The Long Term Ramifications of Dignitas Infinita?

As readers are aware, last month Dignitas infinita was published. I do not wish to enter into a systematic critique, which Edward Feser, Jeanne Smits, and Peter Kwasniewski have already done very well. Rather, today I want to look at the method, the aftermath, the grounds (for that aftermath), and the motivations.

In terms of method, I must highlight the strange hermeneutic Fernández applies to the previous magisterium cited by him. A paradigmatic example is John Paul II’s 1980 Angelus homily. In that homily, the Pope, addressing the handicapped, says that God has shown us in Jesus Christ such a love that He has conferred on each man an infinite dignity (“unendliche Würde” is the phrase he uses in German). Víctor Manuel Fernández cites that document to claim that human beings have an infinite and inalienable dignity because of their own ontological structure. In other words, he has taken a Christian truth—that is, that by virtue of God’s love, and also by virtue of the end to which we are destined if we respond to God’s love, it can be said that each of us has infinite dignity–and turned it, fundamentally, into an expression that is difficult to reconcile with God’s Majesty. For no one except God has infinite dignity by virtue of His own ontological structure. That God’s Majesty seems to be offended here will perhaps become clearer when we analyse the aftermath of this document.

With regard to the aftermath, it should be noted that the document contains a clear heresy: the alleged absolute unlawfulness of the death penalty. Victor Manuel Fernández completely ignores the teachings of the Bible, the patristic tradition and the entire magisterium of the Church over the centuries.

In the press conference at which he announced the publication of the document, other related issues arose. Firstly, he takes a 15th century papal declaration allowing the Portuguese to buy and sell Gentile slaves, and another from 1537 in which the pope forbids the trade in Gentile slaves. On this basis he argues that the ecclesiastical Magisterium can change and that the faithful are obliged to obey the pope in whatever he says. Fernández ignores on this occasion that Christianity is not a revolutionary doctrine, that the New Testament did not declare slavery abolished (as Benedict XVI beautifully showed in his encyclical Spe Salvi[1]), and that Christian doctors have held that slavery can be imposed as a penalty on criminals and prisoners of just war. It is therefore possible that in various historical circumstances one pope may judge, rightly or wrongly, that the conditions for justified slavery exist, and that in other historical conditions another pope may judge that they do not.

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