Infinite dignity

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The article from  the Alphonsian Academy Blog

After a rather laborious process and direct intervention by the Holy Father, who asked to “highlight in the text issues strictly connected to the theme of dignity, such as the drama of poverty, the situation of migrants, violence against women, human trafficking, war,” the  Dignitas Infinite declaration was published on 8 April 2024. The category of dignity does not have the religious connotations of the category of sacredness, and its choice, as the ideal cornerstone of the document, can be understood as an attempt to set up a dialogue with secular culture. Respect for the dignity of people represents, in fact, a principle “which is fully knowable even by reason alone” ( DI, n. 1) and which had an authoritative echo in the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations on 10 December 1948. The dignity of the person is an original fact, and, on its acceptance, it is possible to build an authentic universal brotherhood.

The declaration is well aware that the notion of dignity is polysemous and is not understood by everyone in a unique way, sometimes leading to choices and attitudes made in the name of human dignity that to others would seem in open contradiction to a more correct understanding. Just think of the idea of ​​some that assisted suicide and euthanasia are two ways to leave life “with dignity.” For this reason, the declaration offers in limine  “a fundamental clarification” and explains that there is a fourfold articulation of the concept of dignity: ontological, moral, social, and existential (cf. DI, n. 7). “The most important meaning is that linked to ontological dignity,” that is to say the dignity that every human being deserves for the sole fact of existing, independently of whether or not he acts in conformity with his own dignity, independently of the socio-economic situations in the which a person lives and the existential conditions, sometimes desperate, that he experiences.

After the Introduction, the declaration is divided into four major arcs.

In the first part, A Progressive Awareness of the Centrality of Human Dignity, an agile survey of the theme of dignity in the Bible, in Christian thought, and in today’s culture is outlined. They are dense and thoughtful pages in which it is worth underlining, on the one hand, the biblical roots of human dignity and on the other, the contribution that has come from modern and contemporary philosophical thought to illuminate and deepen the theme of human dignity also in the theological field ( cf.  DI, n. 13). The declaration thus evokes an ideal movement which is substantiated by a powerful light on a man coming from Revelation, but at the same time draws lifeblood from rational reflection on the value of the human being in a difficult but fruitful dialogue (cf. DI, n . 32). The Church must confess its struggles and inconsistencies in fidelity to human dignity – just think of the acceptance of slavery or the death penalty – but we are faced with a process of growth. “The ecclesial Magisterium itself has developed with ever greater completeness the meaning of this dignity, together with the needs and implications connected to it, reaching the awareness that the dignity of every human being is such beyond any circumstance” ( DI, n. . 16). The abundance of references to the conciliar and post-conciliar Magisterium in the notes is an indication of a non-episodic interest in the theme of human dignity.

Contemporary ecclesial conscience is expressed in the second part, which bears a significant title:  the Church announces, promotes, and guarantees human dignity. The first belief is that of the image of God, which is indelibly imprinted in every human being and which embraces the whole man, soul, and body. The second belief is that the Lord Jesus, by becoming man, confirmed and raised the dignity of our human nature and, with his Word and works, became the guarantor and defender of the dignity of the “unworthy”. Imitating Christ, the Church has always been and must be increasingly on the side of the least: “abandoned newborns, orphans, the elderly left alone, the mentally ill, people suffering from incurable diseases or with serious malformations, those who live on the street” ( DI, n. 19). The third belief is that every human being has a vocation to the fullness of dignity that begins in history and is fulfilled in the Kingdom.

Dignity – and this is the third part of the declaration – is the “ foundation of human rights and duties.” In this field, there are misunderstandings and distortions that lead to situations of discrimination and damage to dignity, especially of structurally weaker human beings, such as unborn children or the disabled or the elderly who are not self-sufficient. “The Church […] insists on the fact that the dignity of every human person, precisely because it is intrinsic, remains “beyond every circumstance,” and its recognition cannot absolutely depend on the judgment on the ability to understand and act freely of people. […] Only by recognizing human beings’ intrinsic dignity, which can never be lost, is it possible to guarantee this quality an inviolable and secure foundation” ( DI, n. 24). This dignity is called “infinite” starting from the title of the declaration, referring to a greeting from Saint John Paul II to a group of disabled people in Germany in 1980. “God – he said – has shown us with Jesus Christ in an unsurpassable way how he loves each man and thereby gives him an infinite dignity (unendliche).” The adjective “infinite” might sound inappropriate if it refers to a human reality which, by its nature, is limited, but human dignity is infinite because it is rooted in the benevolent love of God revealed in Christ: this is the pole of the infinite. It is also infinite because it has no boundaries, boundless and unconditional, and it is infinite because it is a gift from God which becomes an inexhaustible task, never completely accomplished, an infinite task, in fact, for every man and every woman of goodwill. We suggest this dynamic reading of human dignity to avoid assuming the category dignity with a static and normative value, in an almost natural law way, while it must remain a horizon of meaning for personal and collective paths that are always immersed in history and stories, and they do not lend themselves well to being evaluated and understood according to an applicative and deductive logic. While appreciating the emphasis on the ontological aspect of dignity as inherent to every human being, independently of any other accidental quality (see  DI, n. 9), we cannot, for this reason, overlook the Kantian lesson that links dignity to the autonomy of the person. Dignity in Kant is the quality of a rational being “who does not obey any other law than the one that he simultaneously gives to himself” [1]. In this regard, it is important to underline the declaration on the need to understand personal freedom in light of the person’s relational structure so as to avoid a “self-referential and individualistic” drift of freedom ( DI, n. 26), while more questionable – in our opinion – is the way to explain the connection between freedom and truth due to the risk of falling into a frank heteronomy.

In light of the three founding chapters, the declaration presents highly problematic situations in which people’s dignity is put at risk and injured. They are concrete and serious problems, characteristic of Pope Francis’ pastoral concerns and a reflection of his sensitivity. There is no doubt that the Supreme Pontiffs before him, Saint John Paul II in the lead, showed great attention to the great social, economic, and political questions, but the pastoral anxiety of Pope Francis, his insistence, his participation even emotionally, they are a compelling example for the whole Church. Although the fourth part almost equals the previous ones in scope, the multiplicity of issues covered, from poverty to war, from human trafficking to sexual abuse and violence against women, from abortion to surrogate motherhood, from euthanasia to the discarding of the disabled, from gender theory and so-called sex change to digital violence, prevents a satisfactory treatment. The review of situations that harm human dignity is undoubtedly stimulating and well represents the challenges of our time, but these are issues that require broad arguments that are attentive to the concrete moral experience of people. The risks of oversimplification and intellectualism are looming and some more complex topics such as gender suffer as a result  ( DI, n. 55). If, for example, the declaration rightly denounces the violence and discrimination against homosexual people, reiterating that “every person, regardless of their sexual orientation, must be respected in their dignity and welcomed with respect” ( Catechism, n. 2358 cited from  Amoris laetitiœ, n. 250), the condemnation of interventions carried out in gender dysphoria is not understood when other therapies are not possible to recompose the harmony between the interiority and exteriority of the person. It seems that the interventions to adapt the physical appearance to the discrepant gender identity are the result of an unhealthy and arbitrary whim and are rejected in the name of the intangibility of the body so that to respect an abstract dignity of the body one can end up sacrificing the serenity of a person. The declaration probably wants to distance itself from those who talk about self-determination towards the sexual body, as if it were an object that can be moulded at will, but the polemical emphasis has led to the indiscriminate targeting of extreme gender theorists and people suffering from dysphoria.

Since the theme of human dignity is profoundly Christian but also of capital importance in the secular world, it can become a terrain for dialogue and comparison with contemporary culture, but hasty condemnations, sloganeering statements, and unambiguous and nuanced assessments must be avoided. On the other hand, the declaration itself told us that we are growing in the perception of the depth of human dignity and its consequences for our lives and that of the human community. An ethic on the move.

Maurizio Pietro Faggioni, ofm

[1]  I. Kant,  Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten  (1785), in  Kant’s gesammelte Schriften , Königlich Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften, vol. IV, 434.