Dignitas Infinita: Strengths and Ambiguities

The claim implicit in the title of the DDF’s recently published DeclarationDignitas Infinita (DI), has generated considerable controversy.

Do human beings have infinite dignity? Certainly, those who through baptism receive a share in the divine nature, which is by definition infinite, also share in the infinite dignity of that nature. This is surely what Pope St. John Paul II had in mind when he said: “In Jesus Christ, God has shown us in an unsurpassable way how he loves every single person and confers on them infinite [unendliche] dignity through Christ.” John Paul was plainly affirming that God gives people that dignity through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

One might object to John Paul’s claim that Christ confers infinite dignity on every single person, because that would include those who are not baptized and even those who refuse his offer of salvation. But the pope no doubt means that Christ enables human beings to share in infinite dignity by offering them the superabundant gift of salvation, and confers infinite dignity when they accept salvation with living faith, since that is when they receive the gift of sharing in the divine nature itself.

Dignitas infinita does not teach that human dignity is infinite only in virtue of Christ’s raising human beings up to the dignity of sharing in the divine nature. It teaches rather that “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 … fully recognizable even by reason alone” (no. 1). However, since all creatures are contingent and thus finite, this teaching raises the question of how infinite dignity can be grounded in the very being of even the noblest of creatures. Elsewhere, DI says that “each human being . . . receives his or her dignity from the sole fact of being willed and loved by God” (no. 53). While the latter statement rightly recognizes that human dignity is a gift freely given by God, it still understands that gift to be intrinsic to human nature itself rather than freely bestowed on human beings. Neither passage mentions Jesus or suggests that the gift of infinite dignity presupposes the gift of sharing in the divine nature, which is infinitely above that of the creation of human nature itself.

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