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Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, speaks at a news conference to present the dicastery's declaration, "Dignitas Infinita" ("Infinite Dignity") on human dignity at the Vatican press office April 8, 2024. (CNS photo/Pablo Esparza)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The 116 footnotes in the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith’s declaration on human dignity reflect the fact that most of the content of the 12,700-word text is not new Catholic teaching.

But, as has been true with many documents issued during Pope Francis’ papacy, there was plenty of reaction from people who had hoped to see significant changes in the church’s position, particularly on gender issues, and from people who claimed Pope Francis was overturning centuries of church teaching, particularly on the death penalty.

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the doctrinal dicastery, presented the declaration, “Dignitas Infinita” (“Infinite Dignity”), at a Vatican news conference April 8.

Pointing to all the footnotes, a journalist asked the cardinal why the document was necessary since it seemed to be just a list of things that had already been said about human dignity and the sacredness of human life and against abortion, surrogacy and sex-change surgery.

The declaration, he responded, summarizes “the most important teachings about human dignity and organizes them around a central point, which is the dignity of every human being ‘beyond all circumstances,’” an affirmation from Pope Francis’ encyclical “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship.”

The text takes “this principle that Pope Francis wanted to emphasize and develops the question around that principle -- this is the novelty of the document,” Cardinal Fernández said.

In a church that values tradition, the idea of “novelty” strikes some people as strange, and another reporter asked the cardinal if people could expect that in another 80 years the teaching in the document would change again.

“I would not phrase it that way,” Cardinal Fernández responded. “But I would say one could understand it better” as time goes on. “One can go deeper into that inexhaustible well that is the Gospel. The Gospel is an inexhaustible well. And we still have so much to find there, so much that we have not understood.”

The idea, particularly as explained by St. John Henry Newman, is that while revelation does not change, the church’s understanding of it can grow and deepen or be phrased in new ways to respond to new questions.

“Human dignity is a central question in Christian thought,” Cardinal Fernández told reporters. “It has had a magnificent development over the past two centuries along with the (development) of the social doctrine of the church.”

The cardinal used the example of slavery, which was accepted in the Bible and by popes for centuries. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V allowed King Alfonso V of Portugal the right to enslave certain people, he noted. Then, in 1537 Pope Paul III “condemned with excommunication those who subjected others to slavery. Why? Because they are human. That was the only reason. Because they are human.”

“See, only 80 years later, at a time of slow change and on such an important issue, a pope says virtually the opposite of a previous pope,” Cardinal Fernández said. “This is an example that shows how the church’s understanding of truth evolves.”

Now, the cardinal said, a vocal group of critics claim Pope Francis cannot and should not say anything new and that the development of doctrine “was definitively closed with the previous popes.”

But, he said, the Catholic Church continues to mature in its understanding of human dignity and the sacredness of all human life.

He pointed to St. John Paul II’s decision in 1997 to amend the Catechism of the Catholic Church to reflect his teaching that capital punishment can be justified in only “very rare, if not practically non-existent” circumstances.

In 2018 Pope Francis ordered a further update to the catechism, noting that while the death penalty “was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good,” there now is “an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.”

In addition, it says, because “more effective systems of detention have been developed” to keep the public safe without taking another life, “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Cardinal Fernández used the evolution of the church’s teaching on capital punishment to emphasize how seriously the Catholic Church takes the dignity of every human being created in the image and likeness of God.

“A firm rejection of the death penalty shows the extent to which it is possible to recognize the inalienable dignity of every human being and admit that he or she has a place in this world, because if I do not deny it to the worst of criminals, I will not deny it to anyone,” he said.

The cardinal also explained that in labeling the document a “declaration” rather than a “note,” the dicastery was indicating it is “a text with a high doctrinal value.”

Declarations are rare, he said. “Dominus Iesus,” the doctrinal document affirming Christ as the only savior and the Catholic Church’s unique role in salvation, was a declaration issued in 2000 when the prefect was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would go on to become Pope Benedict XVI.

Cardinal Fernández said the dicastery also labeled as a declaration “Fiducia Supplicans,” the text issued in December that opened the possibility for priests and other ministers to give non-liturgical blessings to gay and other couples not married in the church.

While the subject matter of “Fiducia Supplicans” was “certainly less central, less important,” the cardinal said, it was issued as a “declaration” because “there was a magisterial innovation, an innovation in the way we understand blessings.”

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