The Vatican on ‘Infinite’ Human Dignity: Do Humans Look Dignified to You?

By Gavin Ashenden Published on April 15, 2024

There’s a new Vatican document which asserts that human beings, by their very nature, have something called “infinite dignity.” A conversation at the Vatican press conference when Dignitas Infinita was launched offered some helpful insights into the theological presuppositions held by its authors.

Vatican correspondent Diane Montagna asked lead author Cardinal Fernandez: “If man has infinite dignity how can he be condemned to the eternal suffering of Hell?”

He answered:

Pope Francis has said many times that the affirmation of the possibility of condemnation to Hell is a kind of cult (veneration) of human freedom that the human being can choose, and that God wills to respect that freedom, even if it is a limited freedom and even if it is sometimes a darkened or infirm freedom, but God wills to respect it. That is the principle.

Well, that makes things crystal clear, doesn’t it? The cardinal went on:

But then the question that Pope Francis asks is: ‘With all the limits that our freedom truly has, may it not be that Hell is empty?’ This is the question that Pope Francis sometimes asks.

What does this mean? It means Pope Francis is downgrading the value of human freedom. He hedges it about with “limitations,” warns that our respect for it may constitute a “cult,” and undermines freedom’s significance with warnings of “darkness” and infirmity. So the free will we’d all believed in really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Does that even finally matter to God?

The Pope Shrugs

Neither the cardinal nor the pope have troubled to offer actual arguments why human choice or free will in themselves aren’t key to our much-touted “dignity.” For that, we must look to St. Thomas Aquinas. He proposed that the manner in which intelligent creatures (i.e., us humans) seek goodness is key to our very nature, and hence to our dignity. We must do so freely because that’s how God made us in the kind of world we inhabit. It’s what makes being human (as opposed to, say, a well-trained and loving lapdog) so special.

But Fernandez tells us that Pope Francis does not attribute much significance to any of that.

If the pope does not rate our free human nature very highly, perhaps God doesn’t, either. Since the pope is not a great fan of freedom and would prefer an empty Hell, then maybe God does as well.

This is not a sophisticated or persuasive line of argument.

The fact that a pope who happens to be at odds with the Christian Deposit of Faith (on one point after another) follows his own idiosyncratic train of thought doesn’t mean we are obliged to hop on board. Pope Francis’s speculations don’t reverse the content of Scripture, or apostolic tradition.

O Flabby Fall!

But there was more food for thought served up at that press conference. See how you like its taste.

A reporter audaciously asked: “Why is Original Sin and its effects never mentioned in the document?” Fernandez replied, “Not even Original Sin removed man’s dignity… . Not even original sin. This ontological dignity remains always.”

So the Fall of man, which Christian tradition tells us brought death into our lives and demanded the death of the God-Man on the cross didn’t really mean much after all. It’s not so much a “happy fall” (because it brought us so great a Redeemer) as it is a blip or course correction.

What seems to have escaped the authors of Dignitas Infinita is that if we believe original sin is real, it certainly does affect our dignity, by corroding or corrupting it. That’s the logical implication all orthodox Christians have always drawn. By rejecting it, the authors are really saying they don’t believe in original sin. Maybe instead we enjoy an “original blessing” – a dignity uncorrupted by Eve’s and Adam’s choices.

Recycled New Age ‘Affirmations’

There are no new heterodoxies, only old ones recycled. A few decades ago, the New Age theologian Matthew Fox launched his book Original Blessing. And it sounds as if the Italian translation has found its way to Rome.

Deny original sin and you produce a sub-Christian anthropology, which needs no Savior at all. Hell is empty because nobody deserves to go there, and God won’t let them.

In a short video he released about the document, popular theologian Bishop Robert Barron tried a little too hard to make the new Vatican statement sound authentically Christian. He did so by smuggling it into the exciting and challenging thesis of historian Tom Holland in Dominion. (See The Stream’s three-part, in-depth interview with Dr. Holland.)

Holland with great care and exquisite scholarship traces the way in which the central Christian value of the sacredness of the human person has infused the water of the culture that we swim in. It scented the air that modern humanity breathes. It became part of the philosophical lexicon of our civilization, even among non-believers (whether they realize it or not).

A Pope for the Great Reset

The claim that humanity has infinite, inalienable dignity regardless of sin isn’t Holland’s thesis, but its opposite. Holland shows that pagan philosophy saw the fate and value of humanity as entirely contingent on power relations. Both the Greeks and Romans were tone deaf to the value of people beyond the role they played in the hierarchical structure of society. It was the power and imagination of Christian theologians who replaced the superman with the divine victim.

But the hubris of post-Renaissance and post-Enlightenment Western thought found itself deeply challenged by the Christian assertion that humanity has been wounded by moral flaws deep in the heart of the soul, which has tripped us up in our pursuit of moral autonomy and improvement.

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Rousseau became one of the most vocal exponents of a humanity free from any original or hidden flaws. We’re simply capable of endless self-betterment, given the right political and social conditions, he said. (Which elite social engineers are keen to impose on us.) All humanity requires to flourish is political liberation, education, and endless progress. Rousseau would have welcomed the notion of a humanity possessed of infinite dignity. What greater platform could there be for the launching of moral, educational, and social improvement?

The religion of therapy and self-esteem which has overtaken our culture in recent decades resonates deeply with the stuff the Vatican is peddling. Jung surreptitiously redefined God as the Self. What greater ontological dignity could humanity have than replacing God the Creator with the infinitely dignified god of the self?

What if Holiness Matters?

Do we have infinite dignity (which no sin can injure) merely because we were made in the image and likeness of God? The early Church fathers didn’t think so. They knew that being made in God’s image is only the beginning of a journey. You must go much, much further, gaining back your original dignity through grace — via repentance and the transformation back into God’s likeness that the saints call “holiness.”

To pick just one patristic source: Irenaeus of Lyon taught that in the Fall, we tragically lost the gift of the Holy Spirit in which our likeness to God had consisted. We need saving from Hell. The only way to regain the Spirit’s presence and to grow in likeness to God is to be united to Christ, God’s perfect image and likeness.

 

Gavin Ashenden is associate editor of the Catholic Herald. Formerly a priest of the Church of England, and subsequently a continuing Anglican bishop, he was appointed Chaplain to the Queen from 2008 until his resignation in 2017.

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