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The Infinite Dignity of the Disabled

May 1, 2024


The recent Declaration of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Infinita, is a tremendous gift to those living with disabilities. In fact, there may be no other magisterial document as thorough in its defense of the dignity of those with various cognitive, mental, or physical impairments. Of course, it’s not only a document about people with disabilities, but it gives substantial attention to the matter. 

First, the title of the document itself is taken from an Angelus address of St. John Paul II from 1980. He was speaking at the time in the Cathedral of Osnabrück in West Germany to a group largely comprised of individuals with disabilities and their caregivers. The context within which he uses the term “dignitas infinita” is worth quoting here because it sets the tone for the document that follows:

God has shown us with Jesus Christ in an unsurpassed way how he loves each man and thereby gives him infinite dignity. Precisely those who suffer impairments in body or spirit can recognize themselves as friends of Jesus, loved by him in a particular way. . . . Even as a disabled person you can make yourself saints, you can all reach the high goal that God has assigned to each man as his beloved creature.

The use of the term “infinite” here has concerned some commentators, but as Michael Pakaluk has made clear, the context of the term doesn’t rob God of his place of infinity in “time, power, or perfection.” It simply means that our inherent human dignity is not “limited by circumstances.” The document expands the more typical categories of inherent and attributed human dignity and proposes four categories: ontological, moral, social, and existential. The term ontological dignity roughly replaces inherent dignity as a dignity that inheres in the individual and can never be lost. Within the other three categories, the document states that moral dignity can be lost by acting “against the law of love revealed by the Gospel” or by “profound acts of evil against others” (no. 7). Social dignity can refer to the negative effect of one’s subpar living conditions, and existential dignity to situations where serious illness and other hardships may compromise living conditions and render their life circumstances as “undignified” (no. 9). 

Christ brought special attention to the dignity of those who, in his own time, were considered unworthy of dignity and respect.

In a more thorough document, each of these could have been applied specifically to circumstances of life that disproportionately affect individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. For example, in 2020, the national poverty rate in the United States was 8.2 percent, but among the cognitively disabled it was 17.6 percent. In 2022, the disparity of those employed with and without a disability was 37.5 percent. In this context, Dignitas Infinita implies that we have a special obligation to protect those among us who are particularly vulnerable to evil influences in our culture that may compromise their moral freedom and thereby compromise their dignity (see no. 29). Unfortunately, our most prominent advocacy organizations are failing horribly to protect the most vulnerable and actually encouraging them to engage in destructive activities that are at the heart of our culture of anxiety and depression.

Beginning in no. 18 with the heading “Christ Elevates Human Dignity,” Dignitas Infinita reflects on three “convictions” that it says give “human dignity an immeasurable value and reinforces its intrinsic demands.” The first of these is the most typical explanation—that we have been created in God’s image (imago Dei) and thus are called to share in divine beatitude. The second is also familiar, but there is a significant nuance here that is of special consideration for those living without disabilities. 

The second “conviction” is that our dignity was more fully revealed in the Incarnation. Dignitas Infinita expands on this conviction in a significant way. It states that by uniting himself to us in the weakness of our human flesh—by proclaiming that the kingdom belongs to the poor, humble, and despised, and by healing the infirmities of so many—Christ brought special attention to the dignity of those who, in his own time, were considered unworthy of dignity and respect. The cultural impact those statements had in the midst of the Roman Empire—and should have today in our repaganized world—are tremendous. Jesus’ insistence that whatever his followers did for the marginalized they did for him “changed the face of the world.” As the document states, it was this teaching of Jesus that “has given life to institutions that take care of those who find themselves in disadvantaged conditions, such as abandoned infants, orphans, the elderly who are left without assistance, the mentally ill, people with incurable diseases or severe deformities, and those living on the streets.”

“The truth is that each human being, regardless of their vulnerabilities, receives his or her dignity from the sole fact of being willed and loved by God.”

Within that last quote, the phrase “has given life to institutions” needs nuance that brings it to the level of our individual responsibility. While it is true that the Church’s social service organizations continue to do tremendous work to support the marginalized, Pope Benedict XVI, in Caritas in Veritate, reminded us that we have placed too much confidence in the Church’s institutions to take care of what is, in reality, our individual responsibility (CV 11). He wrote that our institutions are not enough and that “only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature, to recognize the divine image in the other, thus truly coming to discover him or her and to mature in a love that ‘becomes concern and care for the other.’” Care for those who are marginalized due to poverty, sickness, indigence, disability, etc. are worthy of our individual attention and respect, or as Pope Benedict XVI said, by a “free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone.” Recognizing the dignity of those with disabilities and acting on that recognition and what it demands is an individual’s responsibility. 

That leads us to one of the most significant contributions of the document, and that is its brief but important comment that “there is an ever-growing risk of reducing human dignity to the ability to determine one’s identity and future independently of others, without regard for one’s membership in the human community” (no. 26).  

A great deal of attention has been given throughout our tradition on God’s impartation of a rational nature as the defining characteristic of our creation in the image of God. We might say that’s a liability we have inherited from the Enlightenment. We know God as a Trinity of persons that exists in a constant relationship of love with one another. Paragraph 26 reminds us that humanity also has a “relational structure” that should help us overcome our insistence on personal autonomy at the cost of disregarding others. We human persons are made for relationship. To deny relationships to others within our communities, like the disabled, is a direct violation of Jesus’ admonition to love our neighbor. Even more, his warning to those who refuse to care for the poor, marginalized, disabled, is found in the horrifying words we hope to never hear when we face him: “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).

Dignitas Infinita asks us to oppose a “throwaway culture” that is increasingly imposing itself. The antidote prescribed by the DDF is to remind us that “the truth is that each human being, regardless of their vulnerabilities, receives his or her dignity from the sole fact of being willed and loved by God,” and therefore, our response to God’s generosity should be that we make “every effort . . . to encourage the inclusion and active participation of those who are affected by frailty or disability in the life of society and of the Church” (no. 53).

If we do that, then we are showing the world that people living with disabilities really do have “infinite dignity.” They are not only loved by God but by us as well. They are one of us, and worthy of our embrace in our churches, homes, schools, and communities.