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James F. Keenan, S.J.: “Dignitas Infinita” falters when it doesn’t practice what it preaches

Views James F. Keenan, S.J. / April 19, 2024 Print this:
Pope Francis speaks at the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in Rome, October 2016. (Photo courtesy of the Society of Jesus)

Editor’s note: This article is part of our ongoing coverage of the Vatican declaration “Dignitas Infinita.” In a spirit of synodality, we have invited authors with a range of views on gender identity and its relation to Catholic teaching to present analysis and opinion. We invite you to read more of our coverage, including:

As a theological ethicist, I found that my first reading of “Dignitas Infinita would not be my last. The declaration, which primarily explains the development, meaning and claims of the concept of human dignity, will serve as a very relevant source for explicating the concept’s importance within the church’s magisterium. Though this is not an encyclical (e.g., “Fratelli Tutti”) nor an apostolic exhortation (e.g. “Amoris Laetitia”), both papal autographs, it is a rare declaration that comes from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“Dignitas” marks the ongoing evolution of church teaching on human dignity. The declaration is an important, resourceful contribution to the doctrine’s evolution and is at its best when it invites us to recognize the dignity, and therein the agency, of all those whom we have long overlooked. 

Tellingly, the declaration loses ground precisely when it does not practice what it preaches.

The origins of human dignity

The declaration owes much to the claims of “Dignitatis Humanae,” the 1965 declaration from the Second Vatican Council that offered “human dignity” as the grounds for the right to religious freedom. This new declaration is first and foremost an explanation of its own development, including the rather masterful invocation of its biblical roots. From there to the present era, it highlights the utterances of Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI until, finally, Francis.

Human dignity emerges clearly as the hermeneutical key to understanding the magisterial legacy of Francis.

As Sam Sawyer, S.J., the editor in chief of America, explained, the first part of the declaration “presents a kind of case study of the development of doctrine” of human dignity, culminating in the closing sentence of its first part.

“The church’s magisterium progressively developed an ever-greater understanding of the meaning of human dignity, along with its demands and consequences, until it arrived at the recognition that the dignity of every human being prevails beyond all circumstances,” reads the document. 

The word “recognition” is key, because the declaration is meant precisely to prompt all of us to recognize human dignity in all human beings, especially where we are not in the habit of doing so.

Just as St. John Paul II established the sanctity of life as the foundation of his magisterial teaching, so now human dignity emerges clearly as the hermeneutical key to understanding the magisterial legacy of Francis.

As we will see, these are two different concepts. John Paul II impressed on us his key governing concept about the matter of making a right ethical decision in all cases. Human dignity is not, however, singularly about the matter of decision making. It is also about who we are individually and collectively, and who we are called to become. Because our infinite dignity derives from our being in the image of God, it is about our agency with one another: the dignity we share we must recognize and realize. In the image of the Triune God, we are called to be creative, redemptive and inspiring.

I will be sending my students to mine “Dignitas Infinita” because it provides a privileged and worthy exposé of the meaning of human dignity. For instance, I imagine many readers will try comparative studies not only between the two concepts themselves, but also the ways in which they were applied, while others might propose ways that human dignity could become even more a household term than it is today.

Foundational material

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, explained that the declaration took five years to produce and that the title “Infinite Dignity” derived from a 1980 address in Germany by John Paul II, who wanted to show that human dignity can never be lost. 

Because our infinite dignity derives from our being in the image of God, it is about our agency with one another.

Cardinal Fernández highlighted a key text from Francis’s encyclical “Fratelli Tutti.”

“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,” we read in “Dignitas.”

As the declaration opens, Cardinal Fernández provided in the first part the historical claims of human dignity. In the second part he invites us to see that the “Church proclaims, promotes, and guarantees human dignity.” Here I was especially taken by the claim that Jesus first taught us these lessons by recognizing the worth of those considered unworthy:

Jesus brought the great novelty of recognizing the dignity of every person, especially those who were considered “unworthy.” This new principle in human history—which emphasizes that individuals are even more “worthy” of our respect and love when they are weak, scorned, or suffering, even to the point of losing the human “figure”—has changed the face of the world.

I was moved by this foundational insight of recognizing as worthy those considered unworthy. It reminded me of a key insight developed by the philosopher Judith Butler, who talks about learning to grieve the “ungrievable.”        

Professor Butler invites us to consider what people feel when they realize they will never be missed or grieved. The question “becomes most acute for someone, anyone, who already understands him- or herself to be a dispensable sort of being, one who registers at an affective and corporeal level that his or her life is not worth safeguarding, protecting, and valuing,” writes Professor Butler, who uses they/them pronouns.        

As Professor Butler invites us to appreciate the subjective terror of this insight, they note the need for each of us to be considered grievable. 

Jesus brought the great novelty of recognizing the dignity of every person, especially those who were considered “unworthy.”

“It seems to me that for us a test to know whether we subjectively recognize another’s life as worthy, is whether we find their death grievable or not,” Professor Butler writes.

Professor Butler started writing on the unworthy and the ungrievable 20 years ago. I point this out, because, as we will see, they are a target, at least implicitly, of the declaration’s critique of gender theory. Professor Butler thinks the critique is unfair. 

Still, many theologians would find in Professor Butler a philosopher whose ideas parallel the ideas of Pope Francis. The pope might not think so, nor Professor Butler, but as in this instance, there’s a striking parallel richness to both their thoughts.

A lack of engagement?

The fourth and final part of “Dignitas” details a litany of grave violations of human dignity. 

Yet, here, I was a little disappointed in the direction that the declaration took. The first three parts are a lesson, training us to recognize the unsurpassed worth of human dignity, an ontological trait that can never be lost.

I was expecting that, as in the hospitable ministry of Pope Francis, the teaching would continue by raising up populations needing to be recognized as worthy of human dignity. Or to put it another way, to suggest a new awareness of others as worthy or grievable. 

Inasmuch as the lead violations concerned those trapped in poverty, war, migration, sexual abuse and human trafficking, and later, people with disabilities, the lesson to recognize them, as well as the unborn, would have been, I think, a perfect conclusion to the notable declaration.

But instead of a summons to a new recognition of the wide array of subjects whom we do not recognize as worthy, the fourth part itself evolves from encountering those individuals long overlooked to becoming more about topics wherein the matter of human dignity is violated.

The fourth part itself evolves from encountering those individuals long overlooked to becoming more about topics wherein the matter of human dignity is violated.

Ambiguity exists from the start. 

On the first violation, we talk about the drama of poverty instead of the drama of the poor. Then, we turn to war instead of “expendable” victims of war. But still, in both instances, the actual persons overlooked are raised up for our recognition.

Thus, the third violation raises up migrants, whom we are urged to recognize and receive, and the fourth, those caught in human trafficking, whom we should see as treated inhumanely. Among these two violations, one finds texts of Francis calling us to recognize these victims. The fifth is a brief mention of sexual abuse as a violation that leaves deep scars.

The turn to the sixth violation, “violence against women,” notes that such violence is a scandal and talks of the need to recognize equal dignity. The appeals are continuous to recognize the dignity of women.

But within this part, after mentioning coercive abortions as a form of violence that needs to be condemned vigorously, there’s a brief turn to another such form of violence, polygamy. The declaration invokes the Catechism’s teaching that it is “contrary to conjugal love which is undivided and exclusive.” 

But here’s where I began to see the issue of when the church raises a problematic matter instead of calling for an encounter with the persons involved. 

Pairing it with coercive abortions, one might legitimately presuppose that polygamy must be vigorously condemned in all instances. But in a very compelling article, the ethicist Joseph Loïc Mben, S.J., recognizes the calamity and injustices that are occasioned in some places in Africa, for instance, when a pastor admits to his parish a polygamous husband on the condition that he enter with only one of his wives.

Father Mben argues that “the policy of monogamy-only” impacts the “other wives” and their children who are, by the church’s policy, suddenly torn—spiritually, emotionally, economically and socially—from their own primary familial relationships. Here, I think, we need to recognize the dignity of each in a polygamous situation as we move toward a conjugal policy of undivided and exclusive love. This is only achieved by inclusive encounters in which all the women themselves have agency and voices to unravel the problem of polygamy in their marriages.

The seventh topic, abortion, is clearly about both the matter as well as the dignity of the unborn, but remarkably there’s no encounter with women who are pregnant. The church has clearly the competency to address abortion, but assuredly it must be related to an encounter with the human dignity of women who are pregnant. She makes no appearance here.

Since the declaration recognizes the infinite dignity of each person, might it not engage that dignity among the participants in these matters?

Next, the turn to surrogacy is treated in the same way, noting that the child “becomes a mere object” and the mother “becomes a mere means subservient to the arbitrary gain or desire of others.”       

Those acting as surrogate mothers, those seeking a child through surrogacy or those who have raised a child after surrogacy are notably absent. I am not suggesting that surrogacy should be recognized as an ethically valid practice.  

But it strikes me that many people pursuing surrogacy do so for varying reasons and some are specifically concerned about the dignity of the surrogate mother and their child. Should they not be engaged?

Since the declaration recognizes the infinite dignity of each person, might it not engage that dignity among the participants in these matters? Thus, in the ninth violation, “Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide,” the declaration argues that suicide is an “objective offense against the dignity of the person.”       

But here again, my question is how does human dignity affect the agency of those in these situations?

I am not proposing something contrary to the declaration’s teaching nor am I advancing a situational ethic. I am simply asking what difference does human dignity make, not to us who have long overlooked others, but to those whose dignity and agency has been long compromised and is finally being recognized and asserted?  

Thus, in this instance, do we recognize and listen to the dignity and agency of the dying person suffering miserable, unrelievable pain? How are we to relate the objective nature of human dignity with the agential experience of human dignity?

It strikes me that the development of this doctrine depends upon the pontificate promoting human dignity. Before the whole church, Pope Francis effectively models the power of recognizing another’s human dignity. Not only does he recognize this dignity objectively, but he also engages the agency of those whom he recognizes. After all, human agency rests in human dignity. Made in God’s image we are called to act in that image, creatively, redemptively and inspirationally. 

How are we to relate the objective nature of human dignity with the agential experience of human dignity?

In a forthcoming book edited by Conor M. Kelly and Kristin E. Heyer, entitled The Moral Vision of Pope Francis, I argue that Pope Francis’s papacy is one of “Responsive Listening: Giving Recognition and Empowering the Voices of Those Long Ignored.” 

The Francis papacy is marked by his encountering the poor, the migrant, the trafficked, the victimized and people with disabilities. Therein he meets and listens. He does not stand ahead of these populations that are raised up, but stands among them—learning, advocating and laboring with them as they express their human dignity in their own ways of proceeding. This accompanying inclusion and listening is the veritable trademark of Francis’s ministry.

Indeed, the call in the tenth violation, the “Marginalization of People with Disabilities,” is to recognize their dignity and to promote their “inclusion and active participation.”       

One of the most salutary texts in the declaration is the fruit of Francis’s inclusive ministry with members of the LGBTQ community.

“The Church wishes, first of all, ‘to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence,’” the document states. “For this reason, it should be denounced as contrary to human dignity the fact that, in some places, not a few people are imprisoned, tortured, and even deprived of the good of life solely because of their sexual orientation.”

This denunciation emerges from a papacy that read about, met with and listened to international LGBTQ people talking about their persecution. Just as the pope learned from them, so by listening to the poor, to soldiers, to migrants and to people with disabilities, his positions derive from the multiple encounters he has had with persons whose human dignity has long been overlooked.

The pope’s positions derive from the multiple encounters he has had with persons whose human dignity has long been overlooked.

Still, the denunciation appears in the first paragraph of the eleventh violation concerning what the declaration calls “gender theory.” 

“A diatribe against gender theory”

The remaining four paragraphs are effectively a diatribe against gender theory, part of an on-going critique by the Vatican. 

In their roundtable conversation about this section, Father Sawyer and Michael O’Loughlin, the executive director of Outreach, note that the Vatican and academics seem to be “talking past each other.”      

One can see that the characterizations by Cardinal Fernández of those espousing gender theory are matched by Judith Butler’s in her new work, Who’s Afraid of Gender? Professor Butler writes in general about the Vatican and in particular about Pope Francis. Remarkably, both sides take gender very seriously. And as on-lookers, we wish for an encounter between both sides to model an inclusive discourse.      

This violation, however, is not only about theory but about people’s lives, and this spills into the twelfth violation on “sex change.”      

Notably, from the eleventh violation on, the declaration’s interests in matter prompts them to overlook other persons. The authors of gender theory are as anonymous as the transgender community. Neither are mentioned. And, inasmuch as the transgender person and community are not mentioned, they are not recognized.

The authors of gender theory are as anonymous as the transgender community. Neither are mentioned.

Several weeks ago, I wrote for Outreach about how the alienation of LGBTQ people led them to identify with radically inclusive friendship. As such, the community remains steadfast, and while paragraph 55 has been welcomed by some LGBTQ Catholics, others are bewildered by paragraph 60 on sex change, the twelfth violation.

In response to the position that “any sex-change intervention, as a rule, risks threatening the unique dignity the person has received from the moment of conception,” Mr. O’Loughlin suggests that “whiplash” adequately captures the community’s reaction of reading paragraphs 55 and 60. Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of the LGBTQ Catholic organization New Ways Ministry, notes that the document conveys a “stunning lack of awareness of the actual lives of transgender and nonbinary people.” 

While canonists and other commentators might see the term “as a rule” and the verb “risks” as providing grounds for interpreting the teaching as, at best, a general rule, Mr. O’Loughlin and others worry that bishops might use the paragraph as grounds to espouse policies to further alienate the LGBTQ community from the church. I hope that does not happen.

James F. Keenan, S.J.

Father Keenan is the Peter Canisius Professor of Theology at Boston College. He is both the vice provost for global engagement and the director of the Jesuit Institute. His most recent books are "A History of Catholic Theological Ethics"(Paulist Press, 2022) and "The Moral Life: Eight Lectures" (Georgetown University, 2024).

All articles by James F. Keenan, S.J.

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  1. This is a great thinking. Being gay which I did not have a choice. I used to wonder why me. When I look back over my life I could not understand why I was created different. This article has made me feel and realize that this is how my God created me and gave me the special overdose of love for Him and my fellow beings. God has given me a Golden life

    • Well said! and Spot on.

  2. Milwaukee’s Archbishop Listecki decree to his priests in response to Pope Francis approved DPF’s Fiducia supplicans that allows for blessings of couples in irregular situations or same sex couples states that priests:
    A) May not perform blessing within Catholic Church or Chapel.
    B) May not wear any liturgical garb of any kind.
    C) Priest must make clear he is not blessing a couple but two separate individuals.
    D) Blessing must not have appearance of a wedding service or in conjunction with a wedding.
    Very sad.