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A Philosophical Analysis of Dignitas Infinita

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A glance at the Wikipedia entry for the Vatican II constitution Gaudium et Spes reveals a rather shocking but telling claim. “It was the first time that the church took explicit responsibility for its role in the larger world.”[1] To all who grasp the irony of this claim, certain lines from that constitution itself––for instance, that the Church “is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest bonds”[2]––come across as a massive understatement. How could an institution, founded by God Himself for the global administration of the effects of His Passion, be anything but “linked” with human history? After creation itself, there has never been a more global historical event than the Incarnation.

The Language of Christian Humanism

Gaudium et Spes set a tone, the document itself says, by “focusing its attention on the world of men, the whole human family,”[3] a tone reflected in the already much-discussed declaration Dignitas Infinita, which was released a few weeks ago. This tone is best described as “Christian Humanism.” Christian Humanism is characterized by what Jürgen Habermas would call a “translation” of Christian doctrine into secular terms. This involves not only the substitution of particular words (“dignity” for the imago Dei, or “values” for goods) but, more importantly, also the substitution of the teleology of Salvation history for the teleology of the historic advance of human rights. Christian Humanism presents the Church to the modern world as one among many voices and contributors in the global advancement of human rights, an advancement that has its own “path” and “method” apart from Salvation history.[4]

Dignitas Infinita is about human dignity. Paragraphs 1 to 32 are a treatise on the theory of dignity, while 33 to the end discuss abuses of dignity. It opens like the Declaration of Independence (“[e]very human person possesses an infinite dignity, inalienably grounded”). Paragraph 2 cites the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is cited again in paragraphs 23, 56, and 63. In fact, the U.N. features heavily in the document, with the additional citation of several papal addresses to the U.N. General Assembly. This is significant, because it frames the discussion of human dignity in terms of secular authorities. Throughout the document, we hear far less of conversion, salvation history, or the sacramental restoration of the human soul, than we do of “dignity” and “the commitment to human rights” “regardless of origin, race or religion.”[5] The conclusion of the document (§63-66) exhorts us to take up the battle for human rights. “The commitment to human rights is never finished!” Religion itself is a mere “corrective” “in helping reason perceive human dignity.”[6]

The Christian Humanism of Dignitas comes across principally in two ways. One is the secularist tone, expressed through a dominant appeal to secular authorities like the U.N. and even more to secular goals (“the promotion of a dignified life”). The Church presents Herself as a limited aide in a broader secular mission. We hear just once of “evangelization” (the verb “evangelize” doesn’t appear at all), and the single reference in question only admonishes us that evangelization cannot be “separate[d] … from the promotion of a dignified life.”[7] Evangelization serves the cause of dignity, not the other way around.

Kantian Dignity & Christian Anthropology

The second expression of Christian Humanism in Dignitas is philosophical and concerns the theory of dignity that is presented. The specter of Kant looms large. First, in the opening paragraph we are informed that human dignity is “inalienable” and “recognizable … by reason alone.” Grace, conversion, and the institutional Church and Her Sacraments, are not prerequisites for the cultural recognition of human dignity. This sense of dignity is rationalistic. Second, recognizably Kantian formulations appear throughout the text. For instance, in paragraph 47 we read that “[h]uman beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems,” which is more or less a direct quotation from Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Third, in paragraph 13 Kant receives the distinction––with St. Thomas and Descartes––of explicit mention as a source of “developments of Christian thought.” Modernity is praised for a deeper understanding of human dignity that is characterized by new emphases on human “subjectivity,” “intersubjectivity,” “relationships” and a concern for “free human action.” Kant, Descartes, Personalism, and Renaissance Humanism are credited with developing an “enriched contemporary Christian anthropology.”

What exactly is dignity, and how could any use of the word be objectionable? As Mr. Timothy Flanders has pointed out, the Latin dignitas appears in the Offertory of the Mass (“O God, who wondrously created the dignity of our human nature and more wondrously restored it…”). St. Thomas Aquinas himself uses the term, for instance in Question 63 (on “respect of persons”) of the Summa, II-II. Moreover, even if we grant that “dignity” falls short of the Christian doctrine that man is made in the image and likeness of God (the imago Dei), why should we object to its use as a means of evangelization? Can we not fruitfully build on the secular understanding, however vague or constrained it may be, that human nature is an inherent good?

Kant vs. St. Thomas

It is worth noting two admirable passages from Dignitas that are clearest in upholding the Church’s intellectual tradition. The best parts of Dignitas, paragraphs 55 to 60, which condemn gender identity theory and transgenderism, occur side by side with a reassertion of traditional hylomorphism (that humanity is an identity of both matter and form). We are reminded in paragraph 60 (on “sex change”) that “humans are inseparably composed of both body and soul” and that “[t]he dignity of the body cannot be considered inferior to that of the person as such.” The second admirable passage is paragraph 24, where the author reminds us that human nature, and not personhood, is the basis of what we are and what value we have. Placing the redemption, dignity and purpose of persons before the redemption and dignity of humanity subordinates our common kinship with God to the caprices of personal identity.

But the orthodox spirit of the passages above cowers under the looming Kantian sense of “dignity.” What are the features of this Kantian doctrine? First is the argument that human worth, or the respect due to human beings qua human, is a matter of universal rational intuition. In his Critique of Practical Reason Kant makes the revealing claim that the moral life cannot depend upon practical experience and practical knowledge of our environment. If it did, he observes, then to live well would require time, resources, and practical wisdom. In fact, Kant goes so far as to establish the principle that the only unshakeable knowledge we have is knowledge that is not based on experience.

Aristotelian and Thomistic ethics, by contrast, hinge on phronesis (“practical wisdom”), which is the faculty of moral navigation in a physical world of variable circumstances. Because we are physical creatures, bound to space and time, we require space and time to cultivate our understanding of the world, our understanding of good action, and our understanding of human nature itself. Kant’s interpretation of dignity reflects his position that what is good and worthy of respect in human beings is immediately available to reason and reflection, apart from both sensory and historical experience. This means, crucially, that the meaning of human nature has been available to all reflective human beings throughout history, regardless of grace or Salvation history. It means that the inherent worth of human nature is immediately evident to all reasoning individuals now, without any need for conversion. Religion is a goad (a “corrective”) to reason, but reason does the work. Human dignity is self-evident.

Paragraph 6 presents human dignity as “an original datum (something given).” “Pope Francis affirms that ‘the wellspring of human dignity and fraternity is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’ but even human reason can arrive at this conviction through reflection and dialogue…” However, the paragraph fails to explain that transformation in Christ––transformation of ourselves, but also of our societies and cultures––involves an understanding of ourselves that has only been made available after Christ’s Resurrection. Rational reflection is not sufficient to grasp the meaning and worth of human nature. We require the historical event of the Incarnation. Nor is rational reflection sufficient even in the Christian era, without the further intercession of actual graces, conversion, and membership in the institutional Church. Dignitas Infinita is a call to rational reflection, but it is not a call to conversion. Without conversion, there can be no adequate understanding or respect for human nature.

Interestingly, subsequent lines in the declaration contradict paragraph 6. For instance, paragraph 10 correctly asserts that “[t]he ancients were on their way to discovering human dignity,” while paragraph 16 claims, quoting Dignitatis Humanae, that “contemporary man is becoming increasingly conscious of the dignity of the human person.” Both claims––that paganism fell short of perfect understanding, and that modernity marches towards understanding––belie the notion that “dignity” is intuitive or self-evident. Ironically, however, the closest guarantee of human self-understanding, which is Christ’s Atonement, is overshadowed in the document by the progressivist guarantee of future enlightenment, fueled by “a universal aspiration to fraternity.”[8]

Dignitas distinguishes between what it calls “ontological” and “moral dignity.” If we return to St. Thomas’ Question 63, mentioned above, we see an understanding of “dignity” that is much closer to the “moral” sense, a “dignity that can be lost”[9] and “wondrously restored.” St. Thomas writes of the role of distributive justice “in allotting things to various persons in proportion to their personal dignity.”[10] He writes of “circumstances result[ing] in dignity”[11] and of “ecclesiastical dignity,”[12] suggesting the Roman sense of dignitas as the respect owed to a political office or some other social role. Roman dignitas is comparable to the Greek prosopon, or “persona,” which can be donned or discarded. Indeed, this ancient sense of dignity is explicitly referenced in paragraph 10 of the declaration.

“Ontological dignity,” as characterized in Dignitas, is inalienable for all time since creation, impervious to the effects of actual sin and the Sacraments. As such it is “apart from all cultural change,” says Pope Francis.[13] “To be created in the image of God means to possess a sacred value that transcends every distinction of a sexual, social, political, cultural, and religious nature.”[14] It is this disembodying of human worth, this apparent denial of the relevance of history and culture to our self-understanding and self-respect, that most clearly evokes Kant. Kantian dignity can be defined as a respect for individuals that is grounded exclusively in reason and available exclusively to reason. Kantian persons are worthy of respect because, and only because, they possess reason. The worth of human existence, like the worth of human knowledge, lies radically separated from our physical existence and our bodies, an error that is responsible for the very gender theory that Dignitas condemns. Disembodied minds are not formed by history and culture, including salvation history and sacramental culture. Again quoting Pope Francis, paragraph 6 states that “human beings have the same inviolable dignity in every age of history.”[15] Surely it is precisely in a Christian age and a Christian culture that human dignity is fostered! Paragraph 16 seems to contradict these passages by citing the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. “The proper exercise of personal freedom requires specific conditions of an economic, social, juridic, political and cultural order.”[16] This is perfectly clear and follows the Catholic intellectual tradition.

There is much to commend Dignitas infinita, not only for its clear defense of sexuality but also for its general clarity of style, notwithstanding some apparent contradictions that have been cited. Tensions between traditional and modern intellectual movements within the Church are brought into relief in a way that will foster productive debate. However, the rhetorical dominance of Christian Humanism, especially through an emphasis on Kantian dignity, risks suggesting a future of respect and understanding of human nature that has no need for grace, evangelization, conversion or salvation history.

Photo by Joseph Corl on Unsplash

[1]Gaudium et spes,” Wikipedia,

[2] Gaudium et spes §1,

[3] Gaudium et spes §2,

[4] Cf. Pope Francis, Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, (Apostolic Journey of His Holiness Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates, 2019), “In the name of God and of everything stated thus far; Al-Azhar al-Sharif and the Muslims of the East and West, together with the Catholic Church and the Catholics of the East and West, declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.”

[5] Dignitas infinita §40,

[6] Dignitas infinita §22

[7] Dignitas infinita, Presentation, para 6

[8] Dignitas infinita §6

[9] Dignitas infinita §7

[10] [Italics added for emphasis] ST II-II, Q. 53, A. 1, respondeo

[11] ST II-II, Q. 53, A. 1, ad 1

[12] ST II-II, Q. 53, A. 2, obj. 1

[13] Dignitas infinita §11

[14] Dignitas infinita §7

[15] Dignitas infinita §11

[16] Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church §137,

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