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Vatican invites global discussion on human dignity



On 8 April, the declaration ‘Dignitas Infinita—On Human Dignity’ was released by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF). The declaration presents a survey and summary of the Church’s teaching on the concept of human dignity as a way of correcting certain misunderstandings that the Dicastery claims have emerged about the concept in recent years. It ends with a series of reflections on issues that it sees as ‘grave violations’ of human dignity.

The declaration is significant because it is arguably the first ‘summary’ of Catholic moral teaching issued by the Dicastery (formerly the Congregation) for the Doctrine of the Faith since the Instruction ‘Dignitas Personae—on Certain Bioethical Questions’ in 2008.  The Dicastery has issued a number of letters and responses to particular questions, such as the Letter ‘Samaritanus bonus—on the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life’ (2020), the ‘Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines’ (2020), the Responsum to a dubium regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex (2021), and most recently the Declaration ‘Fiducia Supplicans—On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings’ (2023). That means it is the first ‘summary’ of moral teaching issued by the DDF during the papacy of Francis.

The declaration could, then, be described as wanting to cement the influence of Pope Francis on the Church’s moral teaching. This is evident from the account given of the drafting of the document. When presented with a draft in 2023, Pope Francis ‘asked that the document highlight topics closely connected to the theme of dignity, such as poverty, the situation of migrants, violence against women, human trafficking, war, and other themes.’ The document was substantially revised by shortening the first part (which focuses on the concept of human dignity) in order ‘to develop in greater detail what the Holy Father indicated.’

Prior to becoming Prefect of the DDF, Víctor Manuel Cardinal Fernández criticized the 2021 Responsum on the blessing of same-sex unions produced under the prefecture of Luis F. Cardinal Ladaria as not having ‘the smell of Francis’. So what gives this declaration, under the new Prefect, Cardinal Fernández, ‘the smell of Francis’?

Though there are no real surprises for Vatican watchers, the declaration does contain ‘new’ things, in the sense of teachings that have been changed or developed by Francis during his papacy. For example, the declaration reiterates the Church’s fundamental opposition to the death penalty (which was changed in the Catechism in 2018), and the idea that war is indefensible (which was brought out strongly by Francis in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti). It also includes a lot of quotes to previous statements by Pope Francis. Moreover, in line with Francis’s approach in his encyclicals, the document contains a number of references to more recent sources that are not just popes or church councils. Most tellingly, it cites favourably the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as exemplifying the kind of understanding of human dignity and the consequent rights and responsibilities that it is setting out to elaborate, thereby aligning itself with secular arguments supporting dignity.

Yet the most ‘Franciscan’ feature of the document may lie in how it was presented. The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith is the Holy See’s main agency for promoting and protecting Catholic Christian teaching and discipline. Typically, a ‘declaration’ by the DDF is considered to have a very high status in terms of representing the authoritative teaching of the magisterium (the teaching function of the church). What is interesting about this declaration is the way it was presented by the Dicastery’s Prefect, Cardinal Fernández. He states at the end of his presentation, which is published with the document, ‘This Declaration does not set out to exhaust such a rich and crucial subject. Instead, its aim is to offer some points for reflection that can help us maintain an awareness of human dignity amid the complex historical moment in which we are living. This is so that we may not lose our way and open ourselves up to more wounds and profound sufferings amid the numerous concerns and anxieties of our time.’

To describe the aim of the document as ‘to offer some points for reflection’ in a ‘complex historical moment’ is very much in line with the tone that Pope Francis has arguably set during his papacy, especially in his encyclicals. It is also in line with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council when it said in its introduction to the ‘Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World—Gaudium et spes’ that the Church proves its respect for humanity ‘by engaging with it in conversation about these problems.’ The declaration, therefore, invites a dialogue about what matters in life.


'If this declaration really is meant to be a summary of the Church’s moral teaching during the papacy of Francis, then it is safe to say that the invitation to dialogue about what matters most in life still stands.'


It must invite this dialogue—if it is to be consistent with its own claims about human dignity—because it is dialogue that best respects the human being as a relational being (DI 26–28) ‘born free and equal in dignity and rights … endowed with reason and conscience … who should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’ (Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 1). This is strongly in line with the development of the idea of human dignity in the Second Vatican Council, particularly in Gaudium et spes and the 1965 ‘Declaration on Religious Freedom—Dignitatis Humanae’, which the new declaration quotes: ‘contemporary man is becoming increasingly conscious of the dignity of the human person; more and more people are demanding that men [sic] should exercise fully their own judgment and a responsible freedom in their actions and should not be subject to the pressure of coercion but be inspired by a sense of duty.’

It could also be argued that dialogue is favoured not only because it respects the dignity of the human being, but because it is the best way to win the argument, precisely because of the kind of being the human being is. The Church, naturally, claims to be right about dignity and morality, based both on arguments from revelation and from reason. If it is right, then, the case it makes should be convincing, or at least understandable, to any reasonable human being. The declaration states that ‘human reason can arrive at this conviction [about human dignity] through reflection and dialogue’ (para. 6, italics added). Then in footnote 25 it states, ‘Some great Christian thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—such as St. J.H. Newman, Bl. A. Rosmini, J. Maritain, E. Mounier, K. Rahner, H.-U. von Balthasar, and others—have succeeded in proposing a vision of the human person that can validly dialogue with all the currents of thought present in the early twenty-first century, whatever their inspiration, even Postmodernism.’ In other words, the new Declaration is not merely asserting what the Church claims dignity is and what morality is; rather, it is setting out, with a view to ‘validly dialoguing with all the currents of thought’, the reasons that the church has for advocating a particular understanding of the human being, the dignity or moral worth of that being (in all its complexity), and the moral norms that flow from such an understanding of human beings and their dignity.

There are various audiences in the world and the Church (in all its diversity) who may not like what Dignitas Infinita has to say about what it calls ‘grave violations of human dignity’. Some may not like its strong opposition to the death penalty, extreme wealth inequality, war, or the persecution of people on the basis of their sexual orientation; or they may not like its support for the ‘real equality’ of women, the welcoming of migrants, and the inclusion of people with disabilities.  Others may not like its criticism of procured abortion, surrogacy, assisted suicide and euthanasia, gender theory and sex-changes. What is interesting is that many who don’t like the first set (e.g. the condemnation of the death penalty), probably like the second set (e.g. the condemnation of abortion), and vice versa. What all of these critics have in common, according to Dignitas Infinita, is reduction of the concept of human dignity to something less than the holistic consideration advocated by the document.

In the case of the first group, to hold any of these positions is to claim, incorrectly according to Dignitas Infinita, that some people do not have a dignity that requires the same basic respect as others. Yet, the death penalty, poverty, war, and persecution of people based on sexuality, sex, migration status, or disabilities are wrong, according to the Church, because they violate the inherent dignity that all human beings have that is the basis of their right to life and freedom of conscience. A person cannot fulfil their dignity if their life and freedom are taken away from them by violence and coercion.

In the case of the second group, to hold any of these positions is to claim, according to Dignitas Infinita, that all that matters is respect for one’s free choice. Yet, for Dignitas Infinita, abortion (which is also wrong for the same reasons as the first group), surrogacy, assisted suicide and euthanasia, gender theory and sex changes are wrong because they separate one’s moral status as a person (dignity) from one’s bodiliness (which is part of being a human being) and from one’s connections and responsibilities to others. Respecting human dignity cannot be reduced to the claim that my wishes are all that matter and must be fulfilled. Rather, as an embodied being always in relationship with others, I have responsibilities to myself as the kind of being I am, and to others.

Regarding ‘the smell of Francis’, for many of those who don’t like what is said about the first group of moral issues, it is likely that the declaration smells too much like Francis. In their minds, perhaps, Francis is changing traditional teaching on the death penalty, war, the structure of the family, and so on. For the second group, many may feel that the declaration lacks the mark of Francis as it seems to take a condemnatory tone toward what some might consider ‘progressive’ positions on gender, surrogacy, and so on. Francis has certainly made public statements and actions that seem more supportive of, for example, transgender people than this declaration seems to suggest. However, he has also said some pretty strong things about gender ideology, abortion, surrogacy and so on.

How do we reconcile these two things: seemingly generous actions and statements on the one hand, and seemingly critical statements on the other?  The answer may lie precisely in the understanding of human dignity that the document sets out and the invitation to dialogue typical of Francis. If all human beings always have dignity that demands respect, the door must always be open for dialogue, and indeed, the Church should reach out to dialogue, whilst avoiding coercion. This means that all are welcome to the dialogue in and with the Church. Hence, Francis’s actions are typically about welcoming in or going out to meet all people.  But this welcoming and going out, that is consistent with respect for the inherent dignity of all people, does not mean that one cannot enter into a critical dialogue about the rightness or wrongness of particular ideas or actions. Indeed, entering into such a dialogue is itself a way of respecting dignity, since the human capacity for rationality and freedom is integral to the claim that all human beings have dignity. But this dialogue must always be undertaken in a way that avoids any unjust discrimination that would violate the inherent dignity of every human being.

The Declaration is not perfect; but it doesn’t claim to be. It is very likely that people will find a number of elements of the new Declaration to criticize. Some of those are probably a result of the complicated drafting and approval process. But some may be valid points of contention about the presentation or veracity of the Church’s understanding of human dignity or the moral norms that flow from it.  If this declaration really is meant to be a summary of the Church’s moral teaching during the papacy of Francis, then it is safe to say that the invitation to dialogue about what matters most in life still stands.




Associate Professor David G. Kirchhoffer is Director, Queensland Bioethics Centre, Australian Catholic University

Main image: Vatican media

Topic tags: David Kirchhoffer, Dignitas infinita, Pope Francis, Vatican, Moral theology, ethics, Church



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Existing comments

Even in its shortened form, the opening treatment of dignity as a foundation of ethics is a very substantial and philosophically solid development of that theme, quite different from traditional Thomist natural law theory. (Compatible with it, but very different foundationally.) It is much like the theory laid out in The Worth of Persons: The Foundation of Ethics (reviewed in Australasian Catholic Record here: https://www.proquest.com/docview/2795649970/fulltextPDF/2ADC7B7A241C4F4CPQ/)

James Franklin | 18 April 2024  

I would very much like to think that "Dignitatis Humanae" can be a means, as intended, of fostering constructive dialogue with all the world's peoples on the critical subject of respect for the dignity and flourishing of human life in all its requirements.
Such dialogue, to achieve its ends, would, I believe, presuppose goodwill on the part of all participants and a readiness to admit as a sine qua non for meaningful communication an openness not only to truth-oriented human reason but also to the relevance of God's self-revelation and knowability in history, and its practical implications.

John RD | 19 April 2024  

Kirchhoffer offers a comprehensive treatment, inviting connection between him and Sullivan of the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (which regrettably offers no scope for discussion on its website).

For a representative of ACU and the Queensland Bioethics Centre, Kirchhoffer's coverage is both summative and fair, dealing with potential points of criticism, while Sullivan's treatment of the same document offers detailed focus and evident criticism of the Pope's position on transgender persons.

Missing from Kirchhoffer's treatment is a critical discussion of the term 'Gender Theory', employed recklessly in the Catechism and consistently irksome to objective others for its perilous proximity to prescriptive terminologies, like 'Gender Ideology'. It's unhelpful to Catholics that the complex field of Gender Studies, which differentiates, as Judith Butler does, between sex, which is biological, and gender, which is cultural, should be so demeaned.

For his part, Sullivan does not engage, as Kirchhoffer implicitly does, with the entire range of biologistic nonsense that used to underpin the entire foundation of the Church's teaching about sex, reproductive ethics and natural law, from which +Francis has categorically departed, now that we know that we are all created 'natural'.

The Queensland Bioethics Centre should drop the 'bio' as +Francis has.

Michael Furtado | 19 April 2024  
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Attempted redefinition of "sex" by exclusive insistence on the subjective use of "gender" and the elimination of biology's relevance to human sexuality and ethical reflection arising from the understanding of humans as creatures in whom body and spirit are organically related is a regression to antiquated gnostic distortion of the nature of the human species on which Catholic moral theology is based and developed.

John RD | 22 April 2024  

Churches approach 'gender' from a position of compassion, seeking to include marginalised people. It is seldom that they consider the effects of 'gender' on society as a whole. As a lesbian I am keenly aware that gender is not just 'theory' but it is now a matter of The Law that affects us all.

In 2013 the Gillard government inserted 'gender identity' as protected characteristic into the Anti-Discrimination Act. This means that Australians cannot advertise events as single-sex without an exemption from the Human Rights Commission. Last year lesbians were refused an exemption; they must include people-born-male who now identify as female-lesbian, many with intact male bodies. That is, the law requires lesbians to remain underground, or else to completely redefine ourselves. No compassion from churches.

This law was challenged this year, in Tickle vs Giggle. In the Federal Court the Human Rights Commissioner submitted that 'sex' is neither biological nor binary. It now can refer to a person being 'male, female or another non-binary status' and also a person's sex can be changed. This change was imposed on the Australian people without public discussion or public consent. We await the judge's ruling on this matter.

Janet | 06 May 2024  

In the Gospel of Matthew’s closing chapters Jesus arrives in Jerusalem seated on a lowly donkey. He then robustly confronts the religious authorities, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, about their adherence to ‘the law’ rather than engaging in human complexity and firmly gives them a choice: God’s way (as revealed by Jesus) or their way. We know the result. The Church has no other choice than to engage with human complexity by putting itself in the lowest position and working from there.

Pam | 22 April 2024  
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Jesus had no compunction to tell a woman, in a time when concubinage was the difference between having some food, protection and shelter and not, to go away and sin no more.

There is no human complexity. The only question is whether those with the means have the charity to extend themselves to shelter the afflicted from the urges of heterodoxy.

What happened to the woman who was sent away with the command to sin no more? Presumably a word from a human God does not return unfulfilled any more than a word from a divine God. There must be some reason that there's a Matthew to spoil that emotionally attractive image of that small band of poor, powerless non-entities bravely seeking to change the world.

s martin | 22 April 2024  

Jesus made himself of no reputation (poor) for our sake, he opened not his mouth when brought as a lamb to the slaughter (powerless) and because he was from Nazareth he was a non-entity. And he definitely was brave. He has changed my world.

Pam | 26 April 2024  

War isn't indefensible. Before Jesus was crucified, he knew he would be resurrected with even more dignity than he had had as an earthbound human. Ukraine does not know it will retain the dignity of being Ukraine if it surrenders to Putin. Israel does not know it will retain the dignity of Israel if it turns the cheek to Hamas.

That, factually, war can preserve dignity is something that philosophy, as an empirical project, must accommodate.

s martin | 24 April 2024  

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