quoted immediately above. For Francis, it is the unlimited mercy or forgiveness of God in Christ that confers an infinite dignity upon all human beings.

The causal link between mercy and dignity is explicitly made in a meditation Pope Francis gave for a spiritual retreat in 2016. Here, Francis speaks of the “embarrassed dignity” of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–31) and how “the model that Jesus sets before us is that of the Father . . . whose infinite mercy in some sense constantly ‘grows’ . . . . — and this is crucial, not to be forgotten: mercy brings dignity — mercy raises up the one over whom another has stooped to bring help” (emphasis added).

In addition to God’s unlimited salvific mercy in Christ, Francis’s theology of infinite dignity from infinite love is also inextricably tied to Christology; that is, the (un)dignified personhood of Jesus Christ. In several homilies and exhortations between 2016 and 2019, Francis talks of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and how this demonstrates that his love was (quoting John 13:1) “without end.”

In a 2016 homily for Palm Sunday, Francis poignantly describes this act in terms of “a love which bends down to us.” In bending down to wash his disciples’ feet, Christ puts himself into the lowly societal role of a servant—a voluntary humiliation (from the world’s perspective) that “reaches its utmost in the Passion.” The infinite love of God in Christ reveals itself precisely in the indignity that Christ undergoes to reconcile all of humanity to Himself. Subsequently in a 2017 homily, Francis draws a stark contrast with the attitude of Christ’s disciples themselves:

This is the way to wash feet; it is being at the service of others. Once, the disciples were arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest, the most important one [Luke 22:24–27]. And Jesus said: “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves”. And this is what He did. This is what God does with us. He serves us. He is the servant.

The disciples’ argument about their heavenly place and greatness may be framed as a dispute concerning their statal dignitas. In response, Christ subverts their hierarchical assumptions; a subversion he then demonstrates in himself by washing their feet and proceeding to die as a naked and abused criminal for them on the cross. Infinite dignity (as intrinsic moral worth) is thereby bestowed upon human beings by the infinite love/mercy of God, as manifested in the person and acts of Jesus Christ. This provides a normative foundation for dignity, through which it might resume its place as a normative foundation for human rights.

Return to the Series introduction