Dignitas Infinita

Vatican II and Dignitas Infinita, the last statement of the Doctrine of the Faith

Although Vatican II documents are only cited a few times in the declaration, I believe they had a deeper influence on this document than is visible on the surface.

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Thomas G. Guarino

(ZENIT News – First Things / USA, 06.27.2024).- Even the casual reader of Dignitas Infinita (DI), the recent declaration by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, will likely be impressed by the 116 footnotes that accompany the text. The large number of citations indicates the Vatican’s desire to buttress its teaching with insights from thinkers both within and without the Church. It is encouraging to see a catena of ancient and modern philosophers and theologians cited, including Cicero, Boethius, Aquinas, Levinas, Rosmini, Newman, and Maritain. The point, of course, is that human dignity has been defended by a vast array of profound thinkers. Another major source for DI: the Vatican II debates over religious liberty that produced Dignitatis Humanae. Although Vatican II documents are only cited a few times in the declaration, I believe they had a deeper influence on this document than is visible on the surface.

DI argues that, at the most foundational level, the dignity of human beings is derived from the indelible image of God imprinted on every human being. Every other conclusion in the text flows from this biblical premise. This logic—that human dignity is rooted in man’s analogical relationship to God—was also central to the heated debates on religious freedom that took place at Vatican II and resulted in Dignitatis Humanae. As the title indicates, “dignity” was a salient motif of the conciliar statement. And although no one argued against human dignity at Vatican II, the conclusions drawn from it were the subject of intense controversy—a debate not entirely extinguished even in our own day, almost sixty years later.

Early on, DI acknowledges the gradual development of the idea of human dignity in Christian thought, stating that the magisterium “progressively developed an ever-greater understanding of the meaning of human dignity, along with its demands and consequences, until it arrived at the recognition that the dignity of every human being prevails beyond all circumstances.” This accent on progressive development was also conspicuous in the impassioned debates at Vatican II.

The relator (reporter) who introduced the drafts on religious freedom at the council (the bishop of Bruges, Emiel De Smedt) appealed to the same logic that undergirds DI. The first draft of De Libertate Religiosa—which would become Dignitatis Humanae—was presented to the gathered bishops in November 1963. An accompanying note speaks of the draft as the terminus of a “long development both in Catholic doctrine on the dignity of the human person and the Church’s pastoral solicitude for the freedom of man.”

In introducing the draft, De Smedt strongly defended the dignity of humanity and its inexorable consequence, religious freedom. Recognizing that he would face opposition, De Smedt went on the offensive, arguing that the ostensible condemnations of religious freedom by earlier popes were justified. Why? Because the Church condemns today, just as in the past, the freedom of conscience preached by rationalists, a freedom not bound by any divinely given norms. And the Church condemns today, just as in the past, freedom of worship when such freedom is founded on religious indifference and doctrinal relativism. And the Church condemns today, just as in the past, the separation of Church and State when it is a matter of an omnicompetent State to which the Church must be subjected. These principles, De Smedt argued, retain their validity. He concluded that “this doctrinal development” on the dignity of the human person “has its deepest roots in the Sacred Scriptures which teach that man is made in the image of God.”

Throughout the council, De Smedt’s logic remained unchanged:  Humanity is made in the image and likeness of God, and this reality is the foundation of human dignity. In turn, this dignity supports unfettered freedom of conscience in religious matters.  This is very much like the argument made in DI, which takes the imago Dei as the biblical and theological root of human dignity, and then draws appropriate conclusions. In both cases, Christian anthropology provides the basis for human dignity, or, as De Smedt insisted, “the ultimate basis of human dignity lies in the fact that man is a creature of God.”

A year later, in November 1964, De Smedt again defended De Libertate, delivering a speech even though the council presidents had pulled the text off the floor, since many bishops claimed that the reworked draft required further study. Once again, he repeated his refrain, “religious freedom is demanded by human dignity itself.” And human dignity is ultimately founded on the creation of man and woman in the imago Dei. The conciliar bishops responded to De Smedt’s speech with frenetic applause.

Another year later, in September 1965, with the final vote approaching, De Smedt again invoked human dignity as the basis of religious liberty. But De Smedt was followed by Cardinals Ruffini and Siri, who appealed to the contrary teachings of Leo XIII and Pius IX. Although often dismissed as cranky antiquarians, the Italian cardinals raised a legitimate question: Did De Libertate protect the continuity of papal teaching over time? And hadn’t De Smedt himself acknowledged that “many pontifical documents” appeared to condemn religious liberty? Cardinal Urbani of Venice offered an immediate response, arguing that the popes have progressively defended the primacy of human beings and their rights. The doctrine of religious freedom is inherent in this development and is a consequence of it. After Urbani’s speech, the conciliar theologian Yves Congar wrote one word in his journal: “Excellent.”

When the text was again presented to the bishops in late October 1965, the draft had a few additions from the hand of Pope Paul VI.   Wishing to assure the disgruntled minority that De Libertate represented organic growth, Paul added the sentence: “The council intends to develop the doctrine of [recent] popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.” But even with this assuaging addition, a solid core of 249 bishops voted against the schema (with almost 2,000 in favor), convinced that the text failed to maintain Catholic tradition. The opposition was so strong that Congar wondered if some bishops would do what had been done by a few hierarchs at the First Vatican Council in 1870: leave Rome in order not to vote against a text they disliked.

In the end, nothing like this occurred—and the minority finally yielded to the inevitable. De Smedt called De Libertate the “contemporary terminus of a process of development in the dignity of the human person” and the “ripe fruit of a slow process of growth” under the Holy Spirit. The relator was right to argue that over the course of several pontificates, there had been an increasingly strong accent on the sacrosanct person. In this sense, there had indeed been linear development over time. Dignitas Infinita refers to this when it says, “Paying attention only to the modern era, we see how the Church has progressively accentuated the importance of human dignity.”

At the same time, De Smedt’s ringing affirmation of unrestricted religious freedom was not easily harmonized with earlier papal teaching. As Cardinal Avery Dulles rightly observed, Dignitatis Humanae “represents an undeniable, even a dramatic, shift.” And soon after the promulgation of the document, Joseph Ratzinger wrote, “There was in St. Peter’s the sense that here was the end of the Middle Ages, the end even of the Constantinian age.” Surely the claim that the council overthrew an understanding of Church-State relations that had prevailed since the fourth century indicates some discontinuity with the prior tradition.

In several of his interventions, De Smedt tackled this head-on: How was the Church to understand the “many pontifical documents from the nineteenth century” that seemed to condemn religious freedom? He again replied that the papal condemnations were directed at rationalist understandings of liberty, whereby the “individual conscience is under no law.” This faulty anthropology could not undergird human freedom; only human beings in God’s image had the power to do so.

In his famous 2005 Christmas speech, Benedict XVI stated that Vatican II represented “continuity and discontinuity on different levels.” Catholic theology was and is fully capable of handling these kinds of discontinuities, as I have argued elsewhere. In De Libertate there was discontinuity with the earlier tradition: The assertion that human dignity entailed the objective right to religious liberty had not been championed by popes in the nineteenth century. But there was also clear continuity. For example, Vatican II strongly defended Christian and Catholic exceptionalism. And as De Smedt rightly insisted, the dignity of the human person had been increasingly crucial to the papal magisterium. In this sense, Dignitatis Humanae was the result of organic development over time.

What is new in Dignitatis Humanae justifies the comment made by Henri De Lubac in his conciliar journal: Some theologians had hoped that Vatican II would simply consecrate magisterial teaching of the past hundred years and “correct not even a word of this.” On the contrary, he insisted, the council’s task was to search the Scriptures and the Fathers, bringing to bear the Church’s entire tradition, East and West, on the challenges facing the Christian faith in the twentieth century.

Dignitatis Humanae was one fruit of this rethinking—and its assertions about human freedom and Christian anthropology continue to resonate in Dignitas Infinita.


Rev. Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino is professor emeritus of systematic theology at Seton Hall University and the author of The Disputed  Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine.

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