Love and Dignity

I admit a certain ambivalence about organizing a document around “human dignity” because I am unsure we’ve adequately prepared the ground to support that discussion, especially with non-Catholic circles.

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The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith published a declaration, Dignitas Infinita, on April 8 (though it predated it April 2, supposedly to coincide with the 19th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s death). The declaration is divided into two parts: a general discussion of “dignity” as the organizing concept of the document and a “not…exhaustive” catalog of 13 instances where dignity is violated.  

Without addressing here either whether or how we might speak of “infinite” dignity as related to the human person or commenting on specific issues Dignitas covers, let me make some preliminary observations about the document’s overall approach.

I admit a certain ambivalence about organizing this document around “human dignity.” I do that not because I dispute that we need to develop a true concept of dignity serviceable for public discourse but because I do not think we are there yet—and am unsure we’ve adequately prepared the ground to support that discussion, especially with non-Catholic circles.

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Consider how The New York Times basically dismissed Dignitas. While summarizing its content, the paper’s underlying message was unconvinced of the Church’s claim that things like abortion, sex changes, surrogacy, or gender theory undermined human dignity. As the Times saw it, Dignitas is an illustration of where Francis’ “inclusivity” hits the “limits” of “Catholic doctrine.”  

Imagine: a Pope facing “limits” from “Catholic doctrine”!

Why turn to “dignity” as the operative principle to make the Church’s argument? Some have suggested it is in keeping with the “fraternity” focus of Fratelli Tutti.  “Dignity” is also a frequently invoked concept in secular human rights discourse, so I assume Rome is attempting to co-opt that language, found in many contemporary human rights declarations (Dignitas mentions approvingly the Universal Declaration on Human Rights). That’s neither necessarily bad nor a mere concession to the zeitgeist. It may represent an effort to develop Catholic anthropology and find some rationally-based (as opposed to revelation-based) language to support public discussion in the way the Church once relied on natural law thought.  

But what “dignity” means in those secular documents is often diametrically opposed to what the Church is saying in this Declaration. That’s because much of the secular world calls “dignity” the self-willed preferences of isolated individuals asserted in the name of “autonomy.” That inadequate anthropology is, of course, a flawed basis on which to try to build policy and law which are, in the end, ethical endeavors. Ethics constructed on a false anthropology is a house built on sand.

The Vatican tries to address that problem by speaking of “ontological dignity,” i.e., an understanding of the human person grounded in objective metaphysics, including the recognition of the objectivity and normativity of human nature.

But that is a very foreign language for the intellectual milieu of modernity, which largely ranks metaphysics alongside alchemy in terms of sources of knowledge and which proclaims “at the heart of liberty is the right to define…meaning….” To postulate a reconceptualization of the concept “dignity” and to hang on it your arguments against abortion, euthanasia, surrogacy, and genital mutilation (aka “gender reassignment surgery”) is a Herculean task for a 20-page document. It is a tall order for a first document.

Let me draw a parallel. I would argue that what this Declaration wants to treat under the term “dignity” can also be treated under the far more traditional Christian category of “love.” I have long argued that Catholic moral theology, especially in the area of sexual issues and bioethics, needs centrally to incorporate the dichotomy between “love” and “use” developed by St. John Paul II in his pre-papal work Love and Responsibility.

In that book, Karol Wojtyła’s “personalistic norm” married—happily, in my opinion—the Christian commandment of love of neighbor with the Kantian categorical imperative against ever using another person. Of course, Wojtyła grounded his ethical “personalistic norm” in the thick ontological soil of a realistic anthropology.

In the final analysis, there are two ways of treating another person: loving them or using them. I would—and have—argued that all the things Dignitas calls offenses against human dignity are, at root, offenses against love of person and examples of use.

Now, when Pope John Paul II started talking this way, especially in the first decade of his pontificate, before his thought had more fully entered Catholic vocabulary, proponents of dissident moral theology—to the degree they understood Wojtyła—pushed back against it. I remember Fr. Ronald Modras, one of the five authors of the infamous Kosnik Human Sexuality book, calling how Wojtyła spoke of “love” and “man” an “idiosyncratic use.” Modras was wrong, but he had a point: it takes a lot of spade work to change vocabulary.

Consider, for example, the current phrase “love is love.” In its common usage, Wojtyła would have recognized it is a slogan, not a truth. “Love” has certain contours and content; not everything that goes by its name is the real thing. But we know from experience how that slogan has been used to advance agendas that Catholic moral theology would recognize are not love. I fear, especially at this stage of introducing the term, a similar fate for “dignity.”  

That said, I would welcome an effort to develop a robust Catholic notion of “dignity” that can compete on human rights matters in the public square with what trades on that term today. But that is a long and arduous path, which is why—without denying that actions like abortion and surrogacy are fundamental attacks on human dignity—I would not forego traditional Catholic reasons to oppose such actual and widespread contemporary evils. Signal they are offenses to “dignity,” but that is not—at least not yet—where the gravamen of the Church’s argument should lie.

There are solid Catholic thinkers who have tried to use “dignity” to advance the Catholic human rights argument on bioethics issues like abortion: Christopher Kaczor (A Defense of DignityDisputes in Bioethics) comes to mind. But I remain concerned that “dignity” remains yet too “squishy” a concept to bear the burdens one wants to place on it. I hope we may get there, but the immediate question is: Are we really there yet? I remain concerned that “dignity” remains yet too “squishy” a concept to bear the burdens one wants to place on it.Tweet This


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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