Infinite Dignity: Seemingly Opposed Theologies Come Together

Infinite Dignity: Seemingly Opposed Theologies Come Together April 15, 2024

The recent document from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on infinite dignity offers a unique point of theological convergence between the pontifical programs of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. Pope John Paul II put the figure of Christ as model of humanity very much at the center of his pontificate, underlining this with his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis. In fact, we could argue that the fundamental phrase of his pontificate resides within this document when he quotes the Second Vatican Council. I quote from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical because it was so foundational for his pontificate.

“The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a type of him who was to come (Rom 5:14), Christ the Lord. Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling” (Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 8; quoting Gaudium et Spes, 22).

The Value of Human Dignity

This convergence comes in the tremendous value given to human dignity. Coming from the context of fascist and communist governments during his youth, priesthood, and episcopacy, Pope John Paul II recognized in the inherent value of human nature the key to interpreting human meaning during this earthly existence. Pope John Paul II had what we could characterize as a “vertical” theology, beginning with fundamental truths and drawing clear conclusions about moral life from those principles. In this sense, he is similar to his Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis values human dignity just as deeply as Pope John Paul II did, even though he arrives at this conclusion using a very different approach. Having a theology which is much more ‘horizontal’ in its principles and largely based in the writings of Cardinal Walter Kasper, he begins with the experience of the people from which he draws relevant pastoral conclusions. In a parallel to Pope John Paul II, this makes him very similar to his own Prefect for the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez. The vertical and horizontal approaches of these two popes converge, but perhaps because Dignitas humana begins with a more vertical approach. In doing so, it begins by outlining the philosophical and theological positions that are the foundation for all the posterior theological reflection and application to ordinary life.

Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Bergoglio
Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Bergoglio embrace | Courtesy: Vatican News

The Philosophical Foundation of Infinite Dignity

Pope John Paul II had originally used the phrase “infinite dignity” in the context of a meeting with disabled persons to stress the importance of not permitting governments or other individuals to limit the dignity of any one person.

It seems nearly a miracle that their ways of thought converge so well on this point because their approaches to theological topics lie upon completely different foundations. It seems that throughout the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, he pointed to Christ and invited the world to look to him, which is very much at the heart of the phrase he quoted so lovingly from Gaudium et Spes. He referred continually to the mystery of the Incarnate Word as the measure against which humanity could gauge itself.

Inherent Dignity as Presented by Pope Francis

Pope Francis points frequently at the various individuals of the world and reminds us of their inherent dignity. Coming from a context of socialism peppered by unbridled capitalism, he does well to pose a certain critique of the West.

The pope’s obvious distaste for U.S. Church leadership and American Catholic life may be rooted in a lack of knowledge, and it’s deeply frustrating. But his critical attitude toward wealthy nations of the Global North, and especially the United States, is not unwarranted (Archbishop Charles Chaput, “Cardinal Fernandez Misleads”).

This document is a triumph for the integrity of the Catholic faith, re-asserting basic moral doctrine in a confused world. Although this time, it is coming from a more horizontal approach towards theology, it is saved by the fact that it is founded vertically, in the tradition of the rich theologies of the Christian faith.

All theologies must converge on the truth of Jesus Christ if they are going to be valuable contributions to the greater body of Western thought. The fact that this document Dignitas infinita does precisely that is a sign of hope and a beacon of light in a time of intellectual darkness.

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About Fr. Nicholas Sheehy, LC
Fr. Nicholas Sheehy was ordained a Catholic priest in 2013 for the Legionaries of Christ. He has been involved in youth work including missions, retreats and apostolic outreach in Germany, Italy, the United States and Central America. He is passionate about the New Evangelization and formation for young adults and married couples. He is a spiritual director and retreat director, offering marriage preparation and marriage counseling through the Divine Mercy Clinic and Family Center. He is currently Executive Director and Chaplain of the Newman Center at St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Pasadena, California. You can read more about the author here.
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