Eleanor Roosevelt holds a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1949 (FDR Presidential Library & Museum/Wikimedia Commons).

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In the process of preparing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, UNESCO convened a committee of philosophers to examine the theoretical basis for universal claims about human dignity and rights. Although able to agree on many particular claims, the philosophers could not agree on “why” those claims were true. That is, they could not develop any shared vision of human nature or the human person on which such claims could be based. Jacques Maritain, one of the participating philosophers, later recounted that “at one of the meetings of a UNESCO National Commission where human rights were being discussed, someone expressed astonishment that certain champions of violently opposed ideologies had agreed on a list of those rights. ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘we agree about the rights but on condition that no one asks us why.’”

Though clearly humorous, that acknowledgment seems in some ways more straightforward and believable (to me) than Dignitas Infinita’s claim that a belief in the infinite dignity of every person “is fully recognizable even by reason alone,” though the Church “reiterates and confirms” this belief (1). Perhaps in principle the dignity of every person could be realized by reason alone, but not in the world we actually inhabit. It should be no surprise, then, if other parts of the document leave us wanting more.

Dignitas Infinita’s distinction in paragraphs 7–8 of four kinds of dignity, while clarifying in some ways, is not always helpful. So, for example, a criminal who has acted in horrible ways and may “seem to have lost any trace of humanity and dignity” has, in fact, lost (or damaged) only what the document calls moral dignity. He or she cannot, after all, lose ontological dignity, which is said to be indelible. This seems right, but we want to know a little more: How do these two sorts of dignity—ontological and moral—interact? Why even treat them in the same document? Does the fact that a criminal simply cannot lose or even damage his ontological dignity make any difference in how we treat him or how we judge his loss of moral dignity? Unless and until we can at least try to say something about such questions, it isn’t obvious how the distinction helps us.

In any case, Dignitas Infinita articulates a number of claims about human persons. What we gain by thinking of these claims as a reassertion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not clear. For me, at least, it would be more persuasive if the Church were to speak in its own voice. And if it did—if the Church tried to say no more than can be said out of its own confession—I think Dignitas might take a somewhat different shape. How so?

First, we would be more careful to make clear what concept of dignity we were using at different times. An obvious example of this comes in the discussion of warfare in paragraphs 38–39. Terrible and terrifying as warfare is, a blanket statement that all wars “contradict human dignity” is hardly persuasive. Of the four forms of dignity, which is “contradicted” by war? After all, wars are sometimes arenas in which great (moral?) dignity is displayed in the most difficult of circumstances. Can it really be true—has it always been true in human history—that “no war is worth the loss of the life of even one human being”? Or even, to tug at the heartstrings a bit, “worth the tears of a mother who has seen her child mutilated or killed”? If by this we mean to affirm dramatically and emphatically the ontological dignity that inheres in every person, no doubt what we say is true. But then, in that same sense, it is also true that no automobile speed limit over fifteen miles per hour is worth the loss of even one human being.

A second, slightly different issue meets us in the discussion of poverty in paragraphs 36–37. Here we need more clarity about the difference between actions that should never be done and what we might call aspirational hopes for the human future. That some people are born into families or countries that offer fewer opportunities is said to be contrary to their dignity. This refers, I guess, to what the document calls their “social dignity.” It is certainly not their “ontological dignity,” which is said to be “indelible” and which “remains valid beyond any circumstances in which the person may find themselves” (7). (In passing, we might wonder whether the English translation, so careful to avoid a singular personal pronoun when, grammatically, it would be appropriate, is entirely in keeping with the assertion in paragraph 59 that “all attempts to obscure reference to the ineliminable sexual difference between man and woman are to be rejected.”)

The deeper problem is not what is said in 'Dignitas Infinita' but how it is said.


But the deeper problem is not what is said in Dignitas Infinita but how it is said. Like so many magisterial documents, Dignitas tends to state the Church’s teaching rather than explicate or argue for it. No doubt this is precisely what the Church must sometimes do, but how useful is it in a document whose intended audience is far larger than the Roman Catholic Church?

Consider, for example, what the document says about the practice of surrogacy in assisted reproduction. Surrogacy, we are told, violates the dignity of both child and surrogate mother. It deprives the child of “a fully human (and not artificially induced) origin” (49). It also alienates the surrogate from the child she carries, making her body “a mere means subservient to the arbitrary gain or desire of others,” an “instrument for another” (50).

This seems right to me, but, alas, it obviously does not seem right to many others. Surrogacy, even contractual surrogacy, is widespread in the world to which the Church speaks in this document. Many people think of what a surrogate mother does as good and praiseworthy, helping another to have a child to love and care for. Many people think it is a work of love to use one’s body to help others have a child, or that, at the very least, there can be nothing wrong with doing so. Rather than seeing the use of surrogacy as instrumentalizing the body and making the child’s origin less than fully human, they think that our actions are most fully human when we exercise our freedom to accomplish desirable ends. Perhaps we can do no more than just bear witness against these ideas. If so, the witness of Dignitas is a noble one. But it seems to want to do more than that; it seems to want to persuade. If that is the aim, the medium undercuts the message.

I have a roughly similar reaction to the paragraphs discussing “gender theory.” Again, the basic claims made in Dignitas, although a little abstractly stated, seem right to me. The difference between males and females, their creation for (what Barth called) “being-in-fellow-humanity,” is described as part of what it means to receive our created life as a gift from God. That difference should be accepted with gratitude rather than affirmed only insofar as we personally determine ourselves to be male or female, male and female. Indeed, “[o]nly by acknowledging and accepting this difference in reciprocity can each person fully discover themselves, their dignity, and their identity” (59).

Correct as this depiction of problems embedded in gender theory seems to be—at least to me, but not to everyone—we face a problem not unlike the problem we faced with surrogacy. Human beings, at least in many parts of the world, want to be self-determining. They want, in some almost literal ways, to determine their being. They see the good at which medicine aims not as health but as satisfaction of their desires. And if any of them happens to have read some of the literature in biomedical ethics, he or she will know that in many people’s eyes “autonomy” is one of the central pillars—perhaps the central pillar—of reasoning about bioethical problems.

Simply put, the Church is faced with the unenviable task of telling people in our world “your life is not your own”—and, having told them this, of then trying to make sense of it, and even make it appealing. With apologies to anyone who may take offense, a dry-as-dust document such as Dignitas Infinita, a document that states but does not really argue for the Church’s vision for humanity, a document that (helpfully) distinguishes four senses of dignity but fails to ask whether they are really compatible, a document that seems to think of itself as doing little more than restating and maybe updating the Universal Declaration on Human Rights…well, I just think such a document probably will not get the job done. I am grateful for the five years of hard work that evidently went into the development and writing of Dignitas, and I have considerable respect for the Church’s willingness to condemn surrogacy and to address some of the mistakes of what Dignitas calls gender theory. And if anyone were to say, “Meilaender, do better,” I would probably have to pass that challenge on to someone else.

But we do need something better. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that the Body of Christ takes up space in the world. And though I write as a Lutheran, I do not doubt that the Roman Catholic Church aspires to do and be precisely that space-occupying body. If so, then the Vatican should be encouraged to put some flesh and blood on this discussion of dignity. After all, we should not offer our vision for human life while simultaneously hoping that no one will ask us why.

This article is part of a symposium about Dignitas Infinita published in Commonweal’s June 2024 issue. To view the whole symposium, click here.

Gilbert Meilaender is senior research professor at Valparaiso University.

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Published in the June 2024 issue: View Contents
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