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If the Vatican’s recent declaration on human dignity, Dignitas Infinita, clarifies anything, it would seem to be that the Catholic Church, at its highest level of teaching authority, has not yet succeeded in clearly articulating exactly what it means to attribute dignity to the human person. This is no minor problem. Recognition of human dignity, reflection on its meaning and requirements, lies at the heart of the troubled and vacillating relationship between the Church and liberal political order.

In the revolutionary ideology of 1789, the Church rightly recognized the false promises of a secular humanism with totalitarian tendencies. Faced in the second half of the twentieth century with the horrors of totalitarianism fully-formed, the Church saw in liberal democratic regimes the still glowing embers of a yearning and respect for personal dignity. Now, when the viability and desirability of liberalism and its compatibility with the Christian humanism of the Church are hotly debated, the question of dignity is especially timely and important.

The thought and teaching of the Church on this point is, in its fullness, necessarily theological, but the aspiration to speak on the matter in a way that can respond to contemporary concerns and confusions about dignity requires good philosophy. Indeed, the declaration insists from the outset that the dignity (even the infinite dignity) of each human person, “is fully recognizable even by reason alone.” When it comes to making a case for this claim, the document is a muddled failure. Nevertheless, I think it does point the way toward how the philosophical account of dignity should be developed.

The challenge for such an account is twofold. First, speaking in a compelling way to contemporary ears requires a phenomenological investigation of dignity, penetrating beneath the surface of recognizable demands and anxieties to bring to view their underlying intuitions and aspirations. Second, it is necessary to examine the coherence of these aspirations and intuitions, illuminating their relationship to the classical terms in which the Catholic tradition has understood the grounds of human dignity (which often do not make immediate sense to the contemporary mind).

This appears to be more or less what Dignitas Infinita tries to do, but without clarity or discipline. In response to “potential ambiguities” of the widely invoked “dignity of the human person,” it purports to offer a “fundamental clarification” by pointing us to the “possibility of a fourfold distinction” in terms of ontological, moral, social, and existential dignity. While such a fourfold distinction is certainly possible, the document’s presentation of it is neither coherent nor adequate, and its deployment of the distinction in subsequent paragraphs does nothing to clarify it.

When the document attempts to connect this rudimentary phenomenological distinction with the classical tradition, it makes an unrecognizable mess of the definitions of the person offered by Boethius and Aquinas, which focus on the distinctive place of the rational nature within a created hierarchy. As the declaration accurately notes, dignitas originally refers to a status within a social and political hierarchy and the respect due to the bearer of that status, and it is later applied by classical philosophers to a hierarchy of natures, in which “all beings possess their own ‘dignity’ according to their place within the harmony of the whole.” Central to a premodern Christian conception of dignity is a lucid account of the place of a rational nature within the created order. Failing to grasp with clarity how such an account has been articulated in the tradition, the declaration provides a confusing presentation of it on its own terms, and a doubly confusing effort to draw connections with the haphazard phenomenological sketch from which it sets out.

Without attaining philosophical clarity on either end of this historical spectrum, the declaration fails to clearly articulate a Catholic understanding, and so renders its treatment prone to the seductive power of damaging sources—such as the “negative anthropology” of modern thinkers, which understands dignity not in terms of one’s given place within a harmonious whole, but in terms of freedom from a defined place within the given order of nature. The influence of these thinkers propels much of contemporary dignity language in a nihilistic direction. Dignitas Infinita refers with at least some degree of approval to Pico della Mirandola, Descartes, and Kant, all of whom conceive human dignity in this negative manner.

The declaration moreover leaves unmentioned a series of thinkers who are more explicitly and problematically political. Perhaps the most important is Rousseau, who lodges firmly at the center of moral and political psychology the Gnosticism Descartes applies to our knowledge of and relationship to nature. This Rousseauan innovation not only inspires and vitiates the Kantian conception of dignity, but leads on to the historicism of Hegel and ultimately the nihilism of Nietzsche.

Precisely this conflict between a Christian anthropology of natures and persons and a modern negative anthropology besets the interpretation and application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 75th anniversary Dignitas Infinita marks, and which it invokes as testimony to the growing awareness of human dignity in history. While the original drafting of that document was decisively shaped by Christian humanism, its adoption by the United Nations required leaving the grounds of its claims to rest on their own appeal rather than on any coherent rationale. Its moral force has been profoundly weakened by the false anthropology that increasingly shapes our modern world.

Like Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti, Dignitas Infinita has the merit of highlighting a theme of central importance in our time. Its weakness as a magisterial document is that it is insufficiently clarifying to serve as a teaching. While it may succeed in provoking a certain kind of dialogue, it is incumbent upon a teaching authority to be an exemplary participant in any such dialogue. In this context, merely highlighting themes and gesturing in directions are not only unhelpful but set a demoralizing standard. Without adequate philosophical foundations, the dignity of this teaching will fall short of the importance of its theme. 

Mark Shiffman is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Saint Patricks Seminary, California, and Director of the Institute for Philosophy, Technology, and Politics. 

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Image by Иван Лемеховpublic domain. Image cropped. 

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