“Angels Unaware,” a sculpture by Timothy Schmalz depicting migrants, St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican (Urs Hauenstein/Alamy Stock Photo)

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The release of a new document from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) always generates news, without much regard for how newsworthy the document actually turns out to be. In this case, the excitement was understandable but the document itself turned out to be underwhelming. Dignitas Infinita purports to be a wide-ranging outline of the concept of human dignity. The infinite dignity to which its title refers is the ontological dignity of humanity: as bearers of the imago Dei whose very being bespeaks the divine love that sustains us from moment to moment, each of us is infinitely and uniquely valuable. This is sound Catholic theology and good anthropology. Much has been made, however, of the DDF’s treatment of what it calls “gender theory” and what most readers understand to be the situation of transgender people. I make this distinction because I think that Dignitas Infinita, while often clear-sighted and practical in the best traditions of Catholic theology, 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.

The initial sections of Dignitas Infinita outline the other senses of the word “dignity” that are, for Catholics, dependent on this ontological dignity. The primacy of ontological dignity is followed by three subsidiary types: moral dignity, social dignity, and existential dignity. Moral dignity is what we possess when we act as human beings ought to act; social dignity is the dignity we are afforded by others; existential dignity is our relationship with and perception of our own lives. Each of these is susceptible of diminishment, and such diminishment becomes apparent by contrast with the basic and infinite ontological dignity that inheres in us at all times and in all circumstances. These dignities are distinct from one another—a person might enjoy great social esteem and personal happiness while being an unrepentant war criminal reviled by persons of sound judgment—but they can also be deeply intertwined, especially the latter two: being a member of a small, vulnerable, and widely despised minority can contribute to people’s sense that their own lives do not measure up to what a fully realized human life ought to be.

The document goes on to discuss the relationship between ontological dignity and human freedom. Our freedom is one of the constituent elements of this dignity, partaking as it does of the freedom of God. But our freedom is also necessarily subordinate to, and limited by, the recognition of that same dignity in other people. These do not, however, take place on the same “level” of dignity: our dignity is constituted in part by freedom on the ontological level, but our freedom is limited by the dignity of others on the moral level. When we fail to recognize the basic dignity of other people, we damage our own moral dignity because we are not behaving in a way appropriate to a human being. The final portions of the document address the various ways in which we can violate the dignity of others or ourselves by failing in some way to recognize each person’s infinite worth, thereby doing violence to our own moral dignity.

All of this is solid theology rooted in and supported with ample biblical, patristic, and contemporary theological evidence. And as the discussion continues, the DDF’s treatments of poverty, war, and the plight of migrants are excellent examples of rigorous theological summary. On poverty, the document quotes all three of the most recent popes, whose basic thought is a perennial teaching of the Church: that the goods of the earth are originally and primarily intended for all, and that serious inequality that denies basic goods to many while delivering enormous wealth to a few is a grave injustice that contradicts the fundamental equality of dignity between rich and poor. This has been a perennial concern of the Church, running from the Law of Moses through the sayings of Jesus, the early apostolic community, and both the Greek and Latin Fathers, and the document reflects this well-developed historic consensus on a topic whose contours remain largely the same as they were in the days of the early Church.

The section on “sex change” is similarly muddled, relying not on the history of Catholic thinking about sex, gender, and the human body but on a tortured application of Thomistic anthropology.

The section on war, which immediately follows, exemplifies the historic teaching of the Church applied to a perennial concern that has changed dramatically in recent centuries. The Church has historically taught that there are necessary criteria for war to be just, but because of the scale of contemporary weaponry and the extent and density of human habitation, the document quotes Pope Francis’s contention that “it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of ‘just war.’ Never again war!” Again quoting Francis, the DDF reminds us that “war is always a ‘defeat of humanity,’” rearticulating the Church’s ancient teaching on the evil of war and the evils that accompany even just war. (These are illustrated by medieval penances for returning soldiers such as those prescribed by the Norman bishops after the Battle of Hastings.) In modern times, the evils of war have grown so great that justice in an aggressive war is no longer recognized as a serious possibility, and so the Church condemns incitement of war unequivocally: one may fight only to end a war already begun. This is a notable development from, for example, the criteria elaborated by Thomas Aquinas, but it also clearly springs from the Church’s ancient recognition of war as a great evil, applying that teaching to war as it is fought today.

Mass migration differs from both wealth inequality and war in that it is a relatively new problem. In the past, such migrations were extremely rare and limited events, often the results of highly destructive wars or famines. Advances in transportation have made it far more feasible for victims of such catastrophes to leave and seek safety elsewhere in the world, in numbers that would have been impossible in premodern times, even as climate change and the effects of colonialism have exacerbated the circumstances necessitating such migration. Nonetheless, the principles through which the Church comes to its position, reiterated in this document, are principles first articulated in the Law of Moses, which enjoins Israel to treat foreigners with dignity, dealing fairly with them and making them part of the social fabric. Thus, the Church teaches that people arriving in another country should be welcomed unconditionally, declaring in this document that “[r]eceiving migrants is an important and meaningful way of defending ‘the inalienable dignity of each human person regardless of origin, race, or religion.’”


The treatment of these issues in Dignitas Infinita shows that the deep resources of Catholic theology are well equipped for addressing many kinds of problems, from the ancient to the contemporary, if such resources are brought to bear on actual questions. But in the sections on “gender theory” and “sex change,” the DDF either refuses to address real questions or addresses them in ways that do not actually draw on the intellectual and pastoral resources that history has placed at the Church’s disposal. The first section, which deals with something that the document calls “gender theory,” is a failure because neither the authors nor the audience have the slightest idea what “gender theory” actually is. This phrase has cropped up more and more in Vatican documents and papal statements over the past five or so years, serving as a placeholder for whatever a reader or listener would prefer to fill in. Its definition is always assumed, never outlined in a way that would subject it to criticism or discussion. I suspect such an outline would reveal it to be a mess of incoherent contradictions and prejudices rather than something drawn from real encounters with real human beings.

This is not the first time that the Church has fared poorly in dealing with abstractions: the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social encyclicals become nearly incoherent whenever the word “socialism” comes up, because the people drafting them did not have a clear notion of what socialism was. It was, like “gender theory,” a placeholder for other ideological and political struggles. The Church’s teachings on wealth and on right relationships between worker and employer are much clearer. Similarly, when speaking about “gender theory,” both the Vatican and Pope Francis do very badly, but when the pope teaches about giving God’s blessing to people who ask for it, or when he dines publicly with transgender women who have been sex workers, and when the Papal Almoner gives money to communities of such people, the pope and the Church teach clearly and powerfully about the God-given dignity that forms the basis for this latest document.

The section on “sex change” is similarly muddled, relying not on the history of Catholic thinking about sex, gender, and the human body but on a tortured application of Thomistic anthropology. It is absolutely true that soul and body are inseparable and that the body is a gift, but people undergo medical treatments all the time, and sometimes these medical treatments may affect their fertility. The Declaration’s attempt to carve out an exception for people with intersex conditions depends on a vision of medical sex and sexual complementarity that would be alien to the early and medieval Church. For most of Christian history, humanity was not thought to be two equal and complementary “types” of person but one, of which women were considered a malformed and inferior set. The medical theory of dimorphism did not emerge until the eighteenth century. What is being defended here by the Vatican is another abstraction, and defense of abstractions is no better than assault on them: one either fights for a phantom or tilts at windmills. This is no way to do moral theology or to teach on Christian ethics.

There is a wealth of Christian teaching and experience on both the gift of the body and on the ways it can become a burden, an obstacle, and a source of affliction. Dignitas Infinita correctly reminds us that “[i]t is in the body that each person recognizes himself or herself as generated by others,” a reminder that our embodiment is precisely what embeds us in social life. Our bodies are a nexus of social meaning and social dignity. It is as embodied persons that we are seen, heard, fed, and loved. We might also remind ourselves about ways of changing the body that signal entry into new kinds of life: the circumcision of the Mosaic covenant and the tonsure of monastics both come to mind. What the fruits of such thinking might be, I cannot say. I know, however, that it is a mistake to waste words and time on misleading and incoherent abstraction when so many people, including the transgender people about whom those sections attempt to speak, have so many real physical, social, and moral needs for which the Church has real answers that can help to heal both body and spirit. Tradition is a very large place; it would be a good idea to start living in it.

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

Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist. He spends his time thinking about Homeric philology, Catholic socialism, musical theater, and the Michigan Wolverines.

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