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Wait: Is human dignity NOT infinite?

Wait: Is human dignity NOT infinite?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bioarticlesemail ) | Apr 12, 2024

One of the problems many highly committed Catholics have when they read and respond to documents issued or approved by Pope Francis is that we do not trust Pope Francis’ ability or willingness to address challenges to the Catholic Faith clearly and correctly. This is no great secret: Everyone is aware of the conundrum it presents. However, we must also realize that this confusion cuts both ways. It is true that we must be on guard against the real deficiencies in the current pontificate. But we must also guard against our own tendency to assume that anything that does not match the way we think an issue should have been treated, or does not express things as we would have liked them to be expressed, must represent one more failing of the pontificate.

An example I noticed in my own reading of the recent Declaration Dignitas Infinita from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith is found in the opening assertion that “every human person possesses an infinite dignity”. I was surprised by this way of expressing the greatness of human dignity, and I noticed that some other analysts read this assertion not as somewhat rhetorical, which may be easily explained, but as erroneous.

Now I do not blame those who flagged this as an unfortunate way of expressing things, especially since that thought had crossed my own (tremendously brilliant) mind, but I do think that a disposition to presume error in this pontificate can lead to hasty over-simplifications. So, without criticizing anyone who expressed dissatisfaction with this turn of phrase, I have decided to take the opposite tack here: I intend to show how, if we are using ordinary terms in ordinary ways without attempting to capture every aspect of their technical meaning in particular contexts, this somewhat surprising statement conveys a deep truth about the nature and destiny of the human person. For in non-technical terms, there is certainly what we would generally call an infinite dimension or character to human dignity—a dimension or character that no other bodily creature shares.

Participation in the Life of God

Because the human person participates in God’s life through grace, and because this participation will endure forever among those who are saved, one normal human way of expressing this tremendous dignity is to describe it as “infinite”. Of course, this dignity is not infinite in that it has a beginning in us, in exactly the same way that “eternal life” is not eternal because it has a beginning in us. But it is infinite in the common and ordinary sense of immeasurable—that is, as an everlasting participation in the life of God. In other words, with respect to its beginnings, we must acknowledge that this participation in the Divine life is not infinite. But in our common parlance, or even in the technical mathematical sense of an “infinite series” of numbers, we may indeed describe our dignity as infinite insofar as it is an intimate sharing and transformation in the very life of God which is intended to be enjoyed by each of us forever.

That is why—hopefully without any blurring of the necessary distinctions which disallow calling ourselves God—theologians refer to the ultimate elevation of our human dignity by using the perfectly orthodox term “divinization”. In heaven with God, we will be divinized—a process of grace which begins even here on earth in each of the faithful, especially through our reception of the Church’s sacraments, and most notably the Eucharist. It is not incorrect in ordinary parlance, therefore, to recognize that the ontological human dignity which we receive as beloved children of God is transformed and elevated through a true participation in the infinite life of our Father.

Considering Scripture

St. Paul expressed this very clearly in a famous passage in his Letter to the Galatians:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God. [Ga; 2:20-21]

This is, then, a Divinely-willed elevation of our human dignity through our participation in the perfect and therefore infinite life of God. However this is to be understood among those who are damned, those who are brought into God’s presence for “all eternity” will certainly realize an “infinite dignity” which is not at all foreign to the dignity in which each one was initially created by God, and the dignity through which each was called into a perfect realization of His Presence. Properly understood, then, the title “Dignitas infinita” is not an error but a true potential of our created human nature, bestowed by God trough His desire to share His own life with each one of us.

Speaking in ordinary terms, therefore, it seems to me perfectly acceptable to refer to our dignity as human persons as an “infinite dignity”, and I think one is likely to object to the term in accordance with whether it is read as justifying a radical human independence—including a moral independence—rather than as a reminder of the ultimate fulfillment of our being through union with God Himself. Or, in a similar way, it is likely to be questioned in one whose spirituality we do not trust, but approved as it appears in Scripture or in the writings of saints.


Stated most generally, it is a serious problem of the current pontificate that we must take so much trouble to distinguish between those occasions when Pope Francis seems to recognize our radical dependence on God and those when he seems to bless the rejection of that dependence—either by criticizing those who insist upon it very strongly in the moral sphere or by affirming those who patently redefine it to allow for certain culturally-approved sins. It is precisely this continuous pontifical cross-signaling which leads commentators to express concern over phrases like “infinite dignity”, which might be perfectly acceptable and spiritually rewarding in another context.

Understandable as such concerns are—and indeed I think that during this pontificate they are unavoidable—I prefer to assume an intentionally correct meaning in pontifical and curial texts, and to explain the texts in the way that makes a proper understanding of the relevant truths easer to grasp and apply to the spiritual life. Have I always succeeded? No indeed, for commenting on the current pontificate is like walking through a minefield. Nonetheless, we are obliged to avoid triggering explosions whenever we can. And part of this involves asking ourselves what we might have to say about a particular document or paragraph or sentence or phrase if it had come, in modern times, from a Pope St. John Paul II or a Pope Benedict XVI—rather than from the current occupant of the Chair of Peter, or from his curial staff.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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