Dignitas Infinita’s Whistling in the Dark

Dignitas Infinita displays a dangerous naiveté about a supposed consensus of moral thinking.

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Various commentaries I have read so far about the latest declaration of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith have been marked by a kind of relief. Some feared that the dicastery would be forging ahead in controversy and were surprised by the orthodoxy (o tempora, o mores) of the summary of teachings it represents.

I think that one aspect of the declaration has been ignored. That is its naiveté about a supposed consensus of moral thinking. In paragraph seven, it reads: “There is widespread agreement today on the importance and normative scope of human dignity and on the unique and transcendent value of every human being.” The endnote for that affirmation refers to the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, a 1966 United Nations “Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” and the 1975 Helsinki “Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.”

Widespread agreement was not even the case when the documents were written. To say that there is a moral consensus now is just not true. It is whistling in the dark to pretend that by simply restating the Church’s position there can be a resolution of all the issues it addresses. The fact that it must address such issues gives the lie to the pretension that there is for the most part a common ground about the respect due to persons.

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The Nation, the old Stalinist periodical, had a commentary about the declaration that implied secularists should welcome the declaration as a starting point for understanding, even though the list of threats to human dignity contains elements that are repugnant to the magazine’s usual audience. The commentator called the declaration “bewildering” and claimed that the text itself contradicted what it said about gender and the author’s “transgender and nonbinary friends.” The declaration “sprawls,” according to the critic, because it includes so many disparate elements, which he points out is “the direct result of Francis’ intervention in the drafting of Dignitas Infinita.”

His point is well-taken about the profile of Pope Francis in the declaration. His Holiness is mentioned 24 times in the text, as compared with nine times for “Jesus,” “Christ,” and “The Son.” Of the 116 endnotes of the document, 58 are references to the present Holy Father’s encyclicals and discourses. There is not one reference to Veritatis Splendor, St. John Paul II’s exposition of the bases of moral theology. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is mentioned five times, which had me thinking this was another celebration of the anniversary of the document last year. 

However, the style and content of the declaration convinces me that the dicastery is really interested here in giving a summary of Pope Francis’ magisterium on social issues and that its audience is “the world.” The world, that is, of so-called enlightened opinion. The approach seems to be: All we in the Church are saying is that every human being is worthy of respect. How can anyone gainsay that?

The fact is many do disagree with our doctrine, to the point where discussion becomes problematic. People who supposedly subscribe to the worthiness of human life advocate and promote abortion. That is because the child in the womb is a problem, not a person, and is not welcome. The misanthrope Bill Maher—I cannot call him a comedian—has said that abortion is “kind of” murder, but “we won’t miss” the human being killed in the procedure. How do you dialogue with a person like Maher, who gets gasps and laughs at such a remark? Is it really likely that he would accept the idea that there is substantial agreement about the respect due the human person?

The press seized upon the question of transgenderism in the declaration. Gender dysphoria is an overinflated cultural issue now, but I think the issue is really a psychiatric one. In England, there is a coming consensus about the absurdity of gender “transition” of minors. The transgender person is a symbol of the cultural crisis of our time. The declaration speaks confidently about our Christian anthropology: “we do not create our nature.” But some very powerful forces in our society reject the idea of a “human nature,” or of what is implied in the declaration but which it timidly avoids: natural law

Only once does the declaration mention the idea of moral relativism. That is the Pandora’s box from which so many of the evils it describes emerge. Moral consensus has to be about seeking the truth. The Sartrean moral chaos we live in is tidily summarized by saying that it is a misuse and misunderstanding of human freedom. That should have been the main thrust of any declaration about the psychosis of mutilating human bodies to fit artificial notions of social acceptance. 

The phenomenon of a man who wishes to “pass as” or be taken for a woman (although not really, at times), or vice versa, is about a deep and painful lack of self-acceptance even before social acceptance. It is tragic and very sad that people should suffer that way. Enabling them to do permanent damage to their bodies, a process that includes a lifetime of artificial hormones and even paying the doctors who lend themselves to such Frankenstein surgeries is a form of “social” psychosis, a dysphoria generalized and even canonized by presidential executive orders and media censorship of dissident voices. 

A section in the declaration speaks of “Growing Awareness of the Centrality of Human Dignity.” It gives a brief sketch of philosophical grappling with the idea of the intrinsic worth of every human life. It is not merely an aside to say that it would be more correct to speak of “growing dissonance” about human dignity, which is “immeasurable, ineffable, beyond current understandings” but only “infinite” in a poetic, metaphorical sense. Only God is infinite. 

The hook of the phrase from its rhetorical use in a discourse of St. John Paul II is not quite just. “Infinite dignity” is a poetic phrase and certainly a powerful expression, but rhetorical strengths can also be weaknesses. And the declaration, which is a kind of “Francis-can” branding of Catholic social doctrine, has the disadvantage of a kind of rhetorical tour d’horizon, a daisy chain of issues, without addressing the antitheses embodied in the opposition to the Catholic understanding found in the parliaments and political leaders of the “enlightened” power elites.

Presuming a consensus that does not exist is an optimistic take on the cultural conflicts of our time. It is perhaps more comfortable to think that we can parlay our way to a cultural consensus. Unfortunately, it is extremely unrealistic. So is thinking the most radical point in the spreadsheet of the pope’s (through the DDF) Apologia pro Magisterio Suo: the radical pacifism he espouses. Presuming a consensus that does not exist is an optimistic take on the cultural conflicts of our time.Tweet This

Different voices in the Vatican politburo walked back His Holiness’ “white flag” remarks about the Ukraine war to mean simple advocacy of negotiation. But the fact is that the explanations don’t follow from: 

No war is worth the tears of a mother who has seen her child mutilated or killed; no war is worth the loss of the life of even one human being, a sacred being…All wars, by the mere fact that they contradict human dignity, are “conflicts that will not solve problems but only increase them.” 

Wouldn’t that kind of radical position mean: let the terrorists, the invaders, the Nazis, the Communists, etc., march in without resort to arms or the threat of arms? Taken as an absolute, it would mean no right to self-defense—personal, familial, or national. United Nations rhetoric and white papers notwithstanding, there is certainly no growing agreement on the radical pacifism espoused; otherwise, why are there so many conflicts around the globe, why is the armaments industry so strong in countries with decidedly “liberal” ideas about morality? I understand the Christian and Gospel sources of the stance, but this is not only a departure from Christian tradition, it is also an avoidance of the problem of justice and the force needed to make it possible in society.

Is it my own optimism that sees the declaration as a kind of coda in the symphony of Pope Francis’ pontificate, one that is very open to pastoral experimentation even to the point of ambiguity and, also, the reliance of personality and the persuasions of beaux gestes instead of abstract theological or even basic evangelical principle. The summary it provides of the pope’s teaching is useful, but is that what the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith sees as its main purpose?

While I am grateful for Dignitas Infinita in some respects, I really think that it is not enough. The global Kulturkampf we are engaged in requires something more.

[Image Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/EWTN News]


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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