A Brief Commentary on Dignitas Infinita

Elizabeth washing a sick man, from the main altarpiece of her church in Marburg. (wikipedia.org)

Dignitas Infinita was released by the Vatican on April 8, 2024 by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, currently the head of the Dicastery, has described the Vatican’s new document on human dignity as much a reflection of Pope Francis’ pastoral thinking on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, surrogacy, and gender ideology as it is a summary of the Church’s magisterial teachings.[1]

Dignitas Infinita was released to reaffirm the true meaning of human dignity at a time when few can agree on what ‘dignity’ means. It seeks to shed light on this issue by first making some important distinctions. The Declaration distinguishes the possibility of a fourfold distinction of the concept of dignity: ontological dignity, moral dignity, social dignity and existential dignity.[2]

Moral dignity refers to how we use our freedom, which we may or may not use in a way that is morally upright. Social dignity refers to the quality of a person’s living conditions. For example, in cases of extreme poverty, where individuals do not even have what is minimally necessary to live according to their ontological dignity.  These poor people are living in an undignified manner.  Existential dignity refers to the sense of living a dignified or undignified life that is caused not by lacking some material necessity. It refers instead to one’s struggle to have a sense of joy and hope due to the presence of serious illnesses, violent family environments, pathological addictions, and other hardships may drive people to experience their life conditions as undignified.[3]

The most important concept, however, is “the ontological dignity that belongs to the person as such simply because he or she exists and is willed, created, and loved by God.” [4] Whereas moral dignity can be lost by acting wrongly, social dignity can be lost by inadequate living conditions, and existential dignity can be lost by a sense of despair, ontological dignity by contrast can never be lost. Ontological dignity is indelible and remains valid beyond any circumstances in which the person may find themselves.  Our dignity is bestowed upon us by God; it is neither claimed nor deserved. Every human being is loved and willed by God and, thus, has an inviolable dignity.

This is of crucial importance in bioethics when faced with abortion, euthanasia, withdrawal of clinically-assisted nutrition and hydration, gender ideology and similar practices. The Declaration notes that “while there has been a growing awareness of human dignity, many misunderstandings of the concept still distort its meaning.”

The document was generally well received.  The subject matter, quite controversial in today’s societies, has given rise to both extreme degrees of criticism and support.

The Anscombe Bioethics Centre welcomed the clear statement of principles given in Dignitas Infinita, and urges all who are involved in debates about bioethical matters to consider carefully its teaching.[5]

The National Catholic Bioethics Center was grateful for the declaration’s many moral reaffirmations. Abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, the death penalty, human trafficking, surrogacy, gender ideology, digital violence, and also war and poverty are strongly condemned as offenses against the dignity of the human person.[6]  … it focuses on the unlimited dignity of the human person. Defending and respecting this dignity is the key concern of Catholic bioethics. The declaration stresses the ontological, the inherent, irrevocable, and infinite value of human dignity, which transcends all particular circumstances. [7]

ifaqtheology (a theology question/answer webpage) states that “every sentence, indeed almost every word, of the Declaration is rich with theological meaning and historical associations.” [8]

The National Catholic Register states that the document is the first time that the Church’s universal teaching authority has weighed in on the topic with such focus — with some Catholic experts on gender and sexual identity describing the document as nothing short of a game changer.[9]

Unfortunately, on the Catholic political left many of the responses have been negative, primarily in the area of gender and sexual orientation issues.

A large group of theologians and students wrote a letter to Pope Francis stating their concern with Dignitas Infinita‘s statements on gender theory and sex change. Their letter stated that the document fails to recognize the dignity of trans- and gender-nonconforming people. In its condemnation of gender “ideology” and “sex change,” the document marginalizes the infinite dignity in people of all genders and their authentic self-expression and inadvertently perpetuates the harm it aims to overcome.[10]

The co-founder of New Ways Ministry wrote a personal letter to the Pope regarding the immense grief among LGBTQ people and their families and friends.[11]

The group’s criticisms would seem misplaced in view of the Dignitas Infinita‘s clear statement that “the ontological dignity that belongs to the person as such simply because he or she exists and is willed, created, and loved by God … can never be lost.”

More specifically however, regarding the matter of LGBQ persons, Pope Francis responded to the criticisms with a personal letter stating:

“Gender ideology is something other than homosexual or transsexual people. Gender ideology makes everyone equal without respect for personal history. I understand the concern about that paragraph in Dignitas Infinita, but it refers not to transgender people but to gender ideology, which nullifies differences. Transgender people must be accepted and integrated into society.” [12]

In spite of its many positive reviews regarding the dignity of the person, it is unlikely that Dignitas Infinita will be fully accepted by the transgender community.  This is most likely due to the heterologous composition of the group with differing goals.

[1] Catholic News Agency, Vatican City, Apr 8, 2024.

[2] Dignitas Infinita’s Vital Contribution to Current Debates, The Anscombe Bioethics Centre, Apr 26. 2024.

[3] https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_ddf_doc_20240402_dignitas-infinita_en.html

[4] Ibid

[5] https://www.bioethics.org.uk/news-events/news-from-the-centre/press-release-the-important-contribution-of-dignitas-infinita-to-current-debates/

[6] https://www.ncbcenter.org/messages-from-presidents/dignitas-infinita

[7] https://www.ncbcenter.org/messages-from-presidents/dignitas-infinita

[8] https://ifaqtheology.com/2024/04/13/dignitas-infinita-infinite-dignity-a-recommendation/

[9] https://www.ncregister.com/news/dignitas-infinita-human-dignity

[10] https://www.ncronline.org/opinion/guest-voices/catholic-students-theologians-ministers-write-open-letter-pope-francis

[11] https://www.newwaysministry.org/2024/05/01/pope-offers-clarification-to-sr-jeannine-about-dignitas-infinita/

[12] Ibid