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Bill McCormick, S.J.April 09, 2024
Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, holds up a copy of the dicastery's declaration, "Dignitas Infinita,” during a news conference at the Vatican press office on April 8, 2024. (CNS photo/Pablo Esparza)

A leading theme of the church since the Second Vatican Council has been “reading the signs of the times.” Applied to the new Vatican document on human dignity, “Dignitas Infinita,” the signs of the times are clear: Human dignity is under grave threat. But almost paradoxically, this is an opportune time for Catholics to recommit to the true task of freedom, to recognize and safeguard human dignity wherever it is threatened.

In light of this context, the document has a specific task: to signal unambiguously that the pastoral care of Catholics and indeed the world must be grounded in a proper understanding of human dignity, an account inseparable from Christ. But for someone seeking to read the signs of the times, there is no surer sign of God’s presence in history than Christ himself.

In a world where the foundations of human dignity are fractured and ever-shifting, and their defense an uneasy, fragile achievement, Christians can offer in the love of our merciful Lord a sure defense against all the forces that resist the ultimate happiness of all God’s children.

What is human dignity?

There are already several excellent summaries of the document, including one by America’s Gerard O’Connell. I offer here merely a few guides for reading.

First, the challenge of defending dignity is not something incidental to the nature of human dignity: We actualize our human dignity by recognizing and cultivating it.

Every individual possesses an inalienable and intrinsic dignity from the beginning of his or her existence as an irrevocable gift. However, the choice to express that dignity and manifest it to the full or to obscure it depends on each person’s free and responsible decision (No. 22).

In this way, we see that human dignity is both dynamic and complex—because human nature itself is dynamic and complex. The document carefully pairs freedom and dignity; we have an intrinsic dignity, but it is only through our own freedom that we can live it out. Further, it is through our freedom that we recognize and help to protect the dignity of others. It is this kind of freedom, one oriented toward our happiness and fulfillment as children of God, that must be exercised in all areas of life, including contentious ones.

Second, the understanding of dignity in this document is capacious precisely because its foundations are so particular. It is broad insofar as it covers a host of issues, and narrow insofar as it has a specific basis in God’s providential plan for us. “Dignitas Infinita” offers three bases for human dignity: our creation in the imago Dei; the revelation of our full nature in Christ’s incarnation; and the eschatological promise of our full communion with God.

For those who were hoping for something “new” in this document, perhaps this will be disappointing. And yet this wisdom about dignity is ever ancient, ever new. Just as the Gospel calls us back to what we should in principle know but often forget, so also it renews our commitment to action in the world. When human dignity is in shambles around the world, the Gospel calls us back to defend it.

Third, the document refuses to accept false dichotomies, as Cardinal Fernández, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, says in his presentation on the document:

The Church sees the condemnation of these grave and current violations of human dignity as a necessary measure, for she sustains the deep conviction that we cannot separate faith from the defense of human dignity, evangelization from the promotion of a dignified life, and spirituality from a commitment to the dignity of every human being.

The declaration challenges all Christians to unite what our society has rendered separate: the individual and the community; conscience and truth; experience and doctrine; life issues and social/economic issues; and religious authority and the common good. As the editors of Americaasked recently, “How can the church unite clarity of teaching with pastoral closeness to people in their struggles?” “Dignitas Infinita” does not shy away from that challenge.

The signs of the times

The signs of the times must be read soberly. That is a leading motif of “Dignitas Infinita.” Against both those who are eager to be on “the right side of history” and perennial declinists, “Dignitas Infinita” sees both lights and shadows. While some takes on “Dignitas Infinita” have emphasized the negative and others the positive, the text itself embraces the both/and. It is a difficult time to promote human dignity, and yet it is as important as ever to do so. There are positive and negative “secular” currents swirling in the world today. The church promotes human dignity as vociferously as anyone, even if it has not always done so in the past. Human rights as a project has met with great success, even if at times it has become a victim of its own success. Here the document cites Pope Benedict XVI:

Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century (No. 22).

To use Benedict’s language, “Dignitas Infinita” proposes a mutually critical and purifying dialogue between faith and reason, one whereby reason and revelation are both purified of ideology and drawn into their fullest nature. “Dignitas Infinita,” like so many other documents of this papacy, expresses a sober hope that the church can enter into fruitful dialogue with the world, and seeks to be the kind of sympathetic dialogue partner that will be lent an ear.

A final example of how this document reads “the signs of the times” comes in its magisterial citations. Most obviously, “Dignitas Infinita” seeks to bolster the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose limited and uneven implementation Pope Francis has often lamented. Pope Francis’ magisterium continues the work of “Fratelli Tutti” by laying the foundations for the human dignity underpinning solidarity. It takes up the task of John Paul II’s “Evangelium Vitae” to build a “culture of life” for all humans, and of “Veritatis Splendor” on the relationship of truth and conscience. Finally, it extends Benedict XVI’s reflections on faith and reason, showing how faith can illuminate the immense dignity of humanity in a world darkened by sin and ideology.

What’s next?

How will Catholics come together on these issues? How will they draw others into their tent? Of the many grave violations of human dignity noted in the text, many cry for wide-scale solutions. To return to the question of “Laudate Deum,” how can we cultivate a healthy multilateralism “capable of responding to the new configuration of the world”? There are no easy answers to these questions.

But a central message of “Dignitas Infinita” is that the onus is on Christians to proclaim the dignity of the human person and to call out its abuses. And if goodness and truth are going to win out within any contentious topic, it is because dignity has been placed at the center of that conversation. Indeed, a key presupposition of this text is that the world will be all the better served if more Catholics and all persons of good will can help reorient conversations away from what can be justified in the name of dignity and instead toward what dignity demands of us. How would that shape how we think and live?

In his bull opening the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wrote that the primary task of the church, “especially at a moment full of great hopes and signs of contradiction, is to introduce everyone to the great mystery of God’s mercy by contemplating the face of Christ,” and that being a credible witness to human dignity must somehow involve being a “credible witness to mercy, professing it and living it as the core of the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

We can hope that, impelled by mercy, we can all promote the dignity of the human person as God’s great gift through Jesus Christ.

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