Dignitas infinita: rethinking human dignity

Announcing that a Declaration on human dignity was being prepared, Victor Manuel Cardinal Fernandez, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, promised that it would not be as controversial as Fiducia supplicans — a document so incendiary that it would be difficult to imagine anything more controversial. Indeed, Dignitas infinita is not as heterodox as many feared but sadly it is best described as a “curate’s egg” — only excellent in parts. Unlike recent publications by the Pontifical Academy for Life, it is unequivocal in its defence of the right to life from the moment of conception until its natural end. And in contrast to Pope Francis’s own words, it has no difficulty recognising the unborn child as a person.1 For the most part, it avoids the ambiguity that faithful Catholics have come to expect from Church officials today. There is, however, one particularly serious cause for concern. In such a comprehensive document, it is strangely silent on the danger posed by the worldwide promotion of the contraceptive mentality, which separates sexual relations and procreation, as well as its logical extension, the homosexualist agenda. When many of the other pieces of the jigsaw of human dignity fall into place, this omission becomes glaringly obvious. 

Ontological dignity

The document that became Dignitas infinita has existed in draft form since 2019 but it was judged to be “unsatisfactory”. When an entirely redrafted version was presented to Pope Francis on 13 November 2023, he asked that it highlight topics, such as “poverty, the situation of migrants, violence against women, human trafficking, war and other themes”.2 The pope’s approval of the final version was given on 25 March 2024 and it was published on the transferred feast of the Annunciation on 8 April 2024.

The authors of Dignitas infinita correctly observe that the term “human dignity” has become shrouded in ambiguity. It has been invoked by those who seek to promote a false understanding of the concept that roots dignity in the exercise of human freedom. The misuse of the term has not only promoted policies antithetical to the dignity of the most vulnerable human beings but it has also brought the concept of human dignity itself into disrepute in the minds of many. The most obvious example of this is the so-called right to die with dignity. To help address this problem, the authors of Dignitas infinita set out to clarify what the document means when it refers to human dignity.

“This brings us to recognise the possibility of a fourfold distinction of the concept of dignity: ontological dignity, moral dignity, social dignity, and existential dignity. The most important among these is the ontological dignity that belongs to the person as such, simply because he or she exists and is willed, created, and loved by God. Ontological dignity is indelible and remains valid beyond any circumstances in which the person may find themselves.”

No 7

It is this ontological dignity that is alluded to in the title and it is this that gives an immeasurable value to every human life. (Inviolable or ineliminable dignity would have been a more accurate choice of words). Unlike the other forms, ontological dignity can never be diminished, regardless of a human being’s circumstances, physical or intellectual limitations or stage of development. It is this type of dignity in which our rights and duties are rooted. It is important to note that the document does not focus exclusively on the rights of individuals but also touches on the duties human beings owe to one another and to wider creation. Here the authors reference Laudato si (no 28). Placed within a proper, Catholic understanding of the obligations entailed in being rational creatures, uniquely made in the image of God, these issues should not be controversial. Seen in this light, so-called “animal rights” can be correctly identified as the corollary of our duties toward them. Unlike human rights, these rights are not intrinsic, rather the mistreatment of animals is a violation of our moral dignity as rational beings. Human beings who engage in cruelty towards animals diminish their own moral dignity. (Such behaviour is frequently associated with sadism and crimes of extreme violence against humans). Unfortunately, however, there are several indications that the text has been heavily influenced by secular thinking when it attempts to link human dignity to the so-called climate “crisis” (no 28). Dignitas infinita reflects the Holy See’s continued alignment with the climate crisis agenda, which, its critics argue, promotes almost apocalyptical claims that are unsubstantiated by reliable data.3 This global programme has close ties to the population control movement, seeks to impose radical restrictions on civil society — particularly agriculture and the food industry — which threatens the livelihood of millions in the developed world and arrests economic development in the global south.

Human dignity and civil rights

Similar problems also arise when the document conflates human dignity with civil rights. There are ample, pragmatic reasons why lawful authorities should be cautious about the imposition of capital punishment. The document argues that even such crimes as murder cannot deprive the perpetrator of inalienable dignity. However, it fails to acknowledge that such crimes deprive a human being of his moral dignity. And, quoting Pope Francis, it states, “If I do not deny that dignity to the worst of criminals, I will not deny it to anyone. I will give everyone the possibility of sharing this planet with me, despite all our differences.” (No 34)4

The painful experience of the last fifty years demonstrates that the abolition of the death penalty in Europe has not enhanced respect for human dignity.5 Instead, it has succeeded in blurring the crucial distinction between the unjust killing of the innocent and the lawful punishment of the guilty. The claim that the death penalty is an offence against ontological dignity contradicts divine Revelation and the constant teaching of the Church.

Nor can human dignity be invoked to justify illegal immigration. Human dignity is the foundation of human rights but civil rights are conferred, suspended or withdrawn by the civil authorities. The right to citizenship, to welfare benefits and the right to vote, are not human rights but civil rights. The Declaration fails to make a distinction between lawful immigration and illegal immigration. Such matters justly call for the attention and prudent intervention of governments and politicians, not only for the protection of the host community but for the safety of migrants themselves. This represents a serious omission in the document. The expansion of human rights on the basis of social justice has led to an inflationary cycle which has helped to discredit the entire human rights project. 

The dangers of bad philosophy

In praising the contributions of René Descartes and Immanuel Kant (no 13) to our modern understanding of human dignity, the document glosses over the serious flaws these philosophers introduced to the concept. While the Declaration’s authors emphatically reject transgenderism, this concept is merely an inevitable conclusion of the so-called Cartesian divide between the body and soul. While the Catholic faith recognises the soul as the form of the body, the separation of mind and body in the Cartesian perspective paves the way to claim that a male can be born into the body of a female or vice versa.

Similarly, with the philosophy of Kant, it is one thing to argue that no human being should be treated as a means to an end, however, it is wrong to suggest that each man is an end in himself. The Catholic faith has always taught that man’s end lies in God and life with Him in eternity. For Kant, human dignity lies in the moral autonomy bestowed by human reason and the ability to choose the good. In times of moral relativism, this understanding of human dignity has become more and more closely identified with the mere exercise of the freedom of the individual to choose what he or she perceives to be good. Kant is also widely recognised as having introduced race theory into anthropology in Germany.6 While he cannot be held responsible for the crimes of those who came after him, Kant’s ideas about race would ultimately have catastrophic consequences in the twentieth century. 

Both Descartes and Kant are partially responsible for the ambiguity and distortion that the authors of Dignitas infinita rightly lament.

“Some grave violations of human dignity”

While the document acknowledges that its list of offences against human dignity is not exhaustive, it is extensive, including “murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and wilful suicide” as well as “all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures”, and finally, “subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where individuals are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons.” (No 34)

Although it decries pornography, the systematic exploitation of sexuality, the corruption of the young, the commercial trade in babies and transgenderism, the authors of the document show themselves to be incapable or unwilling to identify the point at which many of these evils converge: the homosexual subculture. It has been this agenda, promoted by national governments and international agencies within the United Nations, that has driven the surrogacy market, child pornography, sexualisation of children and transgenderism, and ultimately aims for the destruction of the family based on marriage. 

In Making Gay Okay: How Rationalising Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything, author Robert R Reilly quotes several revealing statements on this subject, including the following admission from Paula Ettelbrick, former legal director of the New York-based Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, who stated: 

“Being queer means pushing the parameters of sex, sexuality, and family, and … transforming the very fabric of society … We must keep our eyes on the goals of providing true alternatives to marriage and of radically reordering society’s view of reality.”7

Many other homosexual activists have also acknowledged this. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival in Australia in 2012, the journalist and activist Masha Gessen stated unapologetically: 

“It’s a no-brainer that (homosexuals) should have the right to marry, but I also think equally that it’s a no-brainer that the institution of marriage should not exist … Fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we are going to do with marriage when we get there — because we lie that the institution of marriage is not going to change, and that is a lie.

“I have three kids who have five parents, more or less, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t have five parents legally …  I met my new partner, and she had just had a baby, and that baby’s biological father is my brother, and my daughter’s biological father is a man who lives in Russia, and my adopted son also considers him his father. So the five parents break down into two groups of three … And really, I would like to live in a legal system that is capable of reflecting that reality, and I don’t think that’s compatible with the institution of marriage.”8

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which the authors of Dignitas infinita seem to regard with undue reverence considering the teaching authority the Church possesses) recognises that the family is the “natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”.9 The planned deconstruction of the family in the name of homosexual liberation has already wrought untold misery among millions of men, women and children. The failure of Cardinal Fernandez to identify this agenda as a grave threat to human dignity leaves the words of his landmark Declaration ringing as hollow as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. More disturbingly, by what is left unsaid, Dignitas infinita indicates the direction in which Pope Francis wishes the Church to move on this issue.


  1. In an interview with America magazine in November 2022, Pope Francis acknowledged that the fetus is a human being but immediately added, “I do not say a person, because this is debated, but a living human being.” — “Exclusive: Pope Francis discusses Ukraine, US bishops and more”, America: The Jesuit Review, 28 November 2022.
  2. Dignitas infinita, Presentation.
  3. For an entirely secular examination of the unreliability of climate claims and scientific data see Climate the Movie: The Cold Truth (N.B. This is not a Catholic presentation and accepts neo-Darwinian model of evolution).
  4. Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti, 3 October 2020, no. 269: AAS 112 (2020), 1065.
  5. See “The abolition of the death penalty and human dignity”, Voice of the Family Digest, 18 October 2023.
  6. Laurenz Ramsauer, “Kant’s Racism as a Philosophical Problem” [2023] Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 104, 4, pp 791–815.
  7. Robert R Reilly, Making Gay Okay: How Rationalising Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything (Ignatius Press, 2014) p7.
  8. Robert P George, “What few deny gay marriage will do”, First Things, 16, April 2013. See also “Why get married when you could be happy?”, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 11 Jun 2012, broadcast at 12:05am.
  9. Article 16(3), Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948.