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Dignitas Infinita: A guide to human dignity for lay readers

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People receive containers to be filled with food for people in need at a soup kitchen in Havana that is serving a growing number of Cubans struggling to make ends meet amid economic crisis Jan. 15, 2024. Poverty is among more than a dozen issues covered by a new Vatican document on human dignity. "Dignitas Infinita" ("Infinite Dignity") was released April 8, 2024, by the Vatican's Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Photo: OSV News photo/Yander Zamora, Reuters
People receive containers to be filled with food for people in need at a soup kitchen in Havana that is serving a growing number of Cubans struggling to make ends meet amid economic crisis Jan. 15, 2024. Poverty is among more than a dozen issues covered by a new Vatican document on human dignity. “Dignitas Infinita” (“Infinite Dignity”) was released April 8, 2024, by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Photo: OSV News photo/Yander Zamora, Reuters

Last week, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith released its long-awaited declaration Dignitas Infinita (on Human Dignity). It’s not a lengthy document, and it’s quite a clear one.

Both these features make it score highly in my favour, because sometimes less really is more. This is one of those situations.

I have long maintained that Pope Francis is at heart a theological conservative. The trouble is that he is also a great many other things too.

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But of course he didn’t write this document, and it’s also possible that dicastery prefect Víctor Manuel Cardinal Fernández didn’t write all of it. But whoever did write it, got most of it spot-on.

The document starts with a fourfold unpacking of the concept of human dignity which is helpful for lay readers like me (ss7-9). Ontological dignity is given to us by God and can’t be taken away.

But concepts like moral dignity, social dignity, and existential dignity are where our human freedom, and will, come into play. It’s where we can suffer harms and losses to our dignity and that of other people.

Free will means that we can choose to be as morally undignified as we like, which is an awful shame. But God wants us to be his free children who freely choose to love him, rather than being his pet robots.

I for one am very happy with the concept of “social dignity” as it’s defined here, because I think the term “social justice” has had its day.

It’s been attenuated by its longtime association with radical leftist pet causes. Switching to a term like “social dignity” shifts the emphasis to the person created in the image and likeness of God.

Section 25 explains what happens when we start bestowing rights on people simply because they want something. It’s like putting a toddler in charge of a day care centre.

This isn’t a serious or even workable way of living in a free society, and it causes more harm than good. We each have a heck of a lot more responsibilities to each other than we have rights.

My first problem with this document was section 40, which suffers from issues with translation or drafting. It’s about “migrants,” but it seems to assume that all migrants are refugees, and that all are suffering from various injustices in their new countries.

In Australia, we have a lot of migrants from the UK. They mostly have jobs, drive on the correct side of the road, and speak the local language. People from non-English speaking backgrounds who are refugees, or economic migrants, or who arrive illegally, will fare worse, and that’s an important distinction which I don’t think has been made here.

The sections on human trafficking (ss41-42), sexual abuse (s43), violence against women (ss44-46), abortion (s47), surrogacy (ss48-50), euthanasia (ss51-52), and people with disabilities (ss53-54) all reaffirm Catholic teaching.

The interesting bit is on gender theory and sex change. Having set up an argument about human dignity as proceeding from a loving God who also allows us the freedom to make a mess of things, this section follows logically.

Some people have objected to section 55, which denounces the criminalisation of homosexual orientation in some parts of the world. I think again that this section could have been drafted or translated better.

The church has always distinguished between homosexual orientation and homosexual acts (CCC 2357-2359). The orientation isn’t considered sinful; the acts are. But homosexual orientation isn’t even recognised as a concept in some places. In Iran, for example, gay men have been forced to have sex change operations.

People in these parts of the world are usually imprisoned, tortured, and executed for performing specific sexual acts. Their trials—if they get one at all—are usually dodgy, and this is very rough justice.

But our desire to play fair by everyone has opened some interesting doors. “Regrettably, in recent decades, attempts have been made to introduce new rights … They have led to instances of ideological colonisation, in which gender theory plays a central role” (s56).

Section 57 opens by reminding everyone that gender theory is just that: a theory, not a science. But it also reminds us that a pick-and-choose attitude to gender self-determination is at odds with everything that God has ever told us about ourselves.

Section 58 reinforces the truths of sexual difference in all its levels: foundational, reciprocal, and fertile. It also hits back at the absolutism of many gender theorists.

Section 60 on sex change reaffirms that human beings are body and soul, created male and female in God’s image and likeness. We should receive the body as a gift, “accepting it and respecting it as it was created.” There are no surprises here, because Pope Francis has already covered all this territory in Amoris Laetitia.

This document has used the technically correct term “genital abnormalities” to describe the situation of a very tiny percentage of human beings born with indeterminate sex. Resolving these medically and surgically is not a “sex change.”

The section on digital violence (ss61-62) is very timely, because it’s in the digital world that the most toxic battles are being fought over this issue. Digital immediacy also allows an angry mob to be summoned at short notice to deplatform “offenders.”

Gender-critical writers and thinkers regularly lose their jobs and study opportunities. They are also threatened online, sometimes daily, with doxxing, rape, violence, and murder.

It’s not just them; it’s all of us. “‘Digital communication wants to bring everything out into the open; people’s lives are combed over, laid bare and bandied about, often anonymously. Respect for others disintegrates, and even as we dismiss, ignore, or keep others distant, we can shamelessly peer into every detail of their lives.’ Such tendencies represent a dark side of digital progress” (s61).

To sum up: Dignitas infinita is good. It’s about human dignity being God-given, vocationally-oriented, freedom-infused, and unconditional. It includes every human being, including those who are currently denied legal personhood.

It’s heavily larded with quotes from Pope Francis (76 mentions, some of which indicate where the Holy Father has quoted his predecessors), but just 19 from St John Paul II (who practically made this topic his life’s work), and 12 from Pope Benedict XVI.

Those quotes from Francis simply ram home just how much of a theological conservative he’s always been. This can only disappoint those who want to use the Holy Father to push their own agendas—and that is also a good thing.

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