Diane Montagna Interviews Edward Feser on ‘Dignitas infinita’

DIANE MONTAGNA (DM): Dignitas infinita opens by asserting 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.” Yet St. Thomas Aquinas writes: “God alone is of infinite dignity, and so he alone, in the flesh assumed by him, could adequately satisfy for man.” (Solus autem Deus est infinitae dignitatis, qui carne assumpta pro homine sufficienter satisfacere poterat.)

At the Vatican press conference to present the new Declaration, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández noted that the expression “infinite dignity” was taken from a 1980 address by Pope John Paul II in Osnabrück, Germany. JPII said: “God has shown us with Jesus Christ in an unsurpassable manner how he loves each man and thereby endows him with infinite dignity.”

The new Declaration seems to ground that dignity explicitly in nature, and not just in grace. Does the Declaration therefore collapse the distinction between the natural and supernatural?

EDWARD FESER (EF): One of the problems with Dignitas infinita, as with certain other documents issued during Pope Francis’s pontificate, is that key theological terms are not used with precision. Much of the force of the statements derives from their rhetorical power rather than from careful reasoning. So, one must be cautious when trying to determine what strictly follows from them. What can be said, though, is that precisely because of this imprecision, there is a danger of seeming to license certain problematic conclusions. The blurring of the line between the natural and the supernatural would be an example. For instance, the realization of the beatific vision would obviously afford a human being the highest dignity of which he is capable. Hence, if we say that human beings by nature, and not just by grace, have an “infinite dignity,” that might seem to imply that by nature they are directed toward the beatific vision.

Defenders of the Declaration would no doubt emphasize that the document itself does not draw such an extreme conclusion. And that is true. The problem, though, is that exactly what is and is not ruled out by attributing “infinite dignity” to human nature is not foreseen or addressed in the Declaration. Yet at the same time, the Declaration puts great emphasis on the notion and on its radical implications. This is a recipe for creating problems, and the document itself creates such problems in its application of the notion of “infinite dignity” to the death penalty, among other topics.

Also, the significance of Pope St John Paul II’s 1980s remark has been greatly overstated. He referred to “infinite dignity” in passing in a minor address, of low magisterial weight, devoted to another topic. Nor does he draw any novel or momentous conclusions from it. It was an off-the-cuff remark rather than a precise formula, and he was not making it in the course of a carefully thought-out formal doctrinal treatment of the nature of human dignity. But in any event, he does not ground this notion of infinite dignity in human nature itself.

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