Dignitas infinita, Part 3

In a scholastic interlude, No. 9 says:

… the classical definition of a person as an “individual substance of a rational nature” clarifies the foundation of human dignity. As an “individual substance,” the person possesses ontological dignity … nature is the “principle of action.” We do not create our nature; we hold it as a gift and we can nurture, develop, and enhance our abilities. By exercising the freedom to cultivate the riches of our nature, we grow over time. Even if a person is unable to exercise these capabilities due to various limitations or conditions, nevertheless the person always subsists as an “individual substance” with a complete and inalienable dignity. This applies, for instance, to an unborn child, an unconscious person, or an older person in distress.

This become relevant later on, but the Dicastery then passes to section 1, “A Growing Awareness of the Centrality of Human Dignity.” In No. 10, it says that in the ancient world they began to understand human dignity, but not to the extent we now do. It is striking he writes: “… a way of thinking that would be able to ground our respect for the dignity of every human person in every circumstance was still a long way away.” This is the difference in this document: that human dignity is held out as the ground of morality.

The Dicastery deals with biblical perspectives in No. 11. It repeats the reference to Genesis 1:26-27. It asserts: “the “image” does not define the soul or its intellectual abilities but the dignity of man and woman.” It does not explain how it arrives at that. The Dicastery then offers some quotes from the Old Testament, e.g. “Sirach equates the oppression of the poor with murder: “To take away a neighbour’s living is to murder him; to deprive an employee of his wages is to shed blood” (Sir. 34:22).”

The Dicastery comes to the New Testament in No. 11. “Born and raised in humble conditions, Jesus reveals the dignity of the needy and those who labour. … Jesus broke down cultural and cultic barriers, restoring dignity to those who were “rejected” or were considered to be on the margins of society, such as tax collectors, women, children, lepers, the sick, strangers, and widows.”  It  adds: “The apostle Paul affirms that every Christian must live according to the requirements of dignity and respect for the rights of all people (cf. Romans 13:8-10) according to the new commandment of love (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-13).” This is a little surprising: Romans 13:8-10 speaks only of love (agape), not dignity. 1 Corinthians 13 is centred on love, and 13:13 says: “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.” They left dignity out.

This is the point of departure to consider “Developments in Christian Thought.” It notes that Aquinas affirmed that “‘person’ signifies what is most perfect in all nature—that is, a subsistent individual of a rational nature.” Then, Christians wrote more about dignity, into the twentieth century, and Personalism, and (once more), the UN declaration. I have difficulties in understanding why “Only this inalienable character of human dignity makes it possible to speak about human rights.” (No. 12-14)

In No. 16, the Dicastery notes the importance of the concept of dignity in Gaudium et spes and Dignitas humanae from VII. After repeating at greater length what has gone before, in No. 19, it is suggested that by the Incarnation, human dignity was reaffirmed. But to say that Christ “affirmed that this dignity can never be lost” is the merest assertion. In this paragraph, many fine principles from the New Testament are reinterpreted as being about human dignity, although Scripture itself does not say so. In No. 20, it is asserted that the Resurrection is about the same. It is notable that the great bulk of direct references to dignity come from the documents of and after VII: it is always read into the Bible.

It is said, in No. 21, that we have an inalienable dignity, but also a “choice to express that dignity and manifest it to the full or to obscure it …” It reiterates in No. 22 that “sin can wound and obscure human dignity, as it is an act contrary to that dignity; yet, sin can never cancel the fact that the human being is created in the image and likeness of God.” This can be understood by faith.

Section 3 is called: “Dignity, the Foundation of Human Rights and Duties.” In No. 23, it quotes Francis and JPII as to the importance of the UN Declaration. No. 24 notes that according to some people, an unborn child, a dependent person, and one with mental disabilities, lack dignity. No. 25 states that human dignity is appealed to in justification for:

… an arbitrary proliferation of new rights, many of which are at odds with those originally defined and often are set in opposition to the fundamental right to life. It is as if the ability to express and realize every individual preference or subjective desire should be guaranteed. This perspective identifies dignity with an isolated and individualistic freedom that claims to impose particular subjective desires and propensities as “rights” to be guaranteed and funded by the community. However, human dignity cannot be based on merely individualistic standards, nor can it be identified with the psychophysical well-being of the individual. Rather, the defense of human dignity is based on the constitutive demands of human nature, which do not depend on individual arbitrariness or social recognition.

This touches on a very sore point: the standard which Pope Francis through the Dicastery now makes the basis of morality can be used against Catholic ethics, e.g. in promoting alleged rights to abortion. In No.26 he speaks of the need to recognise “the objective norms of the good and of our relationship with other living beings.” He has now based them not on the commandments of God, but of an infinite human dignity. He sees that:

there is an ever-growing risk of reducing human dignity to the ability to determine one’s identity and future independently of others, without regard for one’s membership in the human community. In this flawed understanding of freedom, the mutual recognition of duties and rights that enable us to care for each other becomes impossible.

I would not disagree with that, but if human dignity is a sufficient basis for ethics, and if, as he has asserted in section 1 that there is a growing awareness of human dignity, how can this be possible? Perhaps there is a growing misunderstanding of human dignity because the commandments of God have been forgotten. In No. 28, the Dicastery insists on the need to recognise the dignity and rights of others. The difficulty it will have is that it has asserted not just “immense” but “infinite” human dignity. Can what is infinite be comprised? Can endless infinites coexist in human society?

In No. 29 the Dicastery notes that our free will often prefers evil to good. I wonder, could it not be argued that to say this is to offend infinite dignity? In No. 30 it allows that: “our freedom can only weaken and become obscured” if we depart from God. But why not our dignity? It has earlier distinguished four types of dignity: where is that distinction now?

The Dicastery states, in No. 31, that: “… freedom is frequently obscured by a variety of psychological, historical, social, educational, and cultural influences. Real and historical freedom always needs to be “liberated.” One must, moreover, reaffirm the fundamental right to religious freedom.” This is another tile in the mosaic, but again I ask why could not apply to a need to educate us as to what human dignity is and can be; which would mean teaching the truths of Christianity.

I find No. 32 one of the most arbitrary paragraphs in the entire document. The Pope through the Dicastery states:

… human history shows clear progress in understanding human dignity and freedom, albeit not without shadows and risks of regression. Such advancement in understanding human dignity is demonstrated by the fact that there is an increasing desire to eradicate racism, slavery, and the marginalization of women, children, the sick, and people with disabilities. This aspiration has been bolstered under the influence of the Christian faith, which continues to be a ferment, even in increasingly secularized societies.

I think there is a very strong argument to be made that in fact racism and attacks on dignity is on the increase: it is considered perfectly legitimate now, even praiseworthy, to attack the white race, to attack men for being men, and so on. I would nominate the way people in positions of authority were and still are prepared to lie about the Covid virus, and so-called gender change, as showing an ever-decreasing lack of concern for human dignity. That is, it is subordinated to political agendas. That ends what I might call Part I of the declaration, although it is section 3. Section 4 really begins a new line.

I will just state now that, although the balance of the document may restate many truly Catholic doctrines, first, it does not do so when it comes to the death penalty and in its passing over the teaching on just war. Secondly, and more importantly, the basis of the ethical teaching – even where correct in conclusion – has been changed. This is serious, because that new basis will allow significant, even unlimited changes in doctrine. To give an example: if I say “do not steal because God says stealing is a sin,” I have enunciated the ethical conclusion on the solid basis of following the Divine Commandments. If I say “do not steal because you might get caught” I have come to the same conclusion, but on the basis I have come to it, it would be alright to steal if you do not get caught. By placing their conclusions on the basis of “infinite dignity,” they allow people to argue for positions contrary to Catholic teaching on that basis. And this happens now: many argue for euthanasia, in particular, on that foundation.

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