Dignitas Infinita and the Treaty of Waitangi

The Vatican recently published a new document that outlines and affirms Catholic doctrine on the importance of human dignity and its connection to God. The document, entitled Dignitas Infinata (infinite dignity), addresses a range contemporary moral, bio-ethical and social issues, including human rights violations, discrimination against women, abortion and gender theory.

WelCom June/July 2024

The Vatican recently published a new document that outlines and affirms Catholic doctrine on the importance of human dignity and its connection to God. The document, entitled Dignitas Infinata (infinite dignity), addresses a range contemporary moral, bio-ethical and social issues, including human rights violations, discrimination against women, abortion and gender theory.

Dated 2 April 2024 and released on 8 April 2024, Dignitas Infinita was issued by the Holy See’s top doctrinal office – the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith – and approved with a signature by Pope Francis.

John Kleinsman and Daniel Kleinsman

We live in times of great change and conflict, which pose significant challenges along with many opportunities for growth and transformation. 

Step up to the mark Pope Francis and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. In the midst of all the turmoil and violence in the world, the Church reminds us we need unchanging points of reference, the most important of these being respect for the ‘Infinite Dignity’ that is God’s unsolicited gift to each of us.

Understanding ‘Human Dignity’

Published in April 2024, Dignitas Infinita clarifies and unpacks a specifically Catholic understanding of the concept of dignity being highlighted, differentiating it from what is referred to as ‘attributed’ dignity – the type that is confered by choice or on the basis of social mores. Rather, the ‘ontological dignity’ Pope Francis often appeals to, is ‘not something granted to the person by others based on their gifts or qualities, such that it could be withdrawn. Were it so bestowed, it would be given in a conditional and alienable way, and then the very meaning of dignity, however worthy of great respect, would remain exposed to the risk of being abolished’ (n. 15). 

Acknowledging our ontological dignity as infinite also highlights it has an eternal dimension. Meanwhile, recognising its origins in God gives it a sense of mystery and sacredness. Considered together, this informs an understanding of dignity as neither attributable to our merits nor subject to our faults; able to be neither extinguished nor exhausted; and unable to be measured. While it demands recognition, it also delights in and invites expression by which it expands. It is neither fixed nor static, but fluid and dynamic and, most importantly, it is fundamentally relational (nn. 26-28), meaning it ‘encompasses the capacity, inherent in human nature, to assume obligations vis-à-vis others’ (n. 27).

We do not need to look too far to see how, in our world, people currently speak and think of dignity as if it were ‘conditional and alienable’. Dignitas Infinita identifies thirteen ‘grave violations’ and recognises the impact of these on specific groups, among them disabled people, the sick, people who are incarcerated, the unborn and the elderly. People in these groups are routinely regarded as ‘lacking in dignity’ because they are ‘unproductive and/or a burden’, making them vulnerable: 

(i) because they are seen as unworthy of being included in society; or, 

(ii) living with limitations they were either born with or developed and finding themselves alone, they perceive they are unwanted; or, 

(iii) seen as expendable in the name of certain economic models of prosperity that are driven by a vision of growth that excludes many people.

Dignity and difference

As ‘good’ Catholics, we may sign off whole-heartedly on the important principle of infinite human dignity while inadvertently continuing to use language or promote ideas that undermine people’s intrinsic dignity. Like us, you will have witnessed this in the way some speak about people categorised as ‘different’ or ‘other’ than ourselves, including, for example, migrants and refugees or transgender persons, to name two further groupings referred to in Dignitas Infinita

This is not to exclude the importance or even obligation we have to bring our different theoretical – philosophical and theological – ideas and life experiences to our conversations about contentious issues, such as assisted dying, abortion or gender theory. As we do this, however, our commitment to the equal dignity of each person, if we take it seriously, proscribes all forms of violence. This includes the violence we effect through gestures, words, attitudes and/or actions, which are the product of unjust intellectual categorising or labelling of other people as ‘them’, including unjust labelling justified by reference to religious doctrine. Such labelling often originates in our fears and mistrust of those we perceive to be different and is a way of distancing ourselves from them.

Pope Francis puts it eloquently in Fratelli Tutti (n. 27): 

‘…we have certain ancestral fears that…have been able to hide and spread behind new technologies. Today too, outside the ancient town walls lies the abyss, the territory of the unknown, the wilderness. Whatever comes from there cannot be trusted, for it is unknown, unfamiliar, not part of the village. It is the territory of the “barbarian”, from whom we must defend ourselves at all costs. As a result, new walls are erected for self-preservation, the outside world ceases to exist and leaves only “my” world, to the point that others, no longer considered human beings possessed of an inalienable dignity, become only “them”. Once more, we encounter “the temptation to build a culture of walls, to raise walls, walls in the heart, walls on the land, in order to prevent this encounter with other cultures, with other people.’

Respect for the infinite dignity of others invites us to create spaces without walls.

Dignity and the Treaty of Waitangi

For those of us living in Aotearoa, a commitment to the infinite dignity of others requires us to reflect deeply and carefully on the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in our laws, policies and methods of governance and leadership. We who align with and benefit from the current political, social and cultural structures – that research shows favour certain groups over others – fail in our relational obligations vis-à-vis Māori to the extent we fail to realise the negative realities of systemic racism, including the injustices that are the consequences of long-standing political structures which have resulted in poorer social and health outcomes. 

This failure may well be exacerbated by an alternative ‘flawed’ understanding of human dignity criticised in Dignitas Infinita for being based on political structures that reduce it ‘to the ability to determine one’s identity and future independently of others, without regard for one’s membership in the human community’ (n. 26). In our case, this means without a proper regard for the ‘community’ and associated rights guaranteed for Māori as part of the legally binding agreement made between the Crown and Māori in 1840. 

We must remember infinite dignity finds expression and demands recognition in infinitely diverse and unique ways. Recognising and providing for the needs, interests and identity of others, including Māori people (as their dignity demands), does not diminish, extinguish or exhaust our own dignity. The ‘one rule for all’ campaign, seeking to promote the status quo in the interests of the majority, reflects a flawed understanding of human dignity because it applies a ‘deficit’ model of dignity – treating it as if it is a finite resource. When we buy into this flawed approach, we deny the needs of others out of fear that, otherwise, we will lose our own dignity (and power). When we do this, we place our own fears above the infinite dignity of others.

In the face of such fears, we would do well to follow the example of Māori and the principle of manaakitanga as embodied by the Treaty. This principle, which we understand incorporates hospitality, is central to relationships between iwi Māori and whenua, as recently articulated by the New Zealand Court of Appeal (in Re Edwards Whakatōhea [2023] NZCA 504, [2023] 3 NZLR 252, at [427]). It also strikes us as being central to relationships between tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti. When Māori signed the Treaty and welcomed newcomers to this land, they did so on the basis their exercise of manaakitanga did not diminish but gave expression to their mana (which we understand to incorporate dignity and authority) and mana whenua. 


Nothing less than an absolute commitment to the infinite and intrinsic dignity of each person will help us overcome the many ‘grave violations of human dignity’ all around us, help us breakdown the walls that separate and isolate us from others, and help us build a just society that is the rightful fruit of the God-given infinite dignity of all living in Aotearoa – no exceptions!

John Kleinsman is a lay moral theologian and researcher who works in the area of bioethics. He is married to Kerry with three adult children and five grandchildren.

Daniel Kleinsman is a lawyer who practises in the area of public law. He is married to Muzhgan with two young children and a third whose birth is due later this year.