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Dignitas Infinita: What’s the Gist?

May 1, 2024


On April 8, 2024, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) released its second declaration in less than a year: Dignitas Infinita. Over the last few weeks, much has been written about the document from a variety of perspectives, some championing it, others contending with specific points. So as not to miss the forest for the trees, here I will provide some brief background to the document, give a sketch of how it is organized, and summarize its general contents. The reader can then refer to the sections of the text cited for further information about the specific points they find most interesting or intriguing.

The document was in the works for five years. The decision to create such a document was made back in March 2019. The Vatican consulted experts to help draft a first version of the text that same year, but a consultative review found it deficient. A second draft was created from scratch and the consultative review went more favorably (October 2021). However, the members of the then Congregation (now Dicastery) of the Doctrine of the Faith desired to abbreviate and simplify it (January 2022). In February 2023, the revised text was further modified by yet another consultative review. Subsequently, the Dicastery itself (May 2023) agreed it could finally be published after a few more changes. In November 2023, Pope Francis “asked that the document highlight topics closely connected to the theme of dignity, such as poverty, the situation of migrants, violence against women, human trafficking, war, and other themes.”1 Thus, even more substantial alterations were required. To make room for the pope’s desired additions, the Dicastery shortened the beginning section. Finally, in February 2024, a final draft was completed and then approved by the Holy Father in March.

The document begins with an Introduction, comprised of nine numbered sections. The first line reads: “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” (1). The Introduction continues by highlighting various instances in which the importance of human dignity has been affirmed both by the Church and in the secular world (e.g., Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Dec. 8, 1948). The final three sections of the Introduction offer some definitional clarifications in order to avoid confusion. It differentiates between four different kinds of dignity: ontological, moral, social, and existential. “The most important among these is the ontological dignity that belongs to the person as such simply because he or she exists and is willed, created, and loved by God. Ontological dignity is indelible and remains valid beyond any circumstances in which the person may find themselves” (7).

Human dignity is rooted in God’s infinite love for each human person, which “thereby confers upon them an infinite dignity . . . ”

This kind of dignity (ontological) is what is referred to as “infinite,” which does not mean that humans are on equal ontological footing with God, who alone is absolutely infinite. Rather, the use of “infinite” appears to be based on two related things. First, human dignity is rooted in God’s infinite love for each human person, which “thereby confers upon them an infinite dignity,”2 as Pope St. John Paul II has said. Additionally, it is “infinite” in the sense that it has no boundaries: it is not circumscribed by any “circumstance, state, or situation” (1) that would negate it. Hence, “‘the dignity of others is to be respected in all circumstances, not because that dignity is something we have invented or imagined, but because human beings possess an intrinsic worth superior to that of material objects and contingent situations’” (6).3

Moral dignity, however, is another matter. While one’s ontological dignity remains intact, one can nevertheless fail to act in a dignified fashion through one’s misuse of free will. In fact, the “possibility always exists for human freedom, and history illustrates how individuals—when exercising their freedom against the law of love revealed by the Gospel—can commit inestimably profound acts of evil against others. Those who act this way seem to have lost any trace of humanity and dignity. This is where the present distinction can help us discern between the moral dignity that de facto can be ‘lost’ and the ontological dignity that can never be annulled” (7).

After that Introduction, the main body of the declaration continues through five parts and a conclusion. The first part discusses “A Growing Awareness of the Centrality of Human Dignity” (10–16). Beginning with the biblical testimony, it then discusses how the notion of Christian dignity developed further in Christian thought and how the biblical, Christian view influenced the wider culture down to our own day.

Following that historical overview, the second part (“The Church Proclaims, Promotes, and Guarantees Human Dignity”) summarizes the Church’s doctrine on human dignity. It affirms “the equal dignity of all people” (17), underscores its basis in “the love of the Creator, who has imprinted the indelible features of his image on every person” (18), and discusses how the Incarnation manifests and elevates human dignity (19). It further insists on the final destiny to which all humans are called: everlasting communion with the triune God (20–21). Finally, it urges each person to live in accord with their God-given dignity in view of attaining their final end. “All people are called to manifest the ontological scope of their dignity on an existential and moral level as they, by their freedom, orient themselves toward the true good in response to God’s love” (22).

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In part three (“Dignity, the Foundation of Human Rights and Duties”), the declaration considers concrete ramifications of human dignity. For one, it rejects attempts to deny human dignity (and thus human rights) to people who do not have full use of their intellect or will.

“According to them, the unborn child would not have personal dignity, nor would the older person who is dependent upon others, nor would an individual with mental disabilities. On the contrary, the Church insists that the dignity of every human person, precisely because it is intrinsic, remains ‘in all circumstances.’ The recognition of this dignity cannot be contingent upon a judgment about the person’s ability to understand and act freely. . . . Without any ontological grounding, the recognition of human dignity would vacillate at the mercy of varying and arbitrary judgments” (24).

While thus defending universal human rights, at the same time, the document admits that “the concept of human dignity is occasionally misused to justify an arbitrary proliferation of new rights, many of which are at odds with those originally defined and are often set in opposition to the fundamental right to life. It is as if the ability to express and realize every individual preference or subjective desire should be guaranteed” (25).

In this vein, the declaration enumerates “grave violations of human dignity” (33–62), some of which are tied to the aforementioned misuses of the idea of human dignity. Without claiming to be exhaustive, the document lists offenses against human dignity found in the contemporary world. They include extreme poverty (36–37), war (38–39), maltreatment of migrants (40), human trafficking (41–42), sexual abuse (43), violence against women (44–46), abortion (47), surrogacy (48–50), euthanasia and assisted suicide (51–52), marginalization of people with disabilities (53–54), gender theory (55–59), sex change (60), and digital violence (61–62).

The document’s conclusion “ardently urges that respect for the dignity of the human person beyond all circumstances be placed at the center of the commitment to the common good and at the center of every legal system” (64). It further states that both individuals and communities are responsible for fostering human dignity (65). It therefore concludes with a quote from Pope Francis: “‘I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us’” (66).

1 Víctor Manuel Cardinal Fernández, “Presentation” attached to the beginning of Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Infinita, declaration On Human Dignity (March 25, 2024).
2 John Paul II, Angelus in the Cathedral of Osnabrück (Nov. 16, 1980), quoted from Francis, Evangelii Gaudium apostolic exhortation (Nov. 24, 2013), 178. See Dignitas Infinita, 6.
3 Quoting Francis, Fratelli Tutti, encyclical letter (Oct. 3, 2020), 8.