Theological Perspectives on the Document Dignitas Infinita

Rev. Thomas Massaro, S.J., is Professor of Moral Theology at Fordham University in New York City.

As a Catholic theologian and a Jesuit priest, I noticed two sets of immediate reactions within the Roman Catholic community to the teaching document Dignitas Infinita. This 15,000-word declaration of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith was released on 8 April 2024, timed (roughly so, as is often the case with Vatican promulgations) to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the founding documents of the United Nations.

On one hand, a number of commentators on church matters characterized the document as containing little or nothing that is truly novel within the instructions of the magisterium (or teaching authority) of the Roman Catholic Church. The document’s repeated affirmations of the inalienable dignity of the human person are mostly “more of the same.” On the other hand, certain observers expressed the opinion that, with this document, the Vatican was wading a bit deeper into the culture wars that have roiled our polarized global society in recent years, staking out controversial opinions and exposing further fault lines on sensitive hot-button issues. Both of these positions contain some truth, as I explain below. One need not have achieved the status of a full-fledged Vatican-watcher to recognize the complex and enduring interplay between the twin realities of continuity and innovation in Catholic social teachings, regardless of the identity of the current pope (under whose auspices any given Vatican document is promulgated, even if the sitting pontiff has no direct hand in the drafting process).

On this point, Pope Francis has been accused of some egregious zig-zagging on many matters of great significance for the internal life of the church as well as on Catholic stances toward the wider social world. Even appreciative observers of the first Jesuit pope (I count myself among those ranks) must acknowledge certain episodes where hopes and expectations for meaningful reforms in church practices were raised by words and gestures of Francis, only to be frustrated by subsequent developments. For example, Francis established two separate commissions to examine the possibility of the ordination of women to the diaconate, only to dash hopes for the formal recognition of female deacons with public statements ruling it out (including during his May 2024 interview with Norah O’Donnell on the CBS news program “60 Minutes,” a rare papal foray into the U.S. media market). Similarly, Francis’s repeated communication of much broader acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, including in the blessing of same-sex couples and even into formal roles in the church itself (recall his 2013 quip “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gays in the priesthood), seemed to be retracted by certain May 2024 developments, whereby Francis signaled (even with the use of a hurtful epithet, for which he later apologized) his concurrence with the continued exclusion of men with deep-sated homosexual orientations from seminaries and the priesthood.

While Francis has “gotten out ahead of his skis” and subsequently had to “pump the breaks” on other proposed church reforms or promising initiatives, topics relating to the basic human dignity of all people are not among them. There has been no zig-zagging on the recognition of the full and inalienable dignity of all people, either by the current pontiff or any of Francis’s recent predecessors. The ontological sacredness of the human person is a bedrock principle of Christian anthropology, although the full articulation of human rights and universal dignity took centuries to come to maturity.

An inflection point in the church’s recognition of the sacred and inviolable dignity of all humans without exception came at the Second Vatican Council; the resulting 1965 document Gaudium et Spes contains a dozen pivotal paragraphs (forming Part I, Chapter I, of that Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, which is quoted several times in Dignitas Infinita) that affirm universal dignity in the strongest of ways. The rejection of any basis for discrimination against individuals or categories of people in that Council document (a genre of church teachings that enjoys the highest level of teaching authority) has set the agenda for every subsequent pope and social teaching document of the Catholic Church.

That description, just above the key points of continuity in the Catholic Church’s recognition of the inviolable dignity of all, must of course be supplemented by some acknowledgement and description of innovation and change in the church’s stance. Rather than yielding to the persistent temptation to deny that church teachings can ever undergo change, or perhaps to feel some measure of embarrassment regarding the very existence of any change in the church, the healthy position is to recognize the evident instances of evolution and to analyze them accordingly. Some change is rightly characterized as doctrinal in nature (on the level of theory and understanding), while other changes come in church practice and pastoral accommodation. We should never be surprised that any human institution (even one whose self-understanding includes the claim that it is divinely instituted and guided, albeit operated by sinful mortals) adjusts and updates its practices over time, hopefully for the better. This is indeed what happened to the Catholic Church in the course of the nineteenth century when it at last repudiated its portrayal of slavery as somehow reconcilable with the natural law and thus definitively rejected chattel slavery. Other examples of change in church doctrine and practice over time abound: regarding religious liberty, marriage, usury, etc.

Much of the innovation over time that church historians readily document involves the Catholic community coming to terms with new social realities and conditions, which necessitate either substantive reappraisal of past practices and tradition or the meeting of entirely new and unprecedented challenges. This observation leads us back to the text of Dignitas Infinita, which addresses challenges old and new. An early paragraph within that text states clearly the document’s purpose: to affirm “the gravity and centrality of the theme of dignity in Christian thought.” The high point of the document comes with (to quote the document’s own initial overview section):

The fourth section [which] presents some current and problematic situations in which the immense and inalienable dignity due to every human being is not sufficiently recognized. The Church sees the condemnation of these grave and current violations of human dignity as a necessary measure, for she sustains the deep conviction that we cannot separate faith from the defense of human dignity, evangelization from the promotion of a dignified life, and spirituality from a commitment to the dignity of every human being.

That fourth section is titled “Some Grave Violations of Human Dignity” and presents a considerable array of threats to human dignity, each with a one- to three-paragraph description. The list of such assaults includes poverty, war, the travail of migrants, human trafficking, sexual abuse, violence against women, abortion, reproductive surrogacy, euthanasia and assisted suicide, the marginalization of people with disabilities, gender theory, sex change, and digital violence.

This is not, of course, the precise list that many others would generate. It might seem selective, arbitrary, unbalanced, or even wrongheaded to many observers, inviting strenuous objections in many quarters. It might even appear that the Vatican is deliberately and provocatively wading into the culture wars of the moment. If nothing else, the publication of this document serves as a reminder that the Catholic Church is never caught holding its moistened finger to the air, gauging prevailing public opinion in order to shape its stances on the liceity of abortion or euthanasia or other practices that it has consistently judged to be assaults on human life.

The document contains five brief paragraphs on “gender theory” and one on “sex change.” None is likely to persuade anyone not already in agreement with the Vatican position, as they are more given to broad claims and blunt assertions about dangers than to nuanced analysis. Indeed, the treatment here of these complex issues has been faulted for unduly criticizing gender theory without even supplying a clear definition of it. Daniel Walden expresses his disappointment that the document fails to apprehend even the basic situation of transgender people and, therefore, provides no useful intellectual or moral guidance either for transgender Catholics or for their families, friends, and colleagues. This contrast between the document’s sound reasoning on many issues and its nonsensical pronouncements in this other important area is, to me, both the most interesting and the most disappointing aspect of the declaration.

Of course, there is not space either in this present essay or in a Vatican document of such a modest length as Dignitas Infinita to develop analyses of complex issues such as these that will provide definitive responses or resources to the satisfaction of all. Allow me to close with two observations that may provide helpful focus.

First, to frame the intended contribution of this or any document of religious ethics, a church (or any religious community located within a pluralistic society) embraces its identity as a voluntary organization that is part of civil society. As such the Catholic Church advances its social mission by seeking to propose (rather than aspiring ever to impose) moral standards and guidelines in line with its values and traditions. The positions expounded in this document are not a matter of exerting social control in some ham-fisted way. Rather, they belong to the genre of moral exhortations, which are intended to instruct, to inspire, and even to change hearts. The “spirituality of world transformation” reflected in the best of Catholic social teaching remains modest in its aspiration to help form the consciences of believers (and increasingly of “all persons of good will”) so as to serve the world ever more generously, not to coerce duly constituted political institutions to move in specific directions.

Second, regarding the specific matters at hand in Dignitas Infinita, it is prudent to acknowledge that two things can be true simultaneously: (1) that the Catholic Church has stood up admirably for the principle of inviolable human dignity; and (2) that it is still learning to identify and overcome its own limitations, inconsistencies, and blind spots. The document itself refers to the ways that “the church’s magisterium progressively developed an ever-greater understanding of the meaning of human dignity, along with its demands and consequences.” Doctrine and pastoral practice continue to develop, sometimes in fits and starts (and maybe someday, for example, beyond heteronormativity and strict gender binaries—to mention just two of the neuralgic points highlighted by many critics of the document). In principle, the Christian community recognizes itself as on a continual pilgrimage to a fullness of truth that only God knows, even as we do our best “to read the signs of the times.”

Above all, Dignitas Infinita has a pastoral purpose, in line with the open-hearted evangelizing agenda of Pope Francis that includes protecting and accompanying the most vulnerable among us. Any religious leader who exhorts adherents to recognize the sacred dignity of all people does well to provide guidance regarding what that dignity requires from us, individually and collectively. In inquiring into what the protection of human dignity entails, and what the defense of these core values looks like in practice, this document is a valuable place to start.

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