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Where does Infinite Dignity meet finite reality?


The recent Declaration of the Vatican Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Infinita, on Human Dignity (2 April 2024), has had a protracted gestation. An original draft was reviewed in 2019 and found to be unsatisfactory. Since then, there have been at least four further drafts.  The final one had direct input from Pope Francis.  He insisted that the penultimate draft be expanded to include not only the traditional bioethical issues abortion, euthanasia, surrogacy, gender theory, sex change, etc. – but also a whole variety of specifically social contexts in which human dignity is compromised: poverty, war, the travails of migrants and the disabled, human trafficking, sexual abuse, violence against women and digital violence.  It was as if he was resurrecting Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s controversial 1983 document on The Consistent Ethic of Life(6 December 1983). 

As the extensive footnotes reveal, this Declaration draws not only on the final document of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (7 December 1965), but also on Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti(3 October 2020), and many Vatican documents on related themes over the past sixty years.  It also acknowledges the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10 December 1948), whose 75th anniversary was celebrated at the end of 2023.

The Vatican Declaration is basically a statement of Catholic principles on human dignity.  It draws the line in a whole variety of contexts where human dignity may not be compromised and where consequential human rights must be maintained as inalienable.  Because it is exclusively a statement of principles there are no concessions of a pastoral nature to those whose lifestyles and practices (e.g. LGBTIQA+, transgenders, surrogate motherhood) are at odds with these principles. This, however, is not only disappointing in itself but doubly so in that a more sensitive approach to some of these problems  has been evident in more recent Vatican documents. In these documents, while there has been no retreat from the basic principles, there has also been evident a willingness both to recognize that adherence to these principles is very difficult for some people and virtually impossible in some situations and that a more inclusive and inductive moral logic that respects individual circumstances must be employed if the Church is to engage effectively with these alienated irregulars

This more expansive logic was most authoritatively outlined in Chapter 8 of the encyclical Amoris Laetitia (19 March 2016), where Pope Francis addressed the situation of Catholics who had divorced and remarried.  Instead of invoking the standard Catholic principles and excommunicating such irregulars into outer darkness, the Pope insisted that each case must be addressed anew in its singularity to see whether personal circumstances could be discerned which might explain or even excuse this deviation from Catholic principles and practice.  For the Pope engagement, rather than judgment and condemnation, should be the preferred pastoral stance in addressing these irregular situations.

Thus, for example, most recently in the Declaration Fiducia Supplicans’ (18 December 2023), priests were encouraged to respond positively to requests for blessings from members of homosexual unions. In Samaritanus Bonus(14 July 2020) hospital chaplains were instructed to accompany euthanasia-intent patients right up to the moment of ingesting the lethal potion.  Further, in a response (13 December 2023) to a bishop from the Dominican Republic, the Dicastery actively encouraged single unmarried mothers not only to access the Sacraments themselves and to have their children baptized but also to participate fully in the life of the Christian community.  In a similar response on 3 October, 2023, the Dicastery indicated that, at least in principle, there was no canonical restriction to transgender persons and children of homosexual couples being baptized or transgender or homosexual persons serving as godparents at baptisms or witnesses at sacramental marriages. 

Granted these recent more engaging and compassionate responses, it is somewhat surprising and certainly disappointing that none of these responses and declarations are conceded either in the body of the text of Dignitas Infinita or even cited in the extensive footnotes.  Perhaps this is because the Declaration has been drafted exclusively as a statement of Catholic principle.  But in the Catholic tradition pastoral applications have usually accompanied statements of principle.  Not, however, in this case. Indeed, in addition to the customary anathemas on abortion and euthanasia, strong criticism is directed especially to the practice of surrogate motherhood and to gender theory.  The surrogate child is characterized as an object of trafficking and the subject of an artificially induced origin.  Only the maternal womb is a fit receptacle for continuing procreation, and that even though the genetic mother may be incapable of sustaining a pregnancy. What the Vatican makes of neonatal intensive care units where premature infants are maintained artificially for upwards of a third of their lives is not recorded.  What they will make of the prospect of artificial wombs that may rescue miscarried fetuses will also be interesting to speculate.  But in dismissing the practice of surrogate motherhood even in its altruistic form, there is little recognition in the Declaration that for some would-be parents this is their last resort.  The individual hard case yields before the universal principle. There is no right to a child.


'There are obviously strong sentiments on both sides when the ethics of surrogacy and transgenderism are debated.  There is little evidence either in the text or in the footnotes of the Vatican’s Declaration that they are aware of the debate or of views contrary to their own.'


A similar logic operates in addressing transgenderism.  For the Declaration (and personally, it would seem, for Pope Francis) Gender Theory and even its application in individual cases is an abomination.  Although it is not explicitly invoked in the text of the Declaration (only in the footnotes), Genesis 1:27 encapsulates the Catholic principle: God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.  The Declaration will allow no exceptions to the binary of male and female. Sexuality and gender may be distinguished but not separated.  Only where there are ambiguous genitalia is a physical resolution admissible.  Psychological discomfort, however intense, where one’s subjectively perceived gender orientation is at odds with one’s biological sex, cannot be resolved by recourse to medical or surgical interventions.  Once again, the general rejection of gender theory and ideology seems to take no account of individual hard cases, and this despite the more recent compassionate pastoral statements emanating from the Vatican.

The ethics of both surrogacy and gender dysphoria are currently hotly debated, especially in secular European contexts.  At a recent conference in Rome, the Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, characterized surrogacy as an inhuman practice, declaring it a universal crime. For others, however, it is an example of extraordinary altruism, even though for others it is also a lucrative industry.  A wide ranging Independent Review of Gender Identity Services for Children and Young People, led by Dr Hilary Cass in England, pointed to the inadequacy and general unreliability of data on transgenderism in young people. She urged caution in addressing medical and surgical interventions.  Yet in Germany recent legislation has made it possible for people aged 14 and older to change their first name and gender entry merely by making a declaration to the registry office. Similar options exist in a number of other European countries.

There are obviously strong sentiments on both sides when the ethics of surrogacy and transgenderism are debated.  There is little evidence either in the text or in the footnotes of the Vatican’s Declaration that they are aware of the debate or of views contrary to their own. These are issues that will not go away. One might hope that the next time the Dicastery addresses these aspects of human dignity, its footnotes at least might indicate that a wider secular, as well as ecclesiastical, purview has been engaged, and that technology, even at its interstices with the natural is to be discerned rather than summarily dismissed.




Bill Uren, SJ, AO, is a Scholar-in-residence at Newman College at the University of Melbourne. A former Provincial Superior of the Australian and New Zealand Jesuits, he has lectured in moral philosophy and bioethics in universities in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth and has served on the Australian Health Ethics Committee and many clinical and human research ethics committees in universities, hospitals and research centres.

Main image: Pope Francis during the General Audience (Vatican Media)

Topic tags: Bill Uren, Vatican, Dignity, Dignitas Infinita, Gender Theory, Ethics, Church, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

Is the Church courageous enough to meet the woman at Jacob’s well, recognise her inherent dignity and talk to her? Is the Church bold enough to invite itself to the home of a reviled tax collector and share a meal with him? If we cannot display enough humility and compassion to meet people where they are then where are we?

Pam | 24 April 2024  

Surely there's more to the matter of Christian
fellowship than meeting people "where they are", Pam? The Gospels indicate that what happens in the encounter - namely, metanoia - is decisive for following Jesus in faith and a shared witnessing to him.

John RD | 26 April 2024  
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Of course, I agree with you, John RD. I hope in the steadfast love of God that raises the dead and brings a transformed heaven and earth. I read this morning (in a secular news article) that Pope Francis has very recently been to visit a women’s prison. That is the sort of meeting and invitation I was writing about.

Pam | 29 April 2024  

More to the matter, yes. But if one doesn't at least begin by meeting people where they are today, one simply won't meet them at all.

Joshua Adrian O'Rourke | 11 July 2024  

Dignitas Infinita covers the general principles of the Christian concept of the person. In that regard it is quite clear. I think it would cause some controversy if every pastoral provision to those on the supposed fringe of the Church was also included. It was not meant to evoke controversy.

Edward Fido | 26 April 2024  

Not only does Bill address the discontinuity from earlier declarations, but logical fallacies emanating from a Church committed to applying Reason to her interpretation of Revelation insult a Catholic intelligence that has moved well beyond strict application of the Natural Law.

The fallacy in this document flows from the assumption that science is closed on transsexuality when bioscience plainly demolishes that view. For the Church then to be consistent let it reinforce 'Humanae Vitae' or 'Casti Connubii' and suffer the ridicule that follows.

There is simply no such thing as Gender Theory other than in the minds of those with a fixed biologistic view of human life which can no more be defended according to the primitive binarial categories in Genesis 1:27 than by those at the opposite end of the scale who discharge themselves of all ethical quandaries.

It follows that the Vatican's defense of refugees and asylum seekers cannot rely exclusively on a Natural Law foundation precisely because it is the inhumane aspects of their predicament that command our moral attention. They are simply not objects but complex subjects!

The tragic consequence of this is that the Declaration will be mocked as yet another 'Roma locuta; causa finita'.

Michael Furtado | 26 April 2024  
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Thank you, ES, for Fr Uren's forensic analysis of Dignitas Infinita. The flaws in the Declaration's argumentation can be traced back to a medieval interpretation of man as a rational animal, whose soul is somehow infused into the fetus and thereby creating a person. This mystical view of God's direct intervention blinds Catholic theologians to the progress made in Anthropology, Psychology & Psychiatry in the past one hundred & fifty years. To be basing any proper examination of how human creatures came to be on the narratives in Genesis is to take a path towards Idealism rather than the nitty gritty way human beings behave, survive & even flourish in the world of Reality.
I'm grateful too for the comments by Michael Furtado, who illustrates how Scripture can be an obstacle to theologians cooperating with an open mind with Biologists & Geneticists.
Perhaps the Vatican might adopt the Government process of issuing a Green Paper for general discussion & debate leading to a White Paper which incorporates any improvements suggested by the Green Paper consultation.
Surely on this particular document the opinion of eminent scholars such as Bill Uren SJ would have been worth getting before publication?

Uncle Pat | 30 April 2024  

"There is simply no such thing as Gender Theory..."

If so, MF, why do you persist in promoting the views of Prof Judith Butler whom you evidently hold in high academic regard as a leader to be followed in rejecting the objectivity of "sexuality" in its binary dimension, and, positing "gender" in its stead, reducing human sexuality to a revisable cultural construct?
Further, what evidence is there for your assertion that "a fixed biologistic view of human life can be no more be defended according to the primitive binarial categories in Genesis 1: 27"?
Your views on these matters cause me to question the kind of contemporary "science" and scriptural studies you regularly appeal to as necessary informants - even determinants - for the Catholic Church's teachings and understandings, especially in moral theology and anthropology.

John RD | 01 May 2024  

Not to split a semantical hair or two, both of these capabilities well within the polemical reach of both John RD and me.

However I imagine that, as an obvious scholar and a Christian who demonstrates his integrity in spades in these columns, he would readily concede that 'gender theory' has become a pejorative term employed by those without access to a subtlety of vocabulary to such a deplorable extent that their posts invite focusing a penetrative light on their use of prescription, instead of description, in ways that often confuse their use of populist jargon and rhetoric with unseemly ridicule.

In such regard, it would be better to describe Butler as a cultural commentator, with major contributions made and widely acknowledged, if not applauded, in the wisest of circles, to the fields of Cultural Studies, Political Theory, Feminist Theory and LGBT+ Studies, the latter fields as yet inexact and developing, as so much science itself constantly is, but still requiring of the immense giftedness and tools of analytical diligence that Butler brings to her contributions to the overall discourse in the above disciplines.

As to my hold on the travelling nature of moral theology and anthropology, let others decide.

Michael Furtado | 09 May 2024  

Any "travelling" metaphor applied to moral theology assumes in Catholic understanding a constant, transcendent starting point and destination - an ontological dignity we humans by nature are privileged to enjoy, and revealed by scripture and tradition as founded and structured on relationship with an eternal, sovereign Creator in whose image and likeness we are uniquely made.
Discounting or eliminating the metaphysical grounding of our existence and nature sees the moral capacity and enterprise characteristic of humanity reduced to a charade that conducts itself in the manner of a traveller embarking on a journey into the unknown without map or compass, instruments offered and provided by Christ's initiating of his faith community's apostolic magisterium for the guidance of all the faithful and their mission of bearing witness to the light and life of his Holy Spirit, especially as shared and celebrated in the pilgrim Church's prayer, sacraments, and service.

John RD | 16 May 2024  

In times spectacularly endowed with many benefits of science, the Gospels contain a salutary reminder that demand for evidence, and reliance on evidence of an empirical kind, has limits in relation to God's revelation received in faith, and its contents and transmission.

In his response to Thomas, Christ commends especially and regards as "blessed" those who "have not seen and yet believe." Elsewhere in the Gospels, he criticizes the demand for "signs" other than his resurrection as preconditions for belief in him and his own authority - which is also that of his shared being with his Father in heaven and the Holy Spirit.
Further, it is not as though Rome does not recognize the roles and importance of science, of which it has been a patron and to findings of which it has been a contributor from early Christian times. In our own millennium, following his papal predecessor John Paul II, Benedict XVI affirms in his 2012 address to members of the Pontifical Academy the nature of the relationship between science and faith as dialogical and complementary.
Moral theology, by definition, assesses what conduces to human good in relation to God, humanity and the world we inhabit in the quest for a symphony that celebrates creation in its multi-faceted constitution and revealed purpose.

John RD | 16 May 2024  
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No problems, John. Except that such teaching opens up the possibility that all dissentients are guilty of sedition.

In my book (The Summa, Vol 35, p 103-4, Blackfriars, 1972) seditions, as you imply here, are 'the rumblings (before) a fight.... sedition in its proper sense is between mutually dissident sections of the same people when...one part of the state rebels against another.'

Aquinas' argument goes on to say: 'The seditious person ... incites others to sedition, and since sedition implies a kind of discord, it follows that they create discord, not of any kind, but between factions of the one people.'

St Thomas concludes: 'Sedition is contained under discord, as schism is, but it is not the discord between individuals, but between parts of one people'.

In the instance of 'Dignitas Infinita', Fr Uren observes that the clash between the dignity intended and the reality attained is vast, given the evident failure of the Holy See to consult with the faithful on this delicate matter, as is the procedural mode manifestly preferred by the Holy Father and, presumably, the Cardinal Fernandez, at this synodal juncture.

Arguably, the absence of consultation precludes an automatic proclamation, attributable to the Holy Spirit, here.

Michael Furtado | 22 May 2024  

I'm afraid your logic in proceeding from what I've said here to "sedition" escapes me. 

Regarding "consultation", I'd have thought the very process of synodality embarked on in recent years has been characterized by it at local and international meetings - unless one thinks that the synodal process eliminates legitimate exercise of papal and episcopal magisterium, and that "listening" now inherently carries an obligation to accept and implement what is proposed.

John RD | 25 May 2024  

Rather than lock horns on canonical disagreement, the magisterial basis of which you consistently invoke but which, when addressed in your terms you dismiss without either reason or explanation, might I appeal to another side of Pope Francis, resplendent in its persuasive appeal to his pastoral theology and the primacy of love overall else, as expressed in His Preface to Fr James Martin's new book on 'Lazarus'?


In it the Pope explores an expanded understanding for the orthodox sticklers among us of the role of metanoia in the conversion that takes place through a deeper understanding of the Lazarus account. THAT, at any rate, is the call to conversion that both Fr Martin and his benefactor, Pope Francis, invites us.

This suggests to me that the 'unrealistic line' taken in 'Dignitatis Infinita' as suggested by Bill Uren, was simply an iteration of the Vatican's canonical approach to all matters concerning the Natural Law, and in relation to which Fr Martin and Pope Francis seek more recently to explore a pastoral solution to a seditious stand-off.

Michael Furtado | 06 June 2024  

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