Dignitas infinita: Part Two

The Text

The text of the Declaration runs to 66 paragraphs. There are about 500 words on each of its 22 pages, so it runs to about 11,000 words. No. 1 states:

(Dignitas infinita) Every human person possesses an infinite dignity, inalienably grounded in his or her very being, which prevails in and beyond every circumstance, state, or situation the person may ever encounter. This principle, which is fully recognizable even by reason alone, underlies the primacy of the human person and the protection of human rights.

I am by no means certain this is at all correct. First, for the reasons given, to speak of “infinite dignity” as a human, as opposed to a divine quality, is a nonsense. Second, this alleged “principle” is hardly “fully recognizable even by reason alone.” Had it been, why was it not taught before JPII used the phrase? But what does it signify to say “by reason alone”? I could reasonably say: “you only need to think about it to see that your car will probably be stolen if you leave your keys in it, unlocked, with the windows down, in a high-crime area.” Our experience tells us that cars are stolen, that the harder it is to break into them the less likely someone is to attempt it, and that more cars are stolen in some areas than in others.

But when it comes to something like “human dignity,” there is no experience to help us, no experiment we can conduct, there are only religious and philosophical principles: and these must either be accepted on authority or else argued for. In this document, the capacity of reason to discern the alleged truth is simply asserted. If reason could attain to it, why not set out the reasoning?

The Dicastery, with the approval of Pope Francis, then turns to divine revelation, saying: “In the light of Revelation, the Church resolutely reiterates and confirms the ontological dignity of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed in Jesus Christ. From this truth, the Church draws the reasons for her commitment to the weak and those less endowed with power …” (no. 1) But is that commitment drawn only from the idea of human dignity? Is not the divine commandment to love simply absolute? When asked which might be the greatest commandment in the Law, Our Lord taught:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22: 36-40)

The Lord does not say: “Your reason shows that human dignity is infinite and for this reason, you should …” The commandment to love God is absolute and is prior. That element is missing from this Declaration. Whatever value the concept of human dignity might have, for a Christian, it must be secondary to the teaching of Christ, who never speaks of it.

In no. 2, it is affirmed: “This ontological dignity and the unique and eminent value of every man and woman in the world was reaffirmed authoritatively in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948.”

It would always be questionable to say that a UN declaration is “authoritative,” because it raises the question: “Authoritative for whom?” Even if national governments sign it, why should any individual person consider the declaration as “authoritative” for anyone or thing but the UN itself? I could expand this critique, but the most serious issue here is that the Pontiff of the Catholic Church, through the Dicastery, is describing a secular document as “authoritative” on moral and ethical issues. To put it another way, I can see no reasonable basis for them to declare the Universal Declaration to be authoritative for Catholics.

Further, it sets a dangerous precedent to say that anything any secular body affirms is authoritative in the moral and spiritual fields;  not excepting the UN. Are we obliged, as Catholics, to accept all contents of all UN declarations, conventions, and resolutions? Such a situation is inconceivable.

In the same paragraph, the Dicastery reiterates the view I have critiqued above, that all: “must be recognized and treated with respect and love due to their inalienable dignity.” First, it is not right to say that such respect and love are due only because of human dignity: as I have said, the divine mandate is far more powerful a motive. Second, the statement is impossibly broad, even for Pope Francis. When I think of what he has said about traditional Catholics, my hid spins: where was the “respect” and “love” there? Or his comments when Cathedral Burke was sick with Covid? Or for the people sexually abused by Fr Rupnik? This is not to condemn the Pope; I cannot even judge him in these respects, but I can say that it seems to me that the principles he espouses on the basis of “infinite dignity” are not those he – or anyone else – can follow in life. And that is precisely because humans can, despite this declaration, compromise their own dignity. If someone murders in cold blood, they should be punished. It is straining with words to say that imprisonment for this crime is a sign of “respect” for that person. Together with those few who beg to be locked up so that they will not reoffend, there would be at least some who say, if you love me, set me free.

We find a vague reference to “rights” in no. 3: “From the start of her mission and propelled by the Gospel, the Church has striven to affirm human freedom and promote the rights of all people.” The statement can of course be true, but which rights does he mean? Quoting himself in no. 6, the Dicastery states: “human beings have the same inviolable dignity in every age of history, and no one can consider himself or herself authorised by particular situations to deny this conviction or to act against it.” Now, if people do consider themselves so authorised, is it denying their “infinite dignity” to deny that as a “right”?

The next section bears the rubric “A Fundamental Clarification.” It speaks of a need to describe what is meant by “dignity,” and uses a fourfold classification: “ontological dignity, moral dignity, social dignity, and existential dignity.” It explains that “ontological dignity” is what belongs to us as loved creations. Moral dignity involves the exercise of freedom: we have consciences, but can act against it, which would be “not dignified” given that God loves us and calls us to love others. Those who commit evil acts “seem to have lost any trace of humanity and dignity.”

Social dignity refers to “the quality of a person’s living conditions,” (no. 8). If we say that the poor are living in an “undignified” manner, we mean that their situation “contradicts their inalienable dignity.” Existential dignity is implied in the talk of a “dignified” life, e.g. a life with little “peace, joy, and hope,” or with “serious illnesses, violent family environments, pathological addictions, and other hardships.”

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