(Commented excerpts) In its new text, the Vatican defends human dignity

(Commented excerpts) In its new text, the Vatican defends human dignity

This Monday, April 8, 2024, the Vatican published a new text on Monday devoted to respect for “human dignity”. The fruit of five years of work, “Dignitas infinita” (“An infinite dignity”) was published by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body of the Holy See responsible for evaluating, among other things, social and societal. Discover the commented excerpts.

The document Dignitas infinita officially published on April 2 and made public on the 8, is the fruit of long preparatory work carried out by the teams of theologians of the dicastery for the doctrine of the faith. A central Roman body which evaluates, for example, in the light of Catholic doctrine, social and societal developments. It is in view of the 75th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that this reflection was opened a few years ago to reassess the central issue of this notion of “human rights” to the light of the Christian faith. The concept thus highlighted is that of the dignity of people.

A process

Starting from a congress which took place in Rome in March 2019, several versions of a text were worked on, re-evaluated and updated. No doubt the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down the overall movement. At the beginning of last year, the text was almost complete. But Pope Francis asked to further integrate concrete themes to show all the issues at stake in the Defense of Human Dignity today. It will take several more months of work, going back and forth between different bodies, for this text to finally come to fruition. And be officially published on the occasion of the 19th anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II

The concept of dignity

The document recalls, through its notes in particular, that the notion of dignity has, in fact, accompanied the entire movement of development of the social doctrine of the Church as it has taken shape since the end of the 19th century, under the impulse of Pope Leo XIII. Work, wars, political ideologies: the themes of the time led us to emphasize this notion which singles out the human creature in the face of its Creator.

As an “image of God”, each individual has an extraordinary status and therefore also has an immense responsibility to defend it against all speeches and practices that dehumanize.

This concept of dignity was particularly highlighted after the horror of the Shoah and the violence of the Second World War. In response to this collective madness, in

an impressive movement of political maturation, global civil society represented by the United Nations General Assembly issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on December 10, 1948 in Paris. This founding text, not legally binding, sets out the principle of dignity common to all people, beyond their cultural, religious and sexual identity.

Even if it is not explicitly mentioned, the text is particularly inspired by Judeo-Christian anthropology. The personalist philosophy movement, very popular at the time and supported by many Catholic intellectuals, also had its share of influence.

Particularity of the Christian notion of dignity

The central point of the document is to recall that the notion of a person's dignity is only tenable if it is universal, infinite and not dependent on circumstances. What the text calls “ontological” dignity which means that all life must be respected, at all stages of its existence.

This principle thus comes before other approaches which want to take into account the notion of freedom (moral dignity), or material circumstances (social dignity) or even the stage of life (existential dignity). These are the approaches which are often put forward in the news of our societies but which are often only based on subjective foundations and subject to current fashions.

Why this text now?

We recalled that this text took a long time to mature. But, after the stir caused by the text Fiducia supplicans on blessings published by this same dicastery in December 2023, this great theological and pastoral synthesis on the notion of the common dignity of every person should rather bring together the Catholic community.

In fact, from the Second Vatican Council through all the popes to Francis, the defense of this universal notion constitutes a common thread in Catholic thought. Even if it took time to emerge clearly in theological discourse, being notably poorly defined from a legal point of view. An urgent clarification therefore as it is threatened by a form of intellectual dissolution within increasingly individualist and relativist materialist societies.

As a doctrinal reminder, the text Dignitas infinitate is also an appeal to all people who know from experience that defending the principled dignity of every person is essential to allow a society to remain just and welcoming.

What about Pope Francis?

In a certain way, this text also summarizes the specific contributions of Pope Francis on ethical questions over these ten years of pontificate. “Culture of indifference”, “third world war in pieces”: the typical expressions of the Argentine pope are very present, as are the references to the great central encyclicals of this pontificate, which are the texts Laudato Si and Fratelli tutti. The request to renounce the death penalty, the denunciation of the notion of just war, the criticism of ideological colonizations are also themes dear to Francis.

We should therefore not be surprised by the choice of explicit themes addressed in this document: social inequalities causing poverty, mafia-based human trafficking and mistreatment of migrants; ongoing conflicts and violence against women and people with disabilities or in the digital world; practices of abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia and assisted suicide; gender ideologies and sex change practices. As we can see, the field is broad, articulating human bioethics and social commitments in the same movement.

It is the strength of this pontificate to not let the field of moral reflection get bogged down solely in the questions – old and important – of abortion, for example. We see how, in certain conservative branches of the Christian Churches, this cause has in fact become a stumbling block or even a framework for interpreting the conformity of religious practices. There is a great danger of transforming a legitimate fight into a divisive ideology that screens the announcement of the Gospel to all.

Six months before the second session of the Synod in Rome, this document plays, once again, a clarifying operation to prevent these often divisive debates in the Catholic sphere from contaminating the necessary work of renewal of community structures and processes which is right at the heart of this upcoming meeting.

“An infinite dignity, inalienably founded in one's very being, belongs to each human person, in all circumstances and in whatever state or situation they find themselves. This principle, fully recognizable even by reason alone, establishes the primacy of the human person and the protection of their rights. » (article 1)

The text opens with this definition of the notion of dignity as a principle which establishes both the rights and duties of every person. “Founded in one's very being”, this dignity is therefore linked to human existence itself and not to the circumstances in which it takes place.

“This ontological dignity and the unique and eminent value of each woman and each man who exist in this world were taken up with authority in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10, 1948) by the General Assembly of the United Nations . » (article 2)

This United Nations declaration includes 30 articles and the word dignity appears 5 times, as being “inherent in all members of the human family”, guaranteeing everyone the fact of “being born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

“The most important meaning is that of ontological dignity which concerns the person as such through the simple fact of existing and being willed, created and loved by God. This dignity can never be erased and remains valid beyond all the circumstances in which individuals may find themselves. » (art. 7)

By emphasizing this principled position of a dignity founded in the very fact of being created by God, the Church places it ahead of other forms of “moral”, “social”, “existential” dignity. In other words, forms of dignity linked to the exercise of individual freedom, to material conditions or to the stage of life at which we find ourselves.

“The Church proclaims the equal dignity of all human beings, whatever their living conditions and qualities. This proclamation is based on a triple conviction which, in the light of the Christian faith, gives human dignity immeasurable value and reinforces its intrinsic requirements. » (art. 17)

This proclamation of an essential principle is rooted in several pillars of the Christian faith recalled later in the document: the fact that humans are created, in their body and soul, in the image of God; the fact that Christ joined our incarnation to illuminate it from the inside; the fact that the divine project is to make the creature participate in the very life of God. Defending human dignity is thus also emphasizing the beauty of this spiritual destiny.

“The concept of human dignity is also sometimes misused to justify an arbitrary multiplication of new rights, many of which are often in conflict with those that were originally defined and which are frequently brought into conflict with the fundamental right to life . » (art. 25)

After recalling that it is indeed “human dignity” that is in question and not “personal dignity” (often reduced to people capable of reasoning), the document also underlines the danger of transforming this idea of ​​dignity into a demand for separate and subjective individual rights. And therefore changing. It is by emphasizing the interpersonal links necessary to live well together that the notion of common dignity regains its meaning.

“While the concept of dignity is reserved for the human being, the goodness of other creatures in the cosmos must be affirmed at the same time. » (art. 28)

The contribution of Pope Francis is very clear here, taking up this idea updated in the encyclical Laudato si'. Emphasizing the dignity of the human creature does not lead to contempt for the rest of Creation. It is quite the opposite: recognizing the sign of divine goodness in each creature requires a profound conversion of our practices.

“It is therefore imperative to understand that “liberation from injustice promotes the freedom and dignity of man” at all levels and in all relationships of human action. »

Taking a quote from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, the text recalls that the notion of freedom, so dear to our modern societies, must also be freed from ideologies which distort it: the ideology of freedom individualist, neo-liberal or libertarian ideology etc.

“The Church urges that respect for the dignity of the human person, in all circumstances, be placed at the center of the commitment to the common good and of any legal system. Respect for the dignity of each person is, in fact, the essential basis for the very existence of any society which seeks to be founded on just law and not on the force of power. It is on the basis of the recognition of human dignity that fundamental human rights are defended, which precede and underpin all civilized coexistence. » (Article 64)

It is therefore a call that is made through this text to “each person”, to “each human community” and to “States” to concretely realize the conditions manifesting this dignity and to defend it. It is about our ability to continue to build humane and viable societies.

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