Dignitas infinita: Part One

On 25 March 2024, Pope Francis approved and ordered the publication of a “Declaration on Human Dignity,” which had been presented by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is dated 2 April 2024. However, it is not unfair to think of it as Pope Francis’ document.

To anticipate, the document presents familiar teachings on a new foundation which is intrinsically plastic, and that is its danger. Given the new foundation,  the teachings can be changed. That is, the declaration raises the anchor which had stabilised traditional ethics. While the sea is calm, no one will notice. But in a storm, the fact that the ship is unmoored will be only too apparent. Needless to say, the Kingship of Christ may have been much in the news lately, but not in this declaration.

There is a preamble by Cardinal Fernandez saying that it took five years to lick the text into shape, earlier drafts having been found below par. He says that the declaration, which he probably had a large hand in writing:

… does not set out to exhaust such a rich and crucial subject. Instead, its aim is to offer some points for reflection that can help us maintain an awareness of human dignity amid the complex historical moment in which we are living.

This is significant because it means that we have to consider the broad principles on which the document is based, and not to imagine that their impact is spent in the specific moral questions addressed therein.

The Dignity of Man: “Infinite” or “Immense”?

In the preamble, Fernandez says that JPII stated that the: “dignity of every human being can be understood as “infinite” (dignitas infinita) … He said this to show how human dignity transcends all outward appearances and specific aspects of people’s lives.” He states that this was said at an “Angelus in the Cathedral of Osnabrück (16 November 1980): Insegnamenti III/2 (1980), 1232.”

The citation is accurate, but misleading, because of what it omits. I have checked both the text in Isegnamenti (“Teachings”) of JPII, and the English translation available on EWTN.[1] The locution of JPII was delivered at a nursing home, where a number of people were disabled i.e. handicapped. What EWTN has is:

This love [i.e. the love of God] is the foundation of our hope and the breath of our life. God has shown us in an insurmountable way in Jesus Christ how much he loves each man and how immense is the dignity that he has conferred on him through him. Precisely those who must suffer from some physical or spiritual impediment must recognize themselves as friends of Jesus, as loved especially by Him. He himself says: “Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will relieve you. Take my yoke upon you.” and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” ( Matthew 11: 28-30). For what seems to men weakness and weakness, is for God a reason for special love and care. And this divine criterion becomes for the Church and for each one of the Christians a task and an obligation. We Christians don’t care much if someone is sick or healthy; What ultimately matters to us is the following: Are you willing to realize in all the circumstances of your life and in your behaviour as a true Christian with full consciousness of faith, the dignity that God has granted you, or do you prefer to waste it before God? in a life of superficiality and lack of responsibility, guilt and sin? Also as handicapped you can become saints, you can all reach the high goal that God has reserved for each man, the creature of his love.

Other translators, coming from a Spanish text, also translate as “immense” dignity but add that Pope Francis had, somewhere they do not cite, “preferred” to translate it as “infinite dignity.”[2] My researches have disclosed that he used that phrase, with the same reference to JPII, in Evangelii Gaudium no. 178 (2013) and in Fratelli tutti no. 85 (2020). There may well be other occasions, but this suffices to show that the idea has been a constant for Francis.

So, which is it: “immense dignity” or “infinite dignity”? In the German text of the Isegnamenti, the very words are “undenliche Würde,” which can indeed be translated as “infinite dignity.” So it would seem that the Fernandez’ English translation as “infinite” is more literal than “immense.”

But, as we know, a literal translation is not always the best. In this case, it is misleading, because, for the reasons given above, the phrase “infinite dignity” was a rhetorical flourish, for the Pope there speaks of wasting one’s dignity. If he had literally meant that human dignity is infinite, it can hardly be wasted, because it is inexhaustible. The translation “immense” is therefore preferable.

So that it is clear that this is the true meaning of the original passage, here is the German with a translation.

Bist du bereit, deine dir von Gott geschenkte Würde bewußt und gläubig in all deinen Lebenslagen und in deinem Verhalten als wahrer Christ zu verwerklichen – oder willst du diese Würde in einem oberflächlichen, verantwortungslosen Leben, in Sünde und Schuld vor Gott verspeilen?

Are you ready to consciously and faithfully use the dignity given to you by God in all your life situations and in your behaviour as a true Christian – or do you want to squander this dignity in a superficial, irresponsible life, in sin and guilt before God?

Taken as a whole, this states that human dignity is something to be realised, and that if it is not realised, it is squandered. On this understanding, human dignity is analogous to the talents in the parable. It is striking that it speaks of “sin.” That word appears but twice in the text of Dignitas infinitia, in order to say that sin can “wound and obscure” human dignity but not cancel it: I would have thought that this is inimical to the idea of “infinite dignity,” how can one wound or obscure what is infinite? But more than this, the fact that sin is an offence against God is not mentioned here. So, I would say that even if the attribution of “infinite dignity” to JPII is accurate, the impression of continuity with his teaching is, at best, misleading.

So, my first concern about this phrase is that JPII was indulging in hyperbole: but in this declaration, that figure of speech is taken as a point of departure for a moral lesson. I do not think it is fitted for that.

Then, perhaps even more tellingly, it makes no sense to speak of “infinite dignity.” We know what an infinite series of numbers is, it is a sequence of numbers which never comes to a close, no matter how long one counts it out. Likewise, we can speak of an “infinite space,” which means the possibility of ceaselessly going further.

But human dignity can hardly be extended forever. So, to speak of an “infinite dignity” for men is to speak evocatively but imprecisely: something appropriate in poetic or rhetorical language. It reminds me of a poster which was once put on walls: “Staring voices from the dark room.” You might use the phrase to sell a product, but is hardly as informative as one would hope from an ethical instruction, and not just any instruction but a declaration of the Roman Pontiff.

Finally, the word “dignity” is, according to Skeat, derived from the Latin dignus, “worthy,” and is perhaps related to decus, “fitting.” The dictionary meaning of “dignity” is “claims to respect, office or title giving (dignity), behaviour suitable to high (dignity);” while “beneath one’s dignity” means “derogatory or degrading.” This raises the question: if “dignity” means being worthy of respect, then for which purpose does it apply? The answer in this declaration is “always and everywhere.” But that, as we have seen, is not what JPII said – and were it the teaching of the Catholic Church – the Pope and cardinal would have quoted it. But they do not.

It is beside the point to appeal the creation of man in the image of God (Dignitas infinita no. 11, Genesis 1:26-27). But we have distorted his image through sin: this is affirmed in the Maronite Divine Liturgy, and is found in a comparison of Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 15:49; 2 Corinthians 3:18 and 4:4; Colossians 1:15 and 3:9-10; and 1 John 3:2): i.e. Jesus is the true image of God, not us, we have to be conformed to that image. Sometimes it is said that we retain the image of God, but have distorted His likeness, but I shall not pursue that here.

Thus, the notion that man has “infinite dignity” is more than problematic. I think, if interpreted literally, it is nonsense. If it is not a nonsense it is wrong: we can waste and squander our dignity through sin.

Hence, when Fernandez writes that JPII: “… said this to show how human dignity transcends all outward appearances and specific aspects of people’s lives,” he is misrepresenting the teaching. If human qualities are not manifested in “specific aspects” of their lives, then they are not human qualities. The image of God cannot be destroyed by a human action: but the can diminish their own dignity through sin. To put it in other words, a “dignity” so “transcending” that it is unrelated to what a person thinks, feels, does and fails to do, is no human dignity at all: it floats in the sky with no earthly connection.

[1] https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/angelus-osnabruck-16-november-1980-25515

[2] https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-call-to-follow-christ-st-john-paul-ii-on-disability/#_ftn2

[2] Pope Francis seems to prefer to translate this as “infinite dignity” Church Life Journal : A Journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life accessed 11 April 2024.

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