Of Dignity and Dignities

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1662-1669. wikipedia.org/public domain

I finally read Dignitas Infinita, the recent document on human dignity from the DDF (Dicastery – formerly Congregation – for the Doctrine of the Faith). Hopefully, these few thoughts complement those of Dr. Alexander Lozano. Much ink has already been spilled, and I will say that, on first glance, it is good the Church reaffirms her condemnation of abortion, the murder-suicide of euthanasia, polygamy, gender surgery, and so on.

Then again, as others have pointed out, there is the problem of the death penalty, which the current Magisterium condemns, without – let it be clear – ever explicitly calling the practice intrinsically evil (it is described by Pope Francis as ‘inadmissible’, which is more a legal term than a moral one). Just to say for now that it’s not always against the dignity of another to inflict harm, even of a lethal sort; after all, this is still permitted in self-defense, or the defense of others over whom we have care.

The notion of dignity is admittedly complex. The distinctions posited in the document amongst different kinds of dignity – ontological, moral, social and existential – are not easily to peel apart, and the distinctions tend to get lost later in the document, as in this passage:

To clarify the concept of dignity even further, it is essential to point out that dignity is not something granted to the person by others based on their gifts or qualities, such that it could be withdrawn. Were it so bestowed, it would be given in a conditional and alienable way, and then the very meaning of dignity (however worthy of great respect) would remain exposed to the risk of being abolished. Instead, dignity is intrinsic to the person: it is not conferred subsequently (a posteriori), it is prior to any recognition, and it cannot be lost. All human beings possess this same intrinsic dignity, regardless of whether or not they can express it in a suitable manner.  (15)

Which dignity, one wonders, is spoken of here? Is everyone always worthy of everything, regardless of who they are, what they have done, or not done?

If I may offer a distinction from Saint Thomas: dignity is not a univocal or absolute concept, but rather a relational and analogous one.

The term dignity derives from the Latin ‘dignus’ – worthy or deserving of something. It is related to – indeed, even the flip-side of – the notion of merit, a reward or recompense (or, need it be said, of the aforementioned punishment and condemnation) that is owed. As Thomas explains, we may be owed something based on something we ourselves have done, or not done, or even by who we are. A murderer earns his jail time, while a worker deserves his wages by completing his appointed tasks. A king ‘earns’ his throne simply by being born a prince of the blood royal. Is Charles III more deserving of the crown than John Smith of 33 Plumtree Commons, just by genetic linkage to some past monarch, prince or duke, who himself likely had a tenuous claim?

Other times, we may be ‘worthy’ of something, by the good will of the one who bestows it, as a grace freely given, even if, in another sense, we are ‘unworthy’ of such a reward. We may think of the one, two and five talents given us by God; or the laborers in the vineyard, some of whom spent the whole day, while others but the last hour, and all received the same wage. And what of life itself? Who earns that, or is worthy thereof, before they begin to exist? A gift promised is, in some sense, a gift owed, even if we are undeserving – and is not the definition of a gift that it is undeserved?

And what of the greatest gift God has given, His very Self in the Holy Eucharist? At each Mass, we repeat the words of the Roman centurion to Christ: Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum! – “I am not worthy that you should come under my roof”! And in case one might think this only applies to pagan Roman soldiers, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets also confessed the same: sed ecce venit post me, cuius non sum dignus calceamenta pedum solvere –  “but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie”.

We are always unworthy of God, from Whom we receive everything as a gift and grace, a truth which Victoria (1548 – 1611) put so gloriously to dignified music:

To make sense of what might seem a muddle, Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between what he calls condign and congruent merit. With the former, we are fully worthy of a right or reward (con-dignus, as in, receiving a medical or engineering degree by passing the exams and training – at least, it used to be so).

With congruent merit, on the other hand, we are worthy only in some limited, analogical and proportionate respect, receiving something that is not fully owed. A father may buy his child a new bicycle, if he contributes a tenth of the amount from his pocket money. Even more, it is in this way that we approach the Eucharist, or, for that matter, eternal beatitude, to which Communion is ordered. Such dignity is not earned, or at least not fully earned, but of which we may make ourselves more or less worthy, by our own freely willed actions.

As the document says:

to the extent that the person responds to the good, the individual’s dignity can manifest itself freely, dynamically, and progressively; with that, it can also grow and mature. Consequently, each person must also strive to live up to the full measure of their dignity. In light of this, one can understand how sin can wound and obscure human dignity, as it is an act contrary to that dignity (22)

Which brings us to the nub of the question of ‘infinite dignity’. Of course, only God is truly infinite – a term that literally means ‘without bounds or limit’.

Some may interpret this to imply that our ontological dignity (derived from the Greek present participle of the verb ‘to be’), if infinite, makes us worthy, regardless of what we do.

But worthy of what? God created Man in His own image, as the only creature He has ‘willed for its own sake’, which is why God will never annihilate a human soul. Even the damned have dignity, regardless of the fact that they have made fundamental choices against that dignity, and pay the consequences thereof.

Just so, even this side of the grave, we may be worthy of various things, based on our actions. We may lose our dignity, as did the prodigal son, who exclaimed – quite rightly – ‘Non sum dignus vocari filius tuus!’ – “I am no longer worthy to be called your son”! If the prodigal had remained in his sin, he would not have been welcome at his Father’s house. Not from any choice of the Father, but from his own. As the Catechism defines hell, “a state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” (#1033). This, in some preliminary parabolic way, is what the prodigal son experienced, along with everyone in mortal sin.

The difference between mortal sin and hell is that while in this life, we may regain our dignity through repentance (and a good confession). But woe to those who do not repent, and lose the gift of eternal life. As the Catechism continues: “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end”. (#1037)

And we may remind ourselves of the warning of Saint Paul:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:10)

Again, this is not due to any limits in God’s mercy, or even a limit to our own ontological dignity to receive that mercy. Only that we may ourselves, by our own free, voluntary decisions, must choose to avail ourselves of that mercy, so that God may make us worthy of Himself. Sin does not change God’s love for us, but it does block the life-giving effects of that love. The sun is still shining, but we’re hiding under a rock. The Father is waiting for us with a feast prepared, but we’re wallowing with the prodigal in penurious and porcine misery. Whatever cross Christ sends us, it’s our choice, like the two thieves, to blaspheme or bless His holy name. To refuse to acknowledge our sins and seek forgiveness is the sin of final despair, against the Holy Ghost Himself, the only sin that cannot be forgiven.

There is a deep ontological truth, of which Pope John Paul II reminds us in his encyclical on the moral life, Veritatis Splendor, that we shape, form and even create ourselves by our own moral actions. Doing the morally right thing makes us morally good and apt for heaven; while sin makes vicious and warps us, and the wages of which are death.

In all of this, the most important moral decision we can make is whether or not to live in the love of God, manifested primarily by the keeping of His commandments, which, as Christ says to the rich young man, is necessary for eternal life.

It is good to emphasize human dignity, but this dignity, whatever we say of the limits thereon, does have conditions. We must beware of the pernicious error of presumption, that the aforementioned ‘ontological dignity’ will preserve us from punishment, in this life and the next, regardless of what we have done or not done. Not so. The end point of this error is dissolution of the moral law, the futility of redemption, and the whole adventure of salvation. Matthew 7 and 25 – indeed, the entire Gospel message – say something quite different.

Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Mt 7:13-14)

Christ calls us to greater things, to follow Him to the heights – semper altius! – and to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. And to him to whom much has been given, much will be demanded.

Our dignity requires no less.