Rorate Caeli

Divine dignity alone is strictly infinite - Edward Feser, for Rorate Cæli

Edward Feser

for Rorate Cæli

Saint Thomas Aquinas, by Juan de Peñalosa

The Declaration Dignitas Infinita begins with the assertion that “every human person possesses an infinite dignity, inalienably grounded in his or her very being,” and claims also that this “is fully recognizable even by reason alone.”  The second assertion is nearly as striking as the first, because the Declaration’s opening line is in fact radically counterintuitive.  On any natural reading of the phrase “infinite dignity,” human beings clearly do not have it.  Only God does.  

Dignitas conveys “worthiness,” “excellence,” “merit,” “honor.”  Try replacing “dignity” with these words in the phrase “infinite dignity,” and ask whether the result can be applied to human beings.  Do human beings have “infinite worthiness,” “infinite excellence,” “infinite merit,” “infinite honor”?  The very idea seems blasphemous.  Only God can have any of these things.

Or consider the attributes that impart special dignity to people, such as authority, goodness, or wisdom, where the more perfectly they manifest these attributes, the greater is their dignity.  Can human beings be said to possess “infinite authority,” “infinite goodness,” or “infinite wisdom”?  Obviously not, and obviously it is only God to whom these things can be attributed.  So, how could human beings have infinite dignity?

St. Thomas notes that “the dignity of the divine nature excels every other dignity” (Summa Theologiae I.29.3).  Naturally, God has infinite dignity if anything does.  So, if his dignity excels ours, how could we possibly have infinite dignity?  Aquinas also observes that the dignity of human nature is increased by virtue of its being united to Christ in the Incarnation (Summa Theologiae III.2.2).  How, then, could it already be infinite by nature?  Indeed, Aquinas explicitly denies that human dignity is infinite, noting that “no mere man has the infinite dignity required to satisfy justly an offence against God,” which is why Christ’s Incarnation and Passion were necessary (De Rationibis FideiChapter 7).

To be sure, Aquinas allows that there is a sense in which some things other than God can have infinite dignity, when he writes:

From the fact that (a) Christ’s human nature is united to God, and that (b) created happiness is the enjoyment of God, and that (c) the Blessed Virgin is the mother of God, it follows that they have a certain infinite dignity that stems from the infinite goodness which is God. (Summa Theologiae I.25.6, Freddoso translation)

But note that the infinite dignity in question here derives from a certain intimate relation to God’s infinite dignity – involving the Incarnation, the beatific vision, and Mary’s divine motherhood, respectively – and not from human nature as such.

Relevant too are Aquinas’s remarks on the topic of infinity.  He says that “besides God nothing can be infinite,” for “it is against the nature of a made thing to be absolutely infinite” so that “He cannot make anything to be absolutely infinite” (
Summa Theologiae I.7.2).  How, then, could human beings by nature have infinite dignity?

It is true that Aquinas also holds that some things can be said to be infinite in a loose sense (Summa Theologiae I.7.2).  But in no way do they provide a model for making sense of the idea that human beings have “infinite dignity.”  Aquinas’s examples are angels and matter.  Angels can be said to be infinite in a loose sense insofar as they are not limited by matter.  But human beings, who by nature have physical bodies, are limited by matter.  

Matter itself is infinite in a loose sense insofar as it can take on one form after another without end, at least in principle.  For example, a certain piece of wood might now be a desk, then a chair, then a wall, and so on ad infinitum.  But at any one particular time, it does not have an infinite number of forms.  Obviously, then, this provides no model for how a human being might be said at any one particular time to have infinite dignity.

The most charitable reading that can be given of the Declaration’s assertion that human beings have “infinite dignity” is that it is hyperbolic, meant to convey the nature of human dignity in an arresting manner.  On this reading, words like “great,” “vast,” or “immense” could serve equally well to convey what the Declaration wants to say.

The trouble with this, however, is that the Declaration goes on to draw conclusions from its opening premise that would not follow if the phrase “infinite dignity” were read this way.  It tells us that because human dignity is infinite, practices like murder, abortion, euthanasia, and the like are forbidden “beyond all circumstances,” “beyond every circumstance,” “in all circumstances,” “regardless of the circumstances,” and so on.  This wouldn’t necessarily follow if human dignity is merely “great,” “vast,” or “immense.”  Someone’s dignity might be great, or vast, or immense, and yet not be retained in every circumstance.

Hence, if you don’t take the “infinite” part of Dignitas Infinita seriously, then you lose the grounds for taking the “beyond all circumstances” parts seriously.  They go hand in hand.  The “hyperbole” reading – though charitable, given the problems with the notion of infinite human dignity – simply undermines the whole point of the document.

This does not matter much when it comes to upholding the Church’s traditional condemnation of murder, abortion, euthanasia, and the like.  For there are perfectly good traditional natural law arguments against these things that don’t require any appeal to the idea that human beings possess “infinite dignity.”  If the Declaration’s novel argument doesn’t work, there is no harm.  It is not needed anyway.  

However, there is one conclusion the Declaration draws that does require its problematic opening premise.  And that is its novel assertion that “the death penalty… violates the inalienable dignity of every person, regardless of the circumstances.”  On the basis of this claim, Dignitas Infinita lumps capital punishment together with murder, abortion, euthanasia, and other actions that are always and intrinsically evil, evil of their very nature and not just because of circumstances.  

This teaching is no less alarming than the assertion that human beings possess infinite dignity, because it contradicts the clear and consistent teaching of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes.  And it is arrived at precisely by way of the idea that human dignity is infinite, so that it “prevails in and beyond every circumstance, state, or situation the person may ever encounter.”  It is this extreme claim about human dignity that grounds the Declaration’s apparent judgment that an offender can never be executed no matter how depraved his actions and no matter how dangerous he remains. 

Since such an extreme judgment would conflict with scripture and tradition, it is one the Church will have to repudiate.  And this constitutes a further reason for her to reject the extreme claim about human dignity that licenses it.

(For readers who might be interested, I examine Dignitas Infinita in greater detail in a longer article at my personal blog.)