Dignitas Infinita and the Idolization of Man

With Dignitas Infinita, we see the crown jewel of a fully-entrenched anthropocentrism, one that stains the window panes of the post-conciliar Church.

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In this current age of mass media and constant Internet access, the process of theological reception can oftentimes be rushed and clumsy. The race is on, as it were, to forge and brandish one’s latest “hot take” on any given Church topic, document, or papal interview. Merely minutes after the introduction of Dignitas Infinita by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), Catholic social media circles were ablaze with knee-jerk reactions, especially given the document’s opening line: “Every human person possesses an infinite dignity…” 

I believe there is an important conversation to be had regarding the concept of human dignity and to what degree we can say humans possess “infinite” dignity, even if in a very limited, analogous way. There have already been solid analyses of the document and its possible limitations. But by fixating almost exclusively on the meaning of the word “dignity, we may lose sight of something far more important—namely, that with Dignitas Infinita we see the crown jewel of a fully-entrenched anthropocentrism, one that stains the window panes of the post-conciliar Church. With Dignitas Infinita we see the crown jewel of a fully-entrenched anthropocentrism.Tweet This

Anthropocentrism is the explicit or implicit belief that humanity is the central important entity in creation. Just as heliocentrism and geocentrism argue that the sun or the earth are at the center of the universe respectively, anthropocentrism sees man at the center of all things. 

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Anthropocentrism is one of the charges often made by critics of the post-conciliar liturgical reform—that, following the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the Roman liturgy inverted from being concerned with the worship of God to now worshipping man. Books ranging from Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s They Have Uncrowned Him to Fr. Anthony Cekada’s Work of Human Hands have highlighted the ways in which the reformed rite mutes the doxological, numinous, and mysterious. In the Novus Ordo, the Liturgy of the Word is primarily didactic—readings are not chanted, are spoken in the vernacular, and can be read by anyone. The priest faces the people (ad populum), and defenders of this liturgical orientation appeal to its (dubious) historical basis and its reflecting the inclusive “new ecclesiology” taught by Vatican II. 

Now, of course, the claim that the Novus Ordo is about “worshipping man” is reductionistic and unhelpful for more nuanced critiques of the liturgical reform. But one cannot deny that the entire package deal of the post-conciliar liturgical reform reflects a general anxiety that prior forms of worship and prayer in the Roman Catholic Church did not truly engage the people or speak to “modern man.” 

In other words, sacrifices—other than that of Christ upon the altar—had to be made. Churches built with grandeur and majesty needed to be “wreckovated” in order to foster active participation in the liturgical ceremonies. The division between ordained and lay, religious and secular, had to be abolished. The ancient treasury of liturgical chants, blessings, sacramentals, vestments, and more were stumbling blocks to Modern Man’s ability to understand Catholic worship. Whether or not the Novus Ordo worships man or God (and I do believe it worships the latter), the fact remains that the primary concern leading to its genesis was how it will benefit man, not how it can offer greater worship to God. 

Although I have studied the documents of Vatican II for several years now, I grow increasingly baffled by the centrality of “man” in them. Perhaps it was the naïve optimism of the post-war era, where modern democracy and human progress seemed inevitable. Maybe it was an effort to affirm the goodness of a common human nature, in an irenic effort to bridge gaps between diverse peoples. But whatever the cause, the effect is seen in the documents. 

For example, we see anthropocentrism at work when we read Gaudium et Spes teach “According to the almost unanimous opinion of believers and unbelievers alike, all things on earth should be related to man as their center and crown” (§12); Sacrosanctum Concilium suggest that reformed rites should be “unencumbered by useless repetitions…within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation” (§34); and Dignitatis Humanae argue that “the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature” (§2). The truths of the documents notwithstanding, it becomes more and more evident that Vatican II’s overarching outlook on the human person was positive, optimistic, and hopeful that man would heed the Church’s maternal call.

Now sixty years removed from the council’s closing, we find it almost axiomatic that humanity is largely good. The nature and grace debates of the early 20th century leading up to Vatican II itself have largely subsided. The post-conciliar magisterium has, with few exceptions, emphasized the essential goodness of humanity and its centrality in God’s creation. Sin is spoken of in almost exclusively therapeutic terms (“not being your best version of yourself”) than as an offense against the majesty of the Triune God. 

The Church’s prizing of inclusivity (“All Are Welcome”, anyone?) downplays the Church’s role as the exclusive vessel of salvation, whose sails sift truth from error. The “Celebration of Life” Masses outnumber Requiem Masses for the Dead—priests wearing white and eulogizing the deceased at a funeral over and against praying for the souls of the Church Suffering. Our shepherds speak of Our Lord Jesus Christ as the “privileged route” to salvation and not the only way. A community already saved has no need of a Divine Savior, and a people largely good have no need for asceticism or repentance.

Dignitatis Infinita reaffirms traditional Catholic teaching against abortion, euthanasia, surrogacy, unfettered liberalism, exploitation of the poor, and so on. Its staunch defense of “life issues” rendered it frustrating for progressives and mainstream news outlets, who saw the document as retrograde and resistant to the zeitgeist. Its opening claim that man possesses an “infinite dignity” will rightly be argued over for months, if not years, to come. Catholics across the ecclesial spectrum will hardly need to wrestle with claims that abortion, euthanasia, gender ideology, and so forth violate human dignity. 

The personalist philosophy of Pope John Paul II has largely formed those Generation Xers and Millennials in the pews, so we feel right at home in framing “life issues” as violations of human dignity. Given the largely unproblematic nature of the document, should not Catholics rejoice at its publication? I would never counsel one to despair or to flat out reject an exercise of the magisterium. But consider my apprehension to leap with unreserved joy.

In every age, the anxieties and preoccupations of the Church bleed through her witness. This is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, the worry about the spread of Protestantism certainly led to the Counter-Reformation, the reform of religious orders and the selling of indulgences. Following the age of the martyrs, the mainstreaming of Christianity led the early monastics into the Egyptian desert seeking Christian perfection. In our 21st century, the Church is rightly worried about offenses against the life and dignity of the human person, which is why so much of Catholic social teaching concerns itself with the defense of said dignity. 

By focusing so heavily on human dignity and human flourishing, the Church risks naturalizing man’s vocation to eternal life. Before we speak of human rights, we must first speak of human duties and responsibilities toward our Creator. Human dignity does not exist in a vacuum but exists as part of our ongoing call to divinization. Thus, Dignitas Infinita would have been strengthened if it placed salvation history—the mysteries of the LORD’s action in history—as the starting point for our dignity and not simply as a backdrop for man’s immanent glorification. One notices how little the document speaks of sin, the mystery of iniquity, and salvation. Most of the references to “offenses” speak of our offending others and not offending God Himself.

In short, we might laud Dignitas Infinita as a welcomed reaffirmation of perennial Church teaching on moral issues affecting the human person. While many people will continue to quibble over the meaning of “infinite” when applied to human dignity, I think a more pressing concern is how the document continues the unquestioned march of humanism across our Catholic religion. How far removed are we from the era of Pope Leo XIII, who, writing an encyclical letter at the turn of the century, wrote: “The world has heard enough of the so-called ‘rights of man.’ Let it hear something of the rights of God.” Given that our world is already so obsessed with human rights, would it not have been wiser for the DDF to publish a document on those oft-forgotten rights of God?


  • John A. Monaco

    John A. Monaco is a doctoral student in theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, and a Visiting Scholar with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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