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Pulse
6 May 2024

On 2 April 2024, The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, issued a Declaration entitled Infinite Dignity. This document provides an exposition of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on human dignity, and discusses thirteen ways in which it can be violated in the modern world such as war, human trafficking and digital violence.

The document, which took five years to prepare, begins with a broad assertion that ‘Every human person possesses an infinite dignity, inalienably grounded in his or her very being, which prevails in and beyond every circumstance, state, or situation the person may encounter.’ It stresses that this principle is intuited by reason and affirmed by divine revelation that human beings are bearers of the image and likeness of their Creator.

It underscores the fact that that the significance of human dignity has been consistently emphasized by the Roman pontiffs in the recent history of the Church, citing the writings of Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. It further stresses that at the very start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has invited the Church to ‘believe in a Father who loves all men and women with an infinite love, realizing that “he thereby confers them an infinite dignity.”’

The Declaration sought to clarify the meaning of human dignity (paras 7-9) because it believes that this concept is at risk of becoming ambiguous by being subjected to a variety of interpretations. Quoting Pope Francis, it adds that these different interpretations have given rise to ‘contradictions that lead us to wonder whether the equal dignity of human beings […] is truly recognized, respected, protected and promoted in every situation.’

Besides its broad definition, the document also helpfully delineates a four-fold distinction in the concept of dignity: ontological dignity, moral dignity, social dignity, and existential dignity.

Ontological dignity – which is the most basic and therefore also the most important – is that which ‘belongs to the person as such simply because he or she exists and is willed, created and loved by God.’ Moral dignity refers to the way in which human beings exercise their freedom in in accordance to their conscience. If humans were to act against their conscience, the document asserts, ‘they would behave in a way that is “not dignified” with respect to their nature as creatures who are loved by God and called to love others.’

Social dignity has to do with ‘the quality of a person’s living conditions.’ And existential dignity refers to the discussion about what it means to live a dignified life. The Dicastery provides two examples to illustrate what it means by existential dignity:

For instance, while some people may appear to lack nothing essential for life, for various reasons, they may still struggle to live with peace, joy and hope. In other situations, the presence of serious illness, violent family environments, pathological addictions, and other hardships may drive people to experience their life as ‘undignified’ vis-à-vis their perception of that ontological dignity that can never be obscured.

 

The document then plunges into a lengthy discussion of what the Bible and the Church teach about human dignity. This exposition in itself is not remarkable as it mostly rehearses material that can be found in many documents of the Church, including the encyclicals of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

In section 4 of the Declaration, the Dicastery discusses no less than thirteen grave violations of human dignity. They are: poverty, war, the travail of migrants, human trafficking, sexual abuse, violence against women, abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia and assisted suicide, the marginalization of people with disabilities, gender theory, sex change, and digital violence.

Although all these violations of human dignity demand serious attention, what is particularly interesting is what the document has to say about gender theory (paras 55-59) and sex change (para 60).

With regard to gender theory, the Declaration makes the point that human life – in both its physical and spiritual aspects – is a gift from God: ‘… the Church recalls that human life in all its dimensions, both physical and spiritual, is a gift from God. This gift is to be accepted with gratitude and placed at the service of the good’ (para 57).

Consequently, the quest for self-determination that is at the heart of gender identification is deemed as a rejection of God’s gift and an act of self-idolatry: ‘Desiring a personal self-determination, as gender theory prescribes, apart from this fundamental truth that human life is a gift, amounts to a concession to the age-old temptation to make oneself God, entering into competition with the true God of love revealed to us in the Gospel’ (para 57).

Para 58 emphasizes the significance of sexual difference which makes procreation possible. Quoting Pope Francis extensively, para 59 presents gender theory as an assault against this basic biological fact thereby ‘eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.’ It emphatically argues that ‘biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated’, and states, quite categorically, that ‘all attempts to obscure reference to the ineliminable difference between man and woman are to be rejected.’

Para 59 ends with another quotation of the words of the pontiff: ‘We cannot separate the masculine and the feminine from God’s work of creation, which is prior to all our decisions and experiences, and where biological elements exist which are impossible to ignore.’

In its brief discussion on sex change (para 60), the Declaration begins with the premise that ‘The dignity of the body cannot be considered inferior to that of the person as such.’ Quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it insists that the body also shares the dignity of the Imago Dei. Consequently, it rejects all attempts at sexual re-assignment because ‘any sex-change intervention, as a rule, risks threatening the unique dignity the person has received from the moment of conception.’

There is much in the document that should be applauded, even though the position it takes has already been articulated in numerous documents that preceded it. The difference is that in Dignitas Infinita – as in many of the documents published by this Dicastery – the voice of Pope Francis looms large.

Conspicuous in its absence from the list of ‘Grave Violations of Human Dignity,’ however, is homosexual behaviour. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that:

Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

 

Homosexual sex is therefore a violation of human dignity because it is disordered and contrary to natural law. Its omission from the list is therefore curious.

Perhaps the inclusion of homosexual acts in this list would present too blatant a contradiction to a document which the Dicastery had issued only a few months earlier, in December 2023. I am referring to Fiducia Supplicans, a Declaration which allows priests to bless same-sex couples at their discretion (For my reflections on this earlier document, please see Roland Chia, ‘Fiducia Supplicans: Reflections by a Protestant Theologian’, https://ethosinstitute.sg/fiducia-supplicans-reflections-by-a-protestant-theologian/).

To include homosexual acts in the list would put the Dicastery in a ridiculous and inescapable bind when Dignitas Infinita is read alongside Fiducia Supplicans. The Dicastery would be saying that although same-sex relationships are disordered, sinful, and contrary to natural law, and therefore a grave violation of human dignity, priests are allowed at their discretion to bless couples in such relationships.

This returns us to the Dicastery’s understanding and definition of human dignity. It raises the question which the Declaration does not adequately address in Dignitas Infinita: Do certain types of relationship violate the ontological, moral, social and existential dignity of the people involved?

The answer to this question is surely ‘Yes’. The relationship between a paedophile and his victims, and an incestuous relationship (even if it is consensual) between a man and his daughter must surely be regarded as a violation of human dignity because such relationships are disordered, sinful and against natural law. To this list we must add same-sex relationship.

When the two recent Declarations by the Dicastery, which were issued within a few months of each other, are juxtaposed, a number of questions present themselves which cannot be ignored.

Is this ancient and authoritative ecclesiastical body, which was established by Pope Paul III in 1542 with the specific mission ‘to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole Catholic world,’ really so incautious in its pronouncements? Or is it just woolly?

Or is Dignitatis Infinita another political move by the Dicastery, to appease the conservative segment of the Curia in the wake of the latter’s strong reactions against Fiducia Supplicans?

Whatever the case may be, for both conservative and progressive Catholics alike, the Dicastery must appear to be sending mixed messages, which can only perpetrate confusion and frustration.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.