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‘Dignitas Infinita’ and the Roots of Human Dignity

Dignitas Infinita, the new declaration of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), affirms that “every human person possesses an infinite dignity” and enumerates assaults on that dignity, with particular attention to new developments in “gender theory.”

While the sections dealing with abortion, surrogacy and gender ideology contain nothing new, the April 8 text has received “widespread praise” from many Catholic commentators who were apprehensive after last year’s declaration, Fiducia Supplicans (on blessings for “irregular same-sex couples”), proved disastrous.

The language on gender theory was unambiguous: “Therefore, all attempts to obscure reference to the ineliminable sexual difference between man and woman are to be rejected” (58). Not only would that preclude pharmacological or surgical interventions to suppress/alter sexual characteristics, but it would appear to cover the use of language, including forms of address and prayers.

While direct, Dignitas Infinita did not quote some of the more forceful comments of Pope Francis, who has likened women who have abortions to mobsters who hire a hitman, or has said that “today the ugliest danger is gender ideology, which nullifies differences.”

While the document restates Catholic teaching on abortion, surrogacy and euthanasia, it includes other assaults on human dignity, including poverty, war, the travails of migrants, human trafficking, sexual abuse, violence against women, marginalization of the disabled and digital violence.

Dignitas Infinita treats such matters in brief, taking its lead from the teaching of Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes, which considers “offenses against human dignity” — a list which includes “all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures … subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where individuals are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons” (27).

The more distinctive contribution of Dignitas Infinita is to examine the roots of human dignity and then to examine ways that it can be compromised, or even lost, in a certain sense.

“It is essential to point out that dignity is not something granted to the person by others based on their gifts or qualities, such that it could be withdrawn,” the declaration states (15). “Were it so bestowed, it would be given in a conditional and alienable way, and then the very meaning of dignity (however worthy of great respect) would remain exposed to the risk of being abolished. Instead, dignity is intrinsic to the person.”

Dignitas Infinita employs the classic definition of a person given by Boethius in the sixth century: “an individual substance of a rational nature.” Citing this as the “foundation of human dignity,” the document explains that:

“as an ‘individual substance,’ the person possesses ontological dignity. Having received existence from God, humans are subjects who ‘subsist’ — that is, they exercise their existence autonomously. The term ‘rational’ encompasses all the capacities of the human person, including the capacities of knowing and understanding, as well as those of wanting, loving, choosing, and desiring; it also includes all corporeal functions closely related to these abilities” (9).

Thus the human being has “ontological dignity,” meaning that it belongs to his or her very being, not conferred by others, or acquired by himself or herself. Dignitas Infinita refers several times to the 75th anniversary of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” last year.

Read more at National Catholic Register 

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