Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (CNS/Pablo Esparza)

On April 8, the Vatican Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith released the Declaration Dignitas Infinita on human dignity. Timed to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the document lays out a forceful vision of the indelible “dignity of the human person in Christian anthropology”: “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 ever encounter.” 

Most of the Declaration’s twelve thousand words are cogent and compelling. After analyzing four dimensions of human dignity—intrinsic, moral, social, and existential—the document’s final section specifies “some grave violations of human dignity” and calls on governments to enact legal protections against them. Followers of Francis’s papacy will already be familiar with most of these “violations”; they have been discussed at length in the encyclical Fratelli tutti and other recent Vatican documents. They include capital punishment, torture, poverty, war, the treatment of migrants, human trafficking, sexual abuse, violence against women, abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, the marginalization of people with disabilities, and “digital violence”—e.g., surveillance, pornography, and cyberbullying. 

Dignitas Infinita also cites “surrogacy,” “gender theory,” and “sex change” in its list of things that “seriously threaten the future of the human family.” Given surrogacy’s potential to lead to economic exploitation and the commodification of human life, it isn’t hard to see why Francis has pushed for a worldwide ban on the practice: commercial (as opposed to altruistic) surrogacy is a rapidly expanding, multi-billion-dollar industry in which couples—often from wealthier countries—“rent” the wombs of young women from poorer nations. 

But the sections on gender theory and sex change have triggered strong critical reactions in the West, especially among many LGBT people and their allies. Francis had condemned “gender ideology” several times before, but given the DDF’s recent endorsement of informal blessings for same-sex couples and the pope’s own gestures of welcome to the LGBT community, this latest condemnation came as an unwelcome surprise to many. One of the passages in question reads: “Desiring a personal self-determination, as gender theory prescribes…amounts to a concession to the age-old temptation to make oneself God, entering into a competition with the true God of love as revealed to us in the Gospel.” While the document affirms the dignity of “every person, regardless of sexual orientation” and rejects “every sign of unjust discrimination,” especially in countries where LGBT people are “imprisoned, tortured and even deprived of the good of life,” its peremptory and somewhat confusing critique of “gender theory” and “sex change” is likely to reinforce the very discrimination it explicitly condemns.

The declaration has little to say about the pastoral care of transgender people.

The Vatican’s denunciation of “gender theory” arrives in a context of increasingly intense cultural battles over transgender rights and medical treatments for transgender youth, whose numbers have increased dramatically during the past decade. In the United States, lawmakers in more than twenty states have proposed or enacted limits on gender-affirming care such as puberty blockers and hormones. After England determined that these therapies were overprescribed to transgender youth and that the data about their long-term efficacy were inconclusive, it joined Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands in limiting their availability. 

Those looking for a nuanced discussion about this controversy won’t find it in the rather blunt assertions of Dignitas Infinita, which accuses “gender theory” of wanting to eliminate “the anthropological basis of the family” and “dictating how children should be raised.” These broad claims seem overstated; they will puzzle or disappoint many people who are otherwise receptive to the Vatican’s message about the ethical and political priority of human dignity. Nor is it obvious that, as the document blankly asserts, “any sex-change intervention, as a rule, risks threatening the unique dignity the person has received from the moment of conception.” There may be good arguments for this conclusion, but they are not in evidence here, and their absence invites both incredulity and misunderstanding. More generally, the DDF should consider making a greater effort in such declarations to persuade and not merely to, well, declare.

The DDF’s failure to carefully distinguish between “gender theory” and the varied experiences of actual transgender people—or, indeed, among the rival versions of gender theory—risks further alienating a group that already feels rejected by the Church. At least one American bishop has even advised his priests to withhold the Eucharist from transgender people; Dignitas Infinita neither endorses nor condemns this kind of foolish and spiteful pastoral blunder. Because the declaration has so little to say about the pastoral care of transgender people, the important questions it raises about identity and the limits of self-determination are unlikely to get a hearing among the very people who have the most at stake in this discussion—those who sincerely believe that their gender does not correspond to their sex. The Vatican has now made it clear that (if not why) it regards their belief as a kind of illusion. It could at least have made it equally clear that it does not regard this belief as a grave sin, much less as a bar to God’s love.

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Published in the May 2024 issue: View Contents
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