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The Long Term Ramifications of Dignitas Infinita?

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Above: a Texas Renaissance Festival battle.

As readers are aware, last month Dignitas infinita was published. I do not wish to enter into a systematic critique, which Edward Feser, Jeanne Smits, and Peter Kwasniewski have already done very well. Rather, today I want to look at the method, the aftermath, the grounds (for that aftermath), and the motivations.

In terms of method, I must highlight the strange hermeneutic Fernández applies to the previous magisterium cited by him. A paradigmatic example is John Paul II’s 1980 Angelus homily. In that homily, the Pope, addressing the handicapped, says that God has shown us in Jesus Christ such a love that He has conferred on each man an infinite dignity (“unendliche Würde” is the phrase he uses in German). Víctor Manuel Fernández cites that document to claim that human beings have an infinite and inalienable dignity because of their own ontological structure. In other words, he has taken a Christian truth—that is, that by virtue of God’s love, and also by virtue of the end to which we are destined if we respond to God’s love, it can be said that each of us has infinite dignity–and turned it, fundamentally, into an expression that is difficult to reconcile with God’s Majesty. For no one except God has infinite dignity by virtue of His own ontological structure. That God’s Majesty seems to be offended here will perhaps become clearer when we analyse the aftermath of this document.

With regard to the aftermath, it should be noted that the document contains a clear heresy: the alleged absolute unlawfulness of the death penalty. Victor Manuel Fernández completely ignores the teachings of the Bible, the patristic tradition and the entire magisterium of the Church over the centuries.

In the press conference at which he announced the publication of the document, other related issues arose. Firstly, he takes a 15th century papal declaration allowing the Portuguese to buy and sell Gentile slaves, and another from 1537 in which the pope forbids the trade in Gentile slaves. On this basis he argues that the ecclesiastical Magisterium can change and that the faithful are obliged to obey the pope in whatever he says. Fernández ignores on this occasion that Christianity is not a revolutionary doctrine, that the New Testament did not declare slavery abolished (as Benedict XVI beautifully showed in his encyclical Spe Salvi[1]), and that Christian doctors have held that slavery can be imposed as a penalty on criminals and prisoners of just war. It is therefore possible that in various historical circumstances one pope may judge, rightly or wrongly, that the conditions for justified slavery exist, and that in other historical conditions another pope may judge that they do not.

Finally, in the same interview, he maintains that the magisterium on homosexuality can also change, as it did in Fiducia supplicans, and announces that it seems to him that n. 2357 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not express well the respect due to homosexuals when it teaches that homosexual tendencies are “intrinsically disordered”;[2] he proposes that it needs to be reformulated. In fact, in the document Dignitas infinita itself, one can find very dubious statements on this matter according to which people should not be criminally punished for their sexual orientation as is done “in some places.” One might ask, in those places where paedophile pornographers are punished, or where punishments are legally established for bigamists or adulterers, is human dignity being violated? For these are all examples of “sexual orientation” (towards persons to whom they are not married, towards more than one person of the other sex, towards children). Can the legal system punish disorders that threaten the family structure? Again, in Scripture God commands punishments, indeed the death penalty, for incestuous, adulterous, same-sex sexual intercourse, bestiality. Was God violating human dignity in the law of Moses?

In the aftermath of Dignitas Infinita we see a mixture of two striking views of Fernández’s. The first is that, according to him, Catholic doctrine can change in its essence. If one looks closely, this is nothing but a formulation in vulgar language of Walter Kasper’s very dangerous theological principle: “The God who sits on a throne over the world and over history, as if He were an immutable being, is an offence to man.”[3] In this context it makes sense to say that human dignity is infinite. Indeed, it is man who is the true subject of “infinite dignity,” not God. A certain kind of Gnostic “process theology” has this feature, the hatred of God as transcendent Creator, which leads to the attempt to dethrone Him, to force Him to change along with the spirit of man. Is it possible that a Gnostic school has crept into the Church and is now seated in high offices?

The second thesis is that the pope should be obeyed by accepting whatever new doctrine he proposes, and that the cardinals who have criticised the pope have violated their oath taken in the Profession of Faith.[4] Oh, but obedience in the Church is not like that. Indeed, it is in the Communist Party where members must believe as true whatever the party hierarchy says in its daily line, even if it contradicts the line given the day before. Catholics, on the other hand, believe in the teachings of Christ, and in the Revelation before Christ, contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition. The First Vatican Council and the Council of Trent taught us that the main criterion for knowing the content of Tradition is the unanimous testimony of the Fathers. All magisterial documents in the history of the Church are to be believed as guidelines that enable us to understand Revelation, not as substitutes for Revelation. This is why the Second Vatican Council said in its Constitution Dei Verbum, n. 10, that “This teaching office [the Magisterium] is not above the word of God, but serves it.” The structure that Christ gave to his Church is contained in that Revelation, which is why we accept the pope. Not vice versa: we do not accept Revelation because it is given to us by the pope.[5]

But enough about the aftermath and its grounds. Now we must take a look at the motivations. At the press conference at which he presented Dignitas infinita, Victor Manuel Fernández acknowledged that when Archbishop Bergoglio wanted to appoint him Rector of the Catholic University of Argentina, the Congregation for Catholic Education stopped his appointment, precisely because of an article Fernández had published on the blessing of homosexual couples. Incidentally, the person who notified the Congregation was Bishop Aguer. These facts are very interesting for those who wish to understand. A few years ago, the venerable Bishop Aguer was removed from the Diocese of La Plata in a manner truly “unworthy” (in Spanish “indigna”, pace “dignitas infinita”), in order to replace him with none other than Victor Manuel Fernández; and shortly after being appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Fernández sought to make his former opinion on the blessing of homosexual couples, for which he was punished not many years ago, official Catholic doctrine. Interesting.

Photo by René DeAnda on Unsplash

[1] See, in n. 4, the following fragment: “Christianity did not bring a message of social revolution like that of the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle led to so much bloodshed. Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation like Barabbas or Bar-Kochba. Jesus, who himself died on the Cross, brought something totally different: an encounter with the Lord of all lords, an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within. What was new here can be seen with the utmost clarity in Saint Paul’s Letter to Philemon. This is a very personal letter, which Paul wrote from prison and entrusted to the runaway slave Onesimus for his master, Philemon. Yes, Paul is sending the slave back to the master from whom he had fled, not ordering but asking: “I appeal to you for my child … whose father I have become in my imprisonment … I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart … perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother …” (Philem 10-16). Those who, as far as their civil status is concerned, stand in relation to one another as masters and slaves, inasmuch as they are members of the one Church have become brothers and sisters—this is how Christians addressed one another. By virtue of their Baptism they had been reborn, they had been given to drink of the same Spirit and they received the Body of the Lord together, alongside one another. Even if external structures remained unaltered, this changed society from within. ”

[2] So reported Nestor’s blog in Infocatólica ( I have not wanted to speak in this note about the problem of just war, whose treatment in Dignitas infinita is also very problematic.

[3] “Gott in der Geschichte,” Gott heute: 15 Beiträge zur Gottesfrage, Mainz, 1967.

[4] See note on the VMF interview, published in La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana by Tommaso Scandroglio on 13 April 2024.

[5] Even if one takes the neoscholastic position that the proximate rule of faith is the magisterium in its interpretation of Revelation, nevertheless this cannot be understood to mean a contradiction of what the same magisterium has consistently and solemnly taught before, or of the plain meaning of Scripture (e.g., that Christ actually rose from the dead, as opposed to a modernist view that his memory was cherished as alive by his disciples). I thank Peter Kwasniewski for this observation and for the correction of the translation.

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