Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, presents Dignitas Infinita at the Vatican press office, April 8, 2024 (CNS/OSV).

Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community? Click here for a free discussion guide.

Whenever I open a book, a journal article, or an important Church document, the first thing I do is check the footnotes. This practice quickly gives me a sense of the author’s conversation partners. It also gives me an idea of the discussion in which the author aims to participate. Knowing the intended audience helps me interpret the document more accurately, and often more charitably, than I otherwise might have.

This practice stood me in good stead when I finally sat down to read Dignitas Infinita, the Declaration on Human Dignity promulgated by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in April 2024. As I perused the notes, I saw several prominent citations of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as subsequent documents explicating those rights. I also observed references to various Vatican missives to the diplomatic corps, as well as notes to secular philosophers and thinkers representing other religious traditions. I did not find many notes referring to documents focused primarily on the interior life of the Church, or citations of arguments that relied primarily on technical interpretations of Catholic moral theology. Instead, the sources cited, including official Vatican documents, were by and large addressed to all men and women of good will and pertained to our global common life together.

These citations lead me to situate the document not within intramural Catholic conversations but instead within the broader debate about the ground, nature, and scope of human rights taking place within the community of international law and policy. Indeed, the UN Declaration bookends the document; it is prominently mentioned in the second paragraph of the document’s introduction, and the first paragraph of the conclusion. The Holy See has long been an active participant in that debate, and was granted permanent-observer status at the United Nations in 1964. If we look at the Vatican document through this framework, it is easier to make sense of its general approach as well as to appreciate the limitations of its genre. 

Vatican interventions in secular human-rights discourse have generally had two purposes. The first is to rebut those who critique the UN Declaration and the human-rights regime it generated as alien impositions of a Western colonial framework on non-Western cultures. This is a charge sometimes raised by Arab and Asian countries that have very different understandings of the role and rights of women or the nature of acceptable punishment. It is also mounted by African countries that have different understandings of the basic structure of the family, including polygamy.

The Vatican’s second purpose is to resist the interpretation or expansion of universal rights in a purely individualistic or constructivist way—which would, in its view, be an unjustified imposition of certain elements of a Western world-view. In the Vatican’s view, rights are not determined by individual desires, no matter how strong they are. Nor are they designed to protect an individual’s right to construct his or her own identity without reference to objective goods, like the norms of biology, the well-being of other people, or a well-functioning community.

The Declaration identifies thirteen practices that violate human dignity. Rather than viewing these practices as a motley parade of horribles, it is worth analyzing them in four groups, each with a distinctive overarching point. The first group includes the issues that define Francis’s papacy: the drama of poverty, war, and the travail of migrants. Taken together, they proclaim that social rights, including positive rights to economic aid, are inseparable from individual rights. 

The second group, comprising human trafficking, sexual abuse, and violence against women, demonstrates the interconnections between the social and personal dimensions of human life, and between the body and soul in human well-being. Vulnerable migrants are often subject to human trafficking, sexual abuse, and violence. Strongly rejecting the idea that the equal dignity of women is a form of Western colonialism, the Vatican Declaration repudiates femicide—which would include both female infanticide practiced in China as well as honor killings practiced in some Muslim cultures. The document also denounces polygamy as inconsistent with the equal dignity of women and men as spouses. 

So how, then, should we view the condemnations articulated in Dignitas Infinita? In my view, they function as boundaries, warning signals, and challenges for moralists and public-policy leaders.

The third group, abortion, surrogacy, assisted suicide and euthanasia, and the marginalization of people with disabilities, addresses the longstanding concerns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Yet these concerns are decidedly cast in the key of Francis, who frames the practices variously as indicative of a “throwaway culture” or a refusal of natural human relationships of “fraternity and social friendship.” The document does not focus narrowly on the morality of individual acts (e.g., separating the unitive and procreative goods of marriage in surrogacy). Instead, it emphasizes the deleterious social and relational consequences of the practices it condemns. 

The fourth and final group, gender theory, sex change, and digital violence, defends a non-dualistic human anthropology that affirms the dignity of human beings in the unity of body and soul. From this perspective, gender theory wrongly implies that a person’s sexual identity as a man, woman, or other category is purely a matter of self-determination, and is not normatively tied to one’s given embodiment as male or female. Sex-change procedures do not give sufficient normative status to human embodiment, because they treat the body as something to be reshaped according to one’s inner sense of oneself. Digital violence also destructively separates mind and body by perpetuating the illusion that what we do online, no matter how degrading, has no ramifications in the real, physical world.

How do these groupings help us place Dignitas Infinita within the broader hermeneutic of the Vatican’s characteristic approach to human rights? As I noted earlier, one longstanding concern has been to defend the core rights protected in the UN Declaration against the charge of Western cultural imperialism. This is an overarching purpose of the second group of condemnations, which prominently protests assaults against the dignity and equality of women. 

The condemnations in the fourth group are designed to achieve the other longstanding purpose: preventing the proliferation of rights based on an exclusively Western framework. The document itself makes this point explicitly:

Pope Francis has reminded us that “the path to peace calls for respect for human rights, in accordance with the simple yet clear formulation contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose seventy-fifth anniversary we recently celebrated. These principles are self-evident and commonly accepted. Regrettably, in recent decades, attempts have been made to introduce new rights that are neither fully consistent with those originally defined nor always acceptable.

Focusing on the sections on gender ideology and sex change, many progressive Catholics have hotly criticized Dignitas Infinita. In my view, some of these criticisms are misplaced, because they misunderstand the nature, context, and intended audience of the document. For example, to say that the document does not attend to the lived experience of trans people is to mistake its genre, which is theoretical, not practical or pastoral. For that matter, the experiences of those who have obtained abortions, or who have served as surrogate mothers, are also missing. 

Others have pointed out that the document does not wade into the latest debates about gender and sex change. True enough. But it also does not address conflicting arguments about migration policy or war-making in the face of terrorism. The document is not making a detailed moral argument about any one, much less all, of the specific issues it addresses.

So how, then, should we view the condemnations articulated in Dignitas Infinita? In my view, they function as boundaries, warning signals, and challenges for moralists and public-policy leaders. For example, it may be possible to defend a defensive war—but doing so will require contending honestly with the immense suffering caused by such a war. It is no longer permissible to occlude the suffering by asserting that it is “proportionate” to the good obtained in accordance with just-war theory. 

Similarly, it is essential to honor the equal dignity of trans people and to accompany them in their life journeys and their relationship with God. But it is not sufficient. For Catholics who wish to develop the Church’s tradition on gender, it will also be necessary to show how that development can be consistent with the tradition’s fundamental opposition to mind-body dualism and its rejection of the view that the body is simply a tool of the mind. Some Catholics may think that these tasks are not necessary. Others may think that they have already been achieved. But as the experiences of John Courtney Murray reveal, authentic development of the Church’s teaching is never easy or quick. If it is to be successful, it requires facing head-on the strongest arguments against development. Murray needed to show how defending religious freedom did not mean endorsing religious indifferentism. To meet the concerns of the Vatican, LGBTQ activists will need to help people understand how their position does not entail a new form of dualism. 

This article is part of a symposium about Dignitas Infinita published in Commonweal’s June 2024 issue. To view the whole symposium, click here

Cathleen Kaveny teaches law and theology at Boston College.

Also by this author
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the June 2024 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.