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Live updates: 'Dignitas infinita' emphasizes 'ontological dignity'

Editors’ note:

The Vatican on Monday published Dignitas infinita, a declaration meant to reflect on human dignity and contemporary moral and social problems.

ln addition to The Pillar’s reporting below, The Pillar has invited several moral theologians to offer reaction and analysis as they read the text, to help readers unpack the new Vatican document.

This page will be updated April 8 and 9, as those theologians — along with The Pillar’s newsroom — continue their close readings of the document, and offer analytical reflections along the way.

The Pillar’s initial report on Dignitas infinita can be found below the updates from those theologians — just scroll down, if you’re looking for it.

a bridge over a river with a building in the background
St. Peter’s Basilica. Credit: Unsplash.

Live updates:

(These updates are posted with the most recent at the top. To read them sequentially, scroll down to where they begin!)

4/9/24, Abigail Favale, 12:15 pm ET:

Paragraph 25: While not about gender per se, this paragraph pushes back against two iterations of gender theory on offer at the moment. The first can be seen in Andrea Long Chu’s recent essay on the “right to change sex” for any reason, based on the fiat of one’s desire.

This paragraph pretty forcefully rejects a perspective that “identifies dignity with an isolated and individualistic freedom that claims to impose particular subjective desires and propensities as ‘rights’ to be guaranteed and funded by the community.”

The paragraph also rejects a perspective that is more widespread and palatable to many: the equation of human dignity with psychophysical wellbeing. Again, the tendency to equate those two things is much larger than the gender sphere, but it is present there as well, especially in the model of gender affirmative care. We might call these two perspectives the “consumerist framework” and the “therapeutic framework;” both lend themselves to a subjectivist understanding of dignity, which Dignitas infinita emphatically rejects, instead grounding human dignity, rights, and freedom in the “concrete and objective content” of our “shared human nature.”

Paragraph 60: This is the section that addresses “sex changes” (terminology that is commonly used but also inaccurate, in that sex—as an organizing principle of the entire body—cannot be changed).

The most eye-catching line here is this: “It follows that any sex-change intervention, as a rule, risks threatening the unique dignity the person has received from the moment of conception.” That is a remarkably stark line being drawn in the sand. No distinctions are made between, for example, hormonal or surgical interventions. There is no quibbling here. 

That is because this paragraph isn’t making a bioethical argument per se, but an anthropological one, based on the underlying principle that a human person is a unity of body and soul, and so “the dignity of the body cannot be considered inferior to that of the person as such.” The sexed body has a “natural order” that is part of the natural ordering of creation, which, as Francis has emphasized, should be received as “gift.” 

This natural order of the sexed body, as noted in the earlier paragraphs on gender theory, is oriented toward generativity. That is important, because it contests the claim that a person’s sex can be determined by a cognitive experience, i.e. that a person’s true sex could lie only in the brain or the mind, and not in the reproductive structure of the body as a whole. This document as a whole, with its emphasis on ontological dignity, i.e. dignity grounded in human nature, pushes back strongly against subjectivism, including subjectivist definitions of gender.

One line I find beautiful here is this: “…the body serves as the living context in which the interiority of the soul unfolds and manifests itself...” While not directly cited, this is a rendering of JPII’s principle that the body reveals the person. The language of the soul “unfolding” itself through the body is also highly reminiscent of Edith Stein’s anthropology. Both JPII and Stein help to develop the understanding of the body as a sacramental reality, a visible manifestation of an invisible reality. Interestingly, I think some versions of gender identity theory are reaching for a kind of sacramentality, but from the false premise that gender is a wholly invisible, cognitive reality that, if necessary, must be imprinted on the body, regardless of the body’s natural sexual structure.

4/9/24, Charlie Camosy, 10:20 am ET:

After a bit of a distance, and reading the document again, I don’t think we need to worry that Dignitas infinita looks on the surface like it very strongly affirms Catholic moral theology, while on another level (in particular by invoking criticism of a “handbook of formulas”) undermining it.

Indeed, the “handbook of formulas” barb could now be directed at DI’s critique of the death penalty and (perhaps?) our refusing to care for migrants:

Paragraph 34: "the death penalty...also violates the inalienable dignity of every person, regardless of the circumstances"

Paragraph 40: "every migrant is a human person who, as such, possesses fundamental, inalienable rights that must be respected by everyone and in every circumstance"

Much of the document (like Francis himself) is concerned with resisting circumstantialism and relativism.

If the circumstances never change the object of the act when we, say, kill in the death penalty, then proportionalism and the critics of the “handbook of formulas” cannot be correct.

Indeed, it will be interesting to see if Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia — and others who want to see a paradigm shift in Catholic moral theology away from exceptionless moral norms…in favor of appeals to lived experience, cultural differences, and other circumstances — repudiate the idea that the prohibition against the death penalty is an exceptionless moral norm. If they do, they may have some strange bedfellows in doing so!

In a related story, I think the question now needs to be asked: do those public figures who wielded the authority of Pope Francis and his Magisterium against dissenters on the right now do something similar with dissenters (from the anthropological and moral facts declared by DI) on the left? I couldn’t help but notice that many of them were pretty quiet yesterday. If they do not, it seems clear that their loyalty is not to Pope Francis and his Magisterium, but to something else. 

I want to highlight, again, DI’s explicit focus on coerced abortion as violence against women. As I wrote about here, this is major common ground between many who would otherwise disagree about abortion.

The pro-life movements should shift to make focus on unwanted and coercive abortion even more a priority and Catholic institutions, inspired by Dignitas infinita, can and should lead in this regard. In fact, Catholic pro-life and social justice infrastructures are uniquely positioned to do precisely this. Bishops could organize an “all hands” approach (pro-life groups, Catholic Charities, and more) to address unwanted and coerced abortion.

The Washington’s Post’s coverage of Dignitas infinita yesterday was interesting and instructive. Given when their report was released, the Post seemingly had an embargoed copy and had a chance to sit with the document for awhile. Fundamentally seeing Pope Franicis as a “liberal” who does liberal things, the Washington Post characterized DI as “something of an olive branch to church conservatives,” rather than seeing it as affirming a core belief of the Holy Father, expressed over and over and over again in the strongest possible terms. The Post’s coverage asserted that the text’s views about anthropology and human dignity stand in “apparent contradiction” to Pope Francis’ pastoral reception of trangender people, for instance.

Throughout reading that report, I couldn’t help but think of our colleague David Cloutier and his invoking the popular meme of #twothings as a way of describing what the Holy Father is doing.

Yes, the pope is being inclusive and welcoming and bending over backwards to accompany and encounter. At the same time, he is firmly defending the truth of the Church’s understanding in human dignity.

This is not a contradiction—anymore than “neither do I condemn you, now go and do not sin anymore” is a contradiction. It is at the heart of Christ’s great attempt to reach out to the marginalized and call everyone to holiness. But, despite Fr. Berg’s rightly pointing out how much of this document is natural law-friendly, I can’t help but wonder if being explicitly conformed to the love of Christ is necessary to understand what is going on here. And if this helps explain why the journalists at the Washington Post see it as a contradiction.

4/8/24, Fr. Tom Berg, 12:35 pm ET:

Paragraph 59: “Therefore, all attempts to obscure reference to the ineliminable sexual difference between man and woman are to be rejected.”

This is some of the strongest moral language — categorical and exceptionless — that I have seen in any teaching by Francis.

It is not the kind of formulation that Pope Francis is normally comfortable with, but it is welcome.

As Abigail Favale has noted below, this constitutes a firm rejection of the entire separation of gender from sex. And as she notes as well, the use of the word “ineliminable” is very striking. Any attack on the given sexual difference by the creator–male and female– is an attack on human dignity. Indeed, it is striking that Dignitas infinita points to gender theory as such as an attack on human dignity.

“Beyond all circumstances.”

This refrain appears four times in the English translation of the document, the first being in the introduction, which would appear to be a reference to Fratelli tutti, in reference to human dignity as “a dignity based not on circumstances but on the intrinsic worth of their being.”

This four-fold repetition serves to reinforce the document’s strong insistence on an anchoring of human dignity in ontology–in the givenness of human nature. And this is very welcome.

We know that Pope Francis does not like to take a “norms first” approach. In fact, the very concept of moral normativity is almost entirely absent from the document (no surprise there) except for Dignitas infinita 7, which refers to human dignity as normative.

That all being said, this is a very “natural-law-friendly” document. It argues in essence that there are realities given in human nature that are ethically normative for all persons–and it even posits some ways that this normativity is categorical (e.g. any way that gender ideology attacks or at least would blur the gift of sexual difference).

4/8/24, Charlie Camosy, 12:15 pm ET:

The section on euthanasia and assisted suicide, 51-52, is also strong, but not as a strong as the abortion section. It rightly starts with the idea that “dignity” is often a term used to support violence at the end of life and that the correct understanding of dignity is not compatible with such actions. 

Similar to abortion, language is manipulated in an attempt to hide the reality of what is going on. But what is going on isn’t made clear enough in this section. Yes, DI focuses here on those who are “critically or terminally ill”, but as the Netherlands, Canada, and even California now demonstrate, the push for physician-assisted killing is now directed at the disabled who are not critically ill. At particular risk  are populations with early-stage dementia who are not given proper care but are offered death instead. The next paragraph (53) does invoke “throwaway culture” in the context of the marginalization of people with disabilities, but it does not make the connection between these and physician-assisted killing explicit. Especially with the dementia crisis upon us, along with a larger crisis in allocation of healthcare and other resources, this should have been made explicit. In short, this section could have benefitted from use of the similarly strong and firm language used in the abortion section. 

4/8/24, Fr. Tom Berg, 11:20 am ET:

Dignitas infinita 34: This paragraph includes reference to the death penalty as a violation of the–in the logic of the document–ontological dignity of the person. And it footnotes Catechism 2267, which was modified some time ago by Pope Francis.

I don’t wish to open up this whole point of contention again–much has been written and can be read about the debate. I will just observe a couple of things. 

The wording of CCC 2267 reads: “No matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”

It has seemed to me that the very deliberate use of the carefully chosen term “inadmissible” is clearly a step removed from what easily could have been an affirmation that the application of capital punishment was intrinsically evil.

As written, I understand this to be a development primarily of the magisterium of John Paul and Benedict XVI on the applicability of the death penalty, and remains within the order of a prudential judgment. In this sense it constitutes, as Cardinal Ladaria has argued, a development of doctrine, not a change of doctrine; a development of pontifical prudential judgment, an intensification of the view championed especially by John Paul II.  

However, this modification of the Catechism is not without problems.  This is due primarily to the argumentation used.  While Catholics are held to offer submission of intellect and will to the propositions which are taught authoritatively, they are not held to embrace the manner of argumentation.

And here, in my opinion, arguing from the dignity of the human person is going to leave this teaching open to further critique.

In the line of thinking of John Paul and Benedict, application of capital punishment is no longer necessary to protect the common good—again, a prudential judgment. Francis takes that argumentation much further; capital punishment is now “inadmissible” not only because it is unnecessary, but because it constitutes “an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”

As many have noted, this seems to imply that the application of capital punishment must be intrinsically evil. If application of the death penalty today constitutes an attack on human dignity, how could this not have always been the case? If always the case, it must have always been, considered in itself, an intrinsically disordered act.

Quite to the contrary, those who strongly uphold the dogmatic nature of the teaching on legitimacy of capital punishment see its very applicability (in the line of reestablishing the equilibrium of justice) as an affirmation of the dignity of every human person. 

4/8/24, Charlie Camosy, 11:00 am ET:

Back from a break of running some errands, and back to Boethius/Thomas on “substance of a rational nature.”

This language is sometimes confusing because in the consumerist West we often think of rationality as something like the autonomous ability to think through one’s choices or something like that.

But as Dignitas inifinita notes, this is not what the Church means by “rationality.”

Instead, what is meant is a kind of “knowing and loving”, especially of God. Hard to overemphasize the central place that “nature” plays here: it indicates the universality of human dignity (again, regardless of circumstances, and so applies to, “to an unborn child, an unconscious person, or an older person in distress” or any other living human being) and reveals that we are not creators or choosers of the most foundational parts of who we are. Our nature is given as a gift. Such a view will, no doubt, be important particularly in the sections on sex and gender.

Paragraph 14 emphasizes the inalienability of the dignity that comes from having been creative with a given human nature. Fundamental human dignity is not bestowed, granted, conferred or (to use Sulmasy’s word in the document cited above) attributed by other human beings–therefore it cannot be taken away by other human beings or lost in any other manner. It is not conditional in any sense. If you are a living human being, you got it. This will no doubt be particularly important when it comes to how Dignitas infinita addresses the death penalty.

I appreciate paragraph 19 emphasizing the “novelty” of the vision of the human person taught and lived by Christ and intimated by the Church. Yes, it is the radical of all human beings, equal in dignity, but in order to achieve this Our Lord emphasizes those who were considered “unworthy.” DI rightly insists that this vision of the human person is a “new principle in human history” and “has changed the face of the world.” Fr. Berg notes in his comments below that at times this document seems like it might be taking a natural law approach, but I wonder if one really needs Christ to understand this aspect of human dignity. 

As expected, the implications of the dignity of the human person articulated here suggest a list of “grave violations” that cannot be made to fit into our right vs. left binary political imagination. Here’s the list DI offers, in order: the drama of poverty, war, the travail of migrants, human trafficking, sexual abuse, violence against women (which explicitly calls out coercive abortion), abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia and assisted suicide, marginalization of people with disabilities, gender theory, sex change, and digital violence. Every “no” from the Church is part of a larger “yes”, but this list of “no’s” is at the heart of the authentic Catholic moral tradition and helpfully resists the kind of political idolatry which distorts that tradition.

Camosy, 11:20 am EST addition:

The section on abortion (47) is quite strong and reflects the updating of the debate in helpful ways. No longer is the struggle for prenatal justice between those who think of abortion as really bad and want that reflected in law and those who think of it as bad but are ambivalent about how to reflect this is law. The struggle is now against those who “accept abortion” and even call it good. The prophet Isaiah is invoked here: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.” A firm warning is given against “an extremely dangerous eroding of the moral sense”, especially as misleading language is used to hide what actually happens in abortion to make it more palatable. A call for resistance is made, one which urges readers of DI to “have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception.”

4/8/24, JD Flynn, 8:40 am ET:

Dignitas infinita 53 includes a strong call for people with disabilities to be more broadly included in the life of the Church:

“One criterion for verifying whether real attention is given to the dignity of every individual in society is the help given to the most disadvantaged... Thus, every effort should be made to encourage the inclusion and active participation of those who are affected by frailty or disability in the life of society and of the Church.”

The USCCB is in the process of updating its own 1978 “Pastoral Statement on Persons with Disabilities.” Expect Dignitas infinita 30 to feature prominently in the newly developed text.

4/8/24, Fr. Tom Berg, 8:20 am ET:

Dignitas infinita 30 ever so cautiously reaffirms the relationship between freedom and truth– a message central to Veritatis splendor.

“The same happens if freedom imagines itself to be independent of any external reference and perceives any relationship with a prior truth as a threat.”

This is an important paragraph, also rejecting moral relativism with an excellent quote from Pope Benedict: “As Pope Benedict XVI explained, ‘A will which believes itself radically incapable of seeking truth and goodness has no objective reasons or motives for acting save those imposed by its fleeting and contingent interests; it does not have an ‘identity’ to safeguard and build up through truly free and conscious decisions. As a result, it cannot demand respect from other ‘wills,’ which are themselves detached from their own deepest being and thus capable of imposing other ‘reasons’ or, for that matter, no ‘reason’ at all. The illusion that moral relativism provides the key for peaceful coexistence is actually the origin of divisions and the denial of the dignity of human beings.’”

4/8/24, Charles Camosy, 8:00 am ET:

One thought I have going into reading DI this morning (other than not being able to shake its being released on the same day as total solar eclipse comes to the US for the first time since 1970) is that, while on the surface it may appear to even very strongly affirm Catholic moral theology, on another level it may be doing something more complex. In particular, I think about the critique of some powerful figures in Rome — and also at the synod — of some traditional Catholic moral theology positions as relying on a “handbook of formulas” that ought to be more nuanced, or even rejected. This overlays a more foundational moment for Catholic moral theology in the Church, especially with regard to the idea of intrinsically evil acts and exceptionless moral norms. Something I wrote about for The Pillar here.

Another thought/question: Just how much will Pope Francis' fiercely articulated views about abortion and gender ideology be reflected in this document? 

The first footnote cites St. John Paul II, from where the DDF is apparently getting the concept of human dignity as “infinite”, during an address on the dignity of disabled people. And just after this, DI cites the Holy Father in Fratelli Tutti, underscoring that human dignity exists “beyond all circumstances.” This anti-circumstantialism and anti-relativsm has been a theme of Pope Francis’ writing on human dignity and shows up here quite clearly. Emphasized: equal human dignity obtains in “every cultural context and every moment of human existence, regardless of physical, psychological, social, or even moral deficiencies.”

Some helpful remarks about the different and confusing ways that human dignity gets articulated. (Personally, I’ve always found this article from Dan Sulmasy on this helpful in a bioethics context.) Plus, Boethius gets a shoutout! Particularly in the Church’s traditional definition of a person: “an individual substance of a rational nature.” Good to see the early Sixth Century on human dignity showing up strong.

4/8/24, Abigail Favale, 8:00 am ET:

I wanted to offer some initial first thoughts on the sections addressing gender theory.

Paragraph 55. It is telling that this section begins with a condemnation of violence and unjust discrimination against LGBT people. The Church’s stance on gender theory is not motivated by hate or fear and should not be used to justify actions of hate. This is difficult to understand for some who will see this document as deeply transphobic, as undermining the dignity of trans-identifying people—yet the Church’s position is actually motivated by the desire to uphold human dignity. So the clash arises not from phobia or bigotry, but from two divergent understandings of dignity.

Paragraph 56. This paragraph rightly recognizes that rights based on subjective gender identity are in tension with rights based on sex, at least in certain key areas. Rights based on subjective gender identity are “not fully consistent” with sex-based rights, because it shifts the underlying referent of what it means to be a man or woman.

Paragraph 57. This paragraph emphasizes the language of gift, which has recurred in Pope Francis’ writing on gender, such as in Laudato Si 155 and Amoris Laetitia 56. “Gift” implies a giver—God—and a receiver—us. A key difference between a Christian understanding of sexual difference and gender theory is an emphasis on reality as created, and therefore full of intrinsic meaning, including our sexed embodiment. There is a creative intentionality behind our form.

This section describes gender theory as prescribing a kind of “self-determination.” That echoes the language of many laws that define gender as a matter of “self-identification” or self-ID. That said, most trans Christians I know would balk at this language; they aren’t hardcore postmodernist libertarians (not like Andrea Long Chu for example) but rather see their situation as something innate and unchosen. I think it’s important to note that the experience of gender discordance is often unchosen. Nonetheless, the narrative that has arisen in our time to interpret and frame that unchosen experience does make certain anthropological assumptions that displace the dignity and givenness of the sexed body. A gender theory that affirms a subjectively perceived gender identity over the reality of sex does fall into the theological errors described in this document.

Paragraph 58. This gets to the heart of it. There are various iterations of gender theory, but they share a common denominator: the deconstruction of sexual difference as a stable, identifiable, generative reality. Whether gender is held to be a mere construct or a reality that is entirely subjectively self-perceived, both theories displace the significance and reality of sexual difference.

And the effusive language here is so welcome: sexual difference is the “most beautiful” and “most powerful” difference. Yes! This reflects both the witness of scripture (one cannot read Genesis 2 or Song of Songs and not come away with a profound sense of the wonder that sexual difference inspires) and also the realities of human nature: sexual difference is the source of all human life. This is why the document rightly describes it as foundational. If we reject or misunderstand this first difference, which is the ground of all human differences, how can we possibly have a healthy relationship to other differences? (This is an argument made in the work of feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, by the way…)

This section also emphasizes that sexual difference indicates a generative reality. In our cultural imagination, we tend to think about gender first and foremost in terms of roles, behavior, dress, appearance—all things that could plausibly be adopted by the opposite sex. But what can’t be adopted is the underlying generative potential that constitutes the sexual difference itself. Even if this potential is never actualized, it forms and influences our bodily life. Gender theory seeks to displace gender from generativity.

Paragraph 59. Two things first strike me here. First, the important point that while we can make a distinction between sexual difference and the sociocultural expression of sexual difference (the definition of “gender” in some versions of gender theory), we cannot accept the tendency in gender theory to separate gender from sex entirely. The second thing that strikes me is the use of the word “ineliminable.” Sexual difference, as constitutive of the entirely bodily form of the person, is not a reality that can be changed or eliminated.

The claim here that gender theory “envisages a society without sexual differences” is easy to misunderstand, I think. That society is not necessarily a society a la the typical Star Trek alien, where everyone wears the same jumpsuit and looks fairly androgynous. That’s one version perhaps, but not the most popular iteration at the moment. Instead, what we are seeing is a free appropriation and confusion of the various “signs” of sexual difference, including language, such that sexual difference as a fundamental duality becomes obscured.

A realistic image for how a society without sexual differences might look might be the photo of Lia Thomas on the winner’s platform next to female competitors—this is an apt visual of a social denial of sexual difference.

4/8/24: Fr. Tom Berg, 8:00 am ET

An interesting–even curious– quote from Pau VI in DI, 2: “No anthropology equals that of the Church regarding the human person—particularly concerning the person’s originality, dignity, the intangibility and richness of the person’s fundamental rights, sacredness, capacity for education, aspiration to a complete development, and immortality.” This is a robust endorsement of the Church’s anthropology. Does it correspond to criticisms that some recent magisterial documents would seem to be at odds with the Church’s perennial understanding of human personhood?

I’m also pleased by the affirmations of the “primacy” of human reason (DI, 1) and the possibility–by human reason alone– of recognizing the dignity of the person (DI, 6). Again, I find this curious. The document’s footing seems to be more thoroughly that of a natural law approach which is not always evident in Francis’s magisterium. 

DI very importantly insists throughout on the ontological foundation of dignity–rooted in nature, not in present capacities (e.g. consciousness, presence of a self-concept, etc.) DI, 24: “Without any ontological grounding, the recognition of human dignity would vacillate at the mercy of varying and arbitrary judgments. The only prerequisite for speaking about the dignity inherent in the person is their membership in the human species…”

DI, 25: “Rather, the defense of human dignity is based on the constitutive demands of human nature, which do not depend on individual arbitrariness or social recognition… Therefore, the duties that stem from recognizing the dignity of the other and the corresponding rights that flow from it have a concrete and objective content based on our shared human nature. Without such an objective basis, the concept of dignity becomes de facto subject to the most diverse forms of arbitrariness and power interests.”

DI, 25: Human rights =/= human preferences. 

DI pushes back on the secular conflation of personal dignity with the possibility of “creating” one’s identity: “Indeed, there is an ever-growing risk of reducing human dignity to the ability to determine one’s identity and future independently of others, without regard for one’s membership in the human community” (DI, 26).

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Initial Pillar report:

'Dignitas infinita' emphasizes 'ontological dignity'

The Vatican’s doctrinal office on Monday published a theological treatise on the nature of human dignity, which emphasized that human dignity is rooted in being created in God’s image, and offered guidance on several moral issues, including poverty, abortion, and gender theory.

St. Peters Basilica, Italy
St. Peter’s Basilica. Credit: Unsplash.

“In the light of Revelation, the Church resolutely reiterates and confirms the ontological dignity of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed in Jesus Christ. From this truth, the Church draws the reasons for her commitment to the weak and those less endowed with power, always insisting on ‘the primacy of the human person and the defense of his or her dignity beyond every circumstance,’” explained Dignitas infinita, published April 8.

The text, nearly 12,000 words in length, began with an affirmation on the “ontological dignity” of each human being — drawing distinctions between “ontological dignity, moral dignity, social dignity, and existential dignity.”

Ontological dignity “belongs to the person… simply because he or she exists and is willed, created, and loved by God.” the document explained. 

Moral dignity corresponds to “how people exercise their freedom,” the text said. When people act contrary to the dictates of their consciences, it said, they “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.”

By social dignity, the DDF meant “the quality of a person’s living conditions,” and by “existential dignity,” the DDF meant “ the type of dignity implied in the ever-increasing discussion about a ‘dignified’ life and one that is ‘not dignified.’” — namely the experience of illness, violence, addiction, or other problems which might cause people to experience their lives as undignified. 

The text emphasized that while moral, social, or existential dignity can be compromised or challenged, a person’s fundamental ontological dignity is “indelible and remains valid beyond any circumstances in which the person may find themselves.”

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Dignitas infinita explained that the Church’s emphasis on human dignity comes from its conviction that human beings are made in the image of God, its believe that Christ elevated human dignity “by uniting himself with every human being through his Incarnation,” and its its conviction that all people are called to holiness, or “communion with God.”

The text explained that “each person must also to live up to the full measure of their dignity,” and noted that “sin can wound and obscure human dignity,” even while it “can never cancel the fact that the human being is created in the image and likeness of God.”

“Faith plays a decisive role in helping reason perceive human dignity and in accepting, consolidating, and clarifying its essential features,” the text emphasized.

Drawing from themes emphasized in previous texts by Pope Francis, the DDF emphasized that ontological dignity, rather than personal capacity or capability, should be seen as the foundational basis for understanding human rights — while lamenting that “the concept of human dignity is also occasionally misused to justify an arbitrary proliferation of new rights, many of which are at odds with those originally defined and often are set in opposition to the fundamental right to life.”

In light of that point, the text challenged “the claim that the modern world has reduced poverty,” arguing that “an obsession with reducing labor costs” had caused or exacerbated poverty, and heightened the “scandal of glaring inequalities.”

The text also lamented a number of other social problems connected to human dignity, including the human effects of war, the difficulties faced by migrants, violence against women, the problem of human trafficking, and cyberbullying.

Surprisingly, given the Church’s own challenges regarding the issue in recent years, the document included only one paragraph on sexual abuse, which it said “leaves deep scars in the hearts of those who suffer it.”

For many, the most anticipated sections of the text were those focused on issues of sexual and medical morality. 

On that front, the Church emphasized that widespread social acceptance for abortion “is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake.”

“Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception.”

The text condemned contemporary rhetoric about abortion using “ambiguous terminology… which tends to hide abortion’s true nature and to attenuate its seriousness in public opinion.”

“But no word has the power to change the reality of things: procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth,” the document said.

The document also emphasized the Church’s opposition to gestational surrogacy, which it said violates the dignity of both women and children. 

It next expressed Catholic opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide, and to “the marginalization of people with disabilities.”

In its reflection on gender theory, the text made several points.

First, it denounced violence or legal persecution based upon “sexual orientation,” condemning “every sign of unjust discrimination” caused by sexual orientation.

Next, it emphasized that “human life in all its dimensions, both physical and spiritual, is a gift from God” — and that the gift includes sexual difference.

The differences between men and woman are “beautiful and most powerful,” the text said. “ In the male-female couple, this difference achieves the most marvelous of reciprocities. It thus becomes the source of that miracle that never ceases to surprise us: the arrival of new human beings in the world.”

“Only by acknowledging and accepting this difference in reciprocity can each person fully discover themselves, their dignity, and their identity,” the DDF wrote.

“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.”

In light of those points, the text said that “any sex-change intervention, as a rule, risks threatening the unique dignity the person has received from the moment of conception.”

For some Catholics, the section most likely to raise questions pertains to the death penalty. While Pope Francis and his predecessors have called for a prohibition against the death penalty, Catholic theology has customarily allowed that the practice could be necessary under some conditions.

The April 8 DDF text said the death penalty “violates the inalienable dignity of every person, regardless of the circumstances.” While that framing aligns with Pope Francis’ own approach on the subject, it points to ongoing controversy over Francis’ approach, and whether the pontiff intends to frame the death penalty as an intrinsic evil — and thus always immoral — which would raise thorny theological questions about the nature of doctrine itself.


A preliminary note to the text emphasized that the DDF declaration had been underway since 2019, when the DDF decided to draft a text “highlighting the indispensable nature of the dignity of the human person in Christian anthropology and illustrating the significance and beneficial implications of the concept in the social, political, and economic realms.”

The note explained that the text had been through several iterations and and revisions, with involvement of Pope Francis, along with members of the Dicastery of the Doctrine for the Faith, and with work on the text completed in recent months under the direction of DDF prefect Cardinal Victor Fernandez. 

“The five-year course of the text’s preparation helps us to understand that the document before us reflects the gravity and centrality of the theme of dignity in Christian thought. The text required a considerable process of maturation to arrive at the final version that we have published today,” the DDF emphasized.

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