Dignitas Infinita – a summary

“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”

On 8th of April, the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith published a declaration on human dignity, Dignitas Infinita (Infinite Dignity). This is a summary of that document.

“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”


The presentation tracks the five-years development of the document, starting in 2019, highlighting the request of the Holy Father to give more attention to “grave violations of human dignity in our time”. It announces that the first three sections discuss principles and theory with the aim of clarifying the term “dignity”. The fourth section reflects on some of the social and moral modern challenges that threaten that dignity and reaffirms the Church’s condemnation of those. The document defines this dignity as “infinite” (after Pope St John Paul II). The presentation also states that the Declaration aims at strengthening the truth that defending human dignity is a “fundamental condition for our societies to be truly just, peaceful, healthy, and authentically human”.

Introduction (1-9)

The document declares that “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). This principle and truth “underlies the primacy of the human person and the protection of human rights” and is the base for the Church’s commitment to protecting the vulnerable (1). This dignity is confirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued 75 years ago and calls for its protection have been made by the Church from its foundation, including by recent Popes who have emphasised that restrictions on human freedom and rights are attacks on human dignity thus “greatly offend the Creator” (4). The introduction notes Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti as a contemporary guide for protecting and promoting human dignity, where he sees this as the basis of a just society. He emphasises that dignity is rooted in the Gospel but can also be found through human reason, and it is something we have been given and need to accept with faith and gratitude. Human dignity and its inalienability transcend every culture and are true for every human in history (6).

The introduction makes a fundamental clarification on the meaning of dignity. It distinguishes four sides to the concept of dignity: ontological dignity, moral dignity, social dignity, and existential dignity (7). Ontological dignity is the most important one as it “belongs to the person as such simply because he or she exists and is willed, created, and loved by God” and “remains valid beyond any circumstances”. This is also clarified in the classical definition of the person as an “individual substance of a rational nature” (9). Moral dignity is how “people exercise their freedom”. This dignity can be lost as people can behave in undignified ways and cause evil (7), unless they repent and convert. Social dignity refers to the “quality of a person’s living conditions” (8). Finally, existential dignity is what people may experience to be a “dignified” or “undignified” life. Due to certain, non-economic circumstances (e.g. poor health, complicated family situation, etc) people might feel they are living and undignified life despite being aware of their inherent ontological dignity (8).

Section one: A Growing Awareness of the Centrality of Human Dignity (10-16)

This section traces the history of understanding of human dignity. Even though there was some perception of the existence of human dignity in antiquity, it was still far from current understanding (10). We can find its basis, however, in the Bible from the beginning of the Old Testament, with the creation of the human being in the image and likeness of God and thus the bestowal of dignity by God (11). Throughout the Old Testament it is visible how God and His prophets denounce injustice and call for the protection of the rights of the poor and the vulnerable. Jesus affirms this attitude through His life and works described in the New Testament (12). The “new commandment of love” that the Apostles then start spreading, guides every Christian to “live according to the requirements of dignity and respect for the rights of all people” (12). It is ultimately by “the good done to every human being, regardless of the ties of blood or religion” that Christ will judge us (12). Developments in Christian Thought through the Church Fathers or theologians, such as Thomas Acquinas, build on Revelation and the truth on dignity that it presents (13). Traces of these can be even found in the philosophers of the Enlightenment and later in more contemporary philosophies such as Personalism, which reconsidered subjectivity to include the significance of relationships in defining our being (13).

Nowadays, as noted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the term ‘dignity’ emphasises the uniqueness of the human person, and it is seen as an inherent and inalienable quality of the human being without which it is impossible to recognise human rights (14). Dignity is intrinsic to the person, not granted by others, and cannot be lost or withdrawn (15). Human beings possess it “regardless of whether or not they can express it in a suitable manner” (15). The Second Vatican Council and subsequent Church teachings underscore the universal and inviolable nature of human dignity, grounded in reason and revelation. The Magisterium recognises that “the dignity of every human being prevails beyond all circumstances” (16).

Section two: The Church Proclaims, Promotes, and Guarantees Human Dignity (17-22)

In this section, the Dicastery outlines three convictions that lead the Church to proclaim, “the equal dignity of all people, regardless of their living conditions or qualities” (17). The first one comes from Revelation and “holds that the dignity of the human person comes from the love of the Creator, who has imprinted the indelible features of his image on every person” (18). This emphasises the person’s sacred value and it encompasses the whole person: body and soul, given it is an imago Dei (18). The second conviction comes from God’s elevation of human dignity through the Incarnation of His Son Jesus Christ. He unified Himself to every human being and proclaimed the Kingdom of God for those who were considered “unworthy” (19), a principle which “changed the face of the earth”. The third conviction is that every person has a “vocation to the fullness of dignity” in its “ultimate destiny” which is the calling to be “in communion with God” forever (20). “Consequently, the Church believes and affirms that all human beings—created in the image and likeness of God and recreated [34] in the Son, who became man, was crucified, and rose again—are called to grow under the action of the Holy Spirit to reflect the glory of the Father in that same image and to share in eternal life” (21). Finally, the expression and realisation of our inherent dignity depends on free and responsible choices aligned with the true good, which can however be obscured by sin. That is why faith is important as it complements reason in understanding and upholding human dignity, guarding against distortions and promoting the full recognition of human worth (22).

Section three: Dignity, the Foundation of Human Rights and Duties (23-32)

The section outlines some misconceptions of human dignity which make it an arbitrary and/or individualistic and/or subjective concept. These misconceptions lead to a vision of dignity which is inconsistent with and cannot sustain the inalienable dignity referenced in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (23). Firstly, the document refutes movements that seek to replace human dignity with ‘personal dignity’ or base dignity on an ability to act freely and reason, thus excluding people such as: unborn babies, dependant elders, or some of those with mental illness. Dignity is inherent, “independent of the individual’s situation”, unconditional and should be respected unconditionally. We have it just by virtue of belonging to the human species (24). Secondly, the document re-affirms the objective basis of human dignity coming from “constitutive demands of human nature, which do not depend on individual arbitrariness or social recognition” (25). It thus highlights the misuse of the concept of human dignity to promote false rights, which actually stand against the basis of inalienable dignity and human rights, but rather promote an “isolated and individualistic idea of freedom” whereby every individual preference and subjective desire should be guaranteed as a right and thus are imposed on the community to be respected (25). Such individualistic and self-referential views of freedom ignore the relational aspect of our world which emphasises that we are all members of one human family. Dignity therefore also implies that we assume obligations toward others (27). It is also part of our dignity to recognise the goodness of other creatures and care for creation as a gift entrusted to us by God (28).

The section also emphasises that human freedom can be inclined towards evil and that humans need to be liberated from “negative influences in the moral and social spheres” (29). Distance from God, and thus the truth and source of freedom, weakens freedom and can lead to disrespect for one’s dignity and for that of others. This is because a rejection of objective truth and simply following our own will, makes it difficult to validate anything that is external to one’s own will, and thus difficult to have regard for the will of others (30). This concept of individual freedom that has no limits and is devoid of objective influence is also not realistic because of cultural influences or because, where socio-economic conditions in society are not met, people cannot exercise freedom. Ensuring these conditions is not possible without recognising true human dignity and building structures to protect it, religious freedom being one condition (31).

Section four: Some Grave Violations of Human Dignity (33-62)

This section starts by highlighting the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which says that “all offences against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and willful suicide” must be recognized as contrary to human dignity” (34) and denounces death penalty. It then “addresses some specific and grave violations of” dignity:

  • The “Drama of Poverty” (36-37): Poverty undermines human dignity, including in richer and also where there is a materialistic and consumeristic mentality. This echoes Poe Francis who notes that “‘new forms of poverty are emerging.’”, such as that which takes away work and the “dignity of work”, e.g. because of unemployment that results from obsession with money and reducing costs.
  • “War” (38-39) is described as a ‘defeat of humanity’ which has both short-term and long-term consequences, especially because it affects many more civilians nowadays. It also says that “the intimate relationship between faith and human dignity means it would be contradictory for war to be based on religious convictions”. The section also reaffirms Pope Francis’ teachings on welcoming migrants (40) whose dignity is affected by poverty and the necessity to leave their homeland.
  • Paragraphs on human trafficking (41-42) once more denounce the trade in people and the domination of money over humans, including the marketing of organs and sexual exploitation of minors, illegal trade of drugs and weapons, slave labour, terrorism and organised crime. It concludes that trafficking offends the freedom and dignity of the victim and also dehumanises the oppressor.
  • The section then reiterates how sexual abuse deeply wounds human dignity because of the unity of body and soul and hinders the mission of the Church (43).
  • The document denounces violence against women (44-46), and inequalities between men and women which still remain high despite women’s dignity being recognised in many ways. Women are less able to defend their rights. It also notes that more work needs to be done to “prevent discrimination against those who have chosen to be wives and mothers” and to prevent sexual abuse of women, fuelled by a sexualised and materialistic culture. Abortion, especially coercive abortion, as well as polygamy, which is “contrary to the equal dignity of women and men”, are also violence against women. Finally, it condemns feminicide, by reminding us about our love for Mary.
  • The section then reiterates Church teaching on abortion as a denial of human dignity (47), which includes attempts to obscure its true nature, e.g. calling it an ‘interruption of pregnancy’. The Church upholds the intrinsic dignity of human life from conception to natural death. Unborn children also have dignity and are the most defenceless and innocent, meaning they deserve even more protection. It also states that defending unborn life is essential for upholding all other human rights, as it is an affirmation of the sanctity of life. Reason is enough to recognise the inviolable value of each life, but from a faith perspective the violation of such life is an offence against God who created that life. The document then pays tribute to St Teresa of Calcutta’s efforts in this area.
  • The document denounces surrogacy (48-50) as a violation of the dignity of the child in the first place, as it becomes object of a contractual agreement. “The legitimate desire to have a child cannot be transformed into a “right to a child” that fails to respect the dignity of that child”. Surrogacy also violates the dignity of the woman and her body, as she is detached from her child and becomes an instrument of the desires of another.
  • Euthanasia and assisted suicide (51-52) mistakenly separate the concept of dignity from life itself and place dignity against life. Advocates for euthanasia falsely link it with dignity: “suffering does not cause the sick to lose their dignity”. Regardless of whether euthanasia it is the person’s wish, helping someone to end their life is against the person’s dignity. “There are no circumstances under which human life would cease from being dignified and could, as a result, be put to an end”. Instead, there should be efforts to alleviate suffering and need for palliative care with avoidance of “aggressive treatments or disproportionate medical procedures”.
  • The document reminds us that there is a need to protect and support people with mental and physical disabilities, instead of oppressing, marginalising or rejecting them (53-54). Every human “receives his or her dignity from the sole fact of being willed and loved by God” and any physical or mental imperfections do not change that. Instead, the vulnerable require even more protection, and we should not fall into a “throwaway culture”.
  • Gender ideology is denounced (55-59). The document upholds the dignity of the person and their right to protection regardless of sexual orientation. It rejects discrimination based on sexual orientation (55). However, the Church warns against the gender ideology, which pushes for non-existent rights and falsely “cancels differences” (56). Such ideologies also promote an attitude of self-determination in such a way that it puts the person in the place of God, and therefore offends Him and His gift that is life and creation (57). Gender theory also denies the truth of sexual difference and the masculine-feminine division (59), which the Church proclaims, and which is a beautiful manifestation of Creation which complements itself and brings new creation (58). “Only by acknowledging and accepting this difference in reciprocity can each person fully discover themselves, their dignity, and their identity” (59). Respect for oneself and one’s body is crucial to affirming dignity and recognising the truth that “‘biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.”
  • The section states that sex-change risks threatening the unique dignity of the person (60) as it disrespects the natural order given by the Creator and uniqueness given to every person by God. This is because “the dignity of the body cannot be considered inferior to that of the person as such” and the body is also “endowed with personal meanings, particularly in its sexed condition”. However, healthcare assistance to resolve genital abnormalities earlier or later in life is permissible and does not constitute sex-change in the sense of rejecting unique dignity.
  • Finally, the section highlights the threats to human dignity posed by digital violence (61-62) and that even though digital development can promote human dignity, it can also foster loneliness, breakage of human relationships, addiction, exploitation, self-loathing, e.g. through fake news, pornography, cyberbullying, exposing oneself and one’s life. Instead, technology must be harnessed to promote solidarity, truth, and the common good, thus respecting human dignity.

Conclusion (63-66)

The conclusion reaffirms Pope Francis’ words to look up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many great steps have been taken, but there is much to do and sometimes we have had backwards steps (63). The Dicastery therefore “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) as a basis for human rights. This is a shared responsibility between individuals and the State (65) and remains something that the Church promotes (66).

Never miss a post - subscribe to updates to the blog (English language only) here

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing.
Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

Author: Adelaide Di Maggio

Published: 19th April 2024

Posted in:

© Catholic Social Thought 2020