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Gerard O’ConnellApril 08, 2024
Briana, a 1-year-old migrant girl from Peru, is carried by her father, Jordan, as they search for an entry point into the United States past a razor wire-laden fence along the bank of the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas, March 26, 2024. (OSV News photo/Adrees Latif, Reuters)Briana, a 1-year-old migrant girl from Peru, is carried by her father, Jordan, as they search for an entry point into the United States past a razor wire-laden fence along the bank of the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas, March 26, 2024. (OSV News photo/Adrees Latif, Reuters)

The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued an important new doctrinal declaration on human dignity, approved by Pope Francis, that not only reaffirms the Catholic Church’s traditional teaching on abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, but also updates it by denouncing some newer forms of violation of that dignity in the 21st century, such as surrogacy and the promotion of gender theory.

“Declaration ‘Dignitas Infinita’ on Human Dignity" is the title of this 23-page document that Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández said went through several preparatory drafts over the past five years, and which he presented at a Vatican press conference on April 8.

He revealed in a preface to the text that Pope Francis explicitly asked that the document “highlight topics closely connected to the theme of dignity, such as poverty, the situation of migrants, violence against women, human trafficking, war and other themes.” Thus the declaration goes beyond the focus on single issues and throws a spotlight on the much broader field of violations of human dignity.

Commenting on this in an editorial on Vatican Media, Andrea Tornielli, its editorial director, said: “The new text contributes to overcoming the dichotomy that exists between those who concentrate exclusively on the defense of life that is unborn or dying and forget the other attacks against human dignity, and those, on the other hand, who focus only on the defense of the poor and migrants and forget that life has to be defended from conception to natural death.”

The declaration’s fourth chapter gives attention to 13 broad areas of violations against human dignity, including some new ones in the field of bioethics. The declaration, quoting Pope Francis’ talk to the diplomatic corps on Jan. 4 of this year, says, “the practice of so-called surrogate motherhood” represents “a grave violation of the dignity of the woman and the child, based on the exploitation of situations of the mother’s material needs.”

It explains that “surrogacy violates the dignity of the woman, whether she is coerced into it or chooses to subject herself to it freely. For, in this practice, the woman is detached from the child growing in her and becomes a mere means subservient to the arbitrary gain or desire of others.” Moreover, it argues that “the legitimate desire to have a child cannot be transformed into a ‘right to a child’ that fails to respect the dignity of that child as the recipient of the gift of life.” It repeats the pope’s call for the international community “to prohibit this practice universally.”

At the same time, the declaration strongly denounces violence against women in its manifold forms. It says that “while the equal dignity of women may be recognized in words, the inequalities between women and men in some countries remain very serious” and calls for them to be addressed. It denounces coercive abortions and the practice of polygamy. It condemns the phenomenon of femicide and calls on the entire international community to have a coordinated and concrete commitment to protecting women.

It is perhaps noteworthy also that the declaration begins its focus on gender theory by defending the human dignity of L.G.B.T.Q. people (though it does not use the abbreviation). It reaffirms that “every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence.”

For this reason, it says, “it should be denounced as contrary to human dignity the fact that, in some places, not a few people are imprisoned, tortured, and even deprived of the good of life solely because of their sexual orientation.” This appears to be a response to legislation in some African and Asian countries. At the press conference Cardinal Fernandez said the church supported the decriminalization of homosexuality in the various countries.

As widely expected, the declaration issues a firm “no” to gender theory, which it describes as “extremely dangerous” since, among other things, it “intends to deny the greatest possible difference that exists between living beings: sexual difference.” The declaration says: “This foundational difference is not only the greatest imaginable difference but is also the most beautiful and most powerful of them. In the male-female couple, this difference achieves the most marvelous of reciprocities. It thus becomes the source of that miracle that never ceases to surprise us: the arrival of new human beings in the world.”

It recalls that “the Church teaches that human life in all its dimensions, both physical and spiritual, is a gift from God” and says: “Desiring a personal self-determination, as gender theory prescribes, apart from this fundamental truth that human life is a gift, amounts to a concession to the age-old temptation to make oneself God.” The declaration concludes that “all attempts to obscure reference to the ineliminable sexual difference between man and woman are to be rejected.”

The declaration also says no to sex change. It says “we are called to protect our humanity, and this means, in the first place, accepting it and respecting it as it was created” and so “[it] follows that any sex-change intervention, as a rule, risks threatening the unique dignity the person has received from the moment of conception.”

In his preface to the text, Cardinal Fernández said the declaration’s aim is “to offer some points for reflection that can help us maintain an awareness of human dignity amid the complex historical moment in which we are living.”

The introduction and first three chapters of the declaration presents the genesis and development of the concept of human dignity through history, from its emergence in classical antiquity to its development in the Bible and in Christian thought, and in recent decades at the Second Vatican Council and through the magisterium of Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.

The Concept of Human Dignity

The declaration gives considerable space to explaining the concept of human dignity, starting with the statement that: “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.”

It says “[human] reason alone” recognizes this principle “which underlies the primacy of the human person and the protection of human rights.”

It recalls the biblical teaching that “all human beings possess inherent dignity because they are created in the image and likeness of God”: “male and female He created them,” as the Book of Genesis (c.1: 26-27) tells us. It explains that “to be created in the image of God means to possess a sacred value that transcends every distinction of a sexual, social, political, cultural, and religious nature. Our dignity is bestowed upon us by God; it is neither claimed nor deserved. Every human being is loved and willed by God and, thus, has an inviolable dignity.”

It recalls that “Jesus, throughout his public ministry, affirms the value and dignity of all who bear the image of God, regardless of their social status and external circumstances” and adds: “Jesus broke down cultural and cultic barriers, restoring dignity to those who were ‘rejected’ or were considered to be on the margins of society.”

It recalls that on Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly reaffirmed “this ontological dignity and the unique and eminent value of every man and woman” when it issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It presents the publication of the Vatican Declaration as linked to the 75th anniversary of that historic text.

It recalls that the word “dignity” was used in the declaration when it speaks about “[recognition of] the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” and claims that “only this inalienable character of human dignity makes it possible to speak about human rights.”

Seeking “to clarify the concept of dignity even further,” the declaration says, “it is essential to point out that dignity is not something granted to the person by others based on their gifts or qualities, such that it could be withdrawn. Were it so bestowed, it would be given in a conditional and alienable way, and then the very meaning of dignity (however worthy of great respect) would remain exposed to the risk of being abolished. Instead, dignity is intrinsic to the person: it is not conferred subsequently (a posteriori), it is prior to any recognition, and it cannot be lost. All human beings possess this same intrinsic dignity, regardless of whether or not they can express it in a suitable manner.”

Grave Violations Of Human Rights

The final chapter of the Declaration focuses on “some grave violations of human dignity.”

It begins by recalling that the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) emphasized that “all offenses against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and willful suicide” must be recognized as contrary to human dignity. It affirmed too that “all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures,” also infringe upon human dignity. Finally, it denounced “all offenses against human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where individuals are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons.”

In addition, the declaration rejects the death penalty, and says, “the firm rejection of the death penalty shows to what extent it is possible to recognize the inalienable dignity of every human being…. If I do not deny that dignity to the worst of criminals, I will not deny it to anyone.” It also condemns “the practice of torture.”

Poverty. The declaration says “poverty” is one of the great injustices of today’s world and “contributes significantly to denying the dignity of so many human beings.” Drawing on Pope Francis’ teaching, it says, “wealth has increased, but together with inequality, with the result that ‘new forms of poverty are emerging.’” It denounces “an obsession with reducing labor costs with no concern for its grave consequences, since the unemployment that it directly generates leads to the expansion of poverty.”

War. The declaration denounces war as “another tragedy that denies human dignity” and says, “With its trail of destruction and suffering, war attacks human dignity in both the short and long term.” While reaffirming “the inalienable right to self-defense and the responsibility to protect those whose lives are threatened,” it says, “it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’”

Migrants. The declaration says: “Migrants are among the first victims of multiple forms of poverty. Not only is their dignity denied in their home countries, but also their lives are put at risk because they no longer have the means to start a family, to work, or to feed themselves.” It notes that when they arrive in countries that should be able to accept them “no one will ever openly deny that they are human beings; yet in practice, by our decisions and the way we treat them, we can show that we consider them less worthy, less important, less human.”

Human trafficking. The declaration denounces human trafficking as “among the grave violations of human rights,” which “though not a new phenomenon, has taken on tragic dimensions in our day.” It denounces trafficking as “a crime against humanity” and says the church and humanity must not cease fighting against this and also against such phenomena as “the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labor, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism, and international organized crime.”

It says, “We need to ensure that our institutions are truly effective in the struggle against all these scourges.”

Sexual abuse. The declaration affirms that “those who suffer sexual abuse experience real wounds in their human dignity” and says these are wounds “that can last a lifetime and that no repentance can remedy.” It notes that “this phenomenon is widespread in society and it also affects the Church and represents a serious obstacle to her mission.” It adds that “from this stems the Church’s ceaseless efforts to put an end to all kinds of abuse, starting from within.”

Abortion. The declaration has a very strong section condemning abortion. It says: “The Church consistently reminds us that the dignity of every human being has an intrinsic character and is valid from the moment of conception until natural death.”

It recalls the words of Pope St. John Paul II: “Among all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable. […] But today, in many people’s consciences, the perception of its gravity has become progressively obscured. The acceptance of abortion in the popular mind, in behavior, and even in law itself is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake. Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception.”

Euthanasia and assisted suicide. The declaration repeats the church’s stance against euthanasia or suicide. It notes that “there is a special case of human dignity violation that is quieter but is swiftly gaining ground. It is unique in how it utilizes a mistaken understanding of human dignity to turn the concept of dignity against life itself. This confusion is particularly evident today in discussions surrounding euthanasia. For example, laws permitting euthanasia or assisted suicide are sometimes called ‘death with dignity acts.’ With this, there is a widespread notion that euthanasia or assisted suicide is somehow consistent with respect for the dignity of the human person.”

The declaration rejects this reasoning and highlights the importance of palliative care. It says, “it must be strongly reiterated that suffering does not cause the sick to lose their dignity…. Instead, suffering can become an opportunity to strengthen the bonds of mutual belonging and gain greater awareness of the precious value of each person to the whole human family.”

It says, “We must accompany people towards death, but not provoke death or facilitate any form of suicide. Life is a right, not death, which must be welcomed, not administered.”

The marginalization of people with disabilities. The declaration denounces the lack of attention to the dignity of the most disadvantaged in society and the “throwaway culture” that is increasingly imposing itself. It calls for special attention and care for those experiencing physical or mental limitations.

Digital violence. The declaration notes that “although the advancement of digital technologies may offer many possibilities for promoting human dignity, it also increasingly tends toward the creation of a world in which exploitation, exclusion, and violence grow, extending even to the point of harming the dignity of the human person.”

The declaration notes new forms of violence “spreading through social media” and mentions cyberbullying, the spread of pornography and “the exploitation of persons for sexual purposes or through gambling.’”

The declaration says that “if technology is to serve human dignity and not harm it, and if it is to promote peace rather than violence, then the human community must be proactive in addressing these trends with respect to human dignity and the promotion of the good.”

This story has been updated.

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