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Inside the VaticanApril 15, 2024
Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, holds up a copy of the dicastery's declaration, "Dignitas Infinita" ("Infinite Dignity") on human dignity during a news conference at the Vatican press office April 8, 2024. (CNS photo/Pablo Esparza)

On April 8, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith published a highly anticipated declaration on the theme of human dignity. To help make sense of this new document, America’s “Inside the Vatican” podcast hosted a roundtable with host Colleen Dulle, editor in chief Sam Sawyer, S.J., and Michael O’Loughlin, the executive director of Outreach, a resource for L.G.B.T. Catholics.

This transcript of their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Colleen Dulle: Let me give a quick recap of what this declaration says. It’s a document about the dignity of the human person, and it says that all people have dignity that they’re born with that cannot be taken away from them for any reason, even if they lose their mental or physical capacities. On the gender and sexuality fronts, it condemns the criminalization of homosexuality. It also condemns gender theory and sex changes. And its justification for that is that it eliminates the difference between genders and undermines the family. It also has a condemnation of surrogacy, which it says violates a child’s right to a fully human rather than artificially induced origin and violates the connection between the child and the mother who gives birth to them.

Sam, I want to start with you. You have a real gift for getting past polarization and seeing to the heart of the matter in your news analysis. So what is your read of this document?

Sam Sawyer, S.J.: One place to start is filling out the list of the other things that the document listed as offenses to human dignity, which include war, the mistreatment of migrants, poverty. It restates Pope Francis’ opposition to the death penalty and abortion. It’s not just a document about sexuality issues. It is broader than that. One thing that’s helpful to do, and what I tried to do in a piece I wrote about this, is to look not just at the fourth section of the document that provides this catalog of things that are opposed to human dignity or violations of human dignity, and also to look at the first three sections, which lay out the development of the church’s teaching on human dignity.

I don’t think anyone in the Vatican is under the impression that everyone will suddenly agree with the whole list in section four of the document just because it’s been presented this way. One way that’s helpful to get past the initial polarizing response is to not approach these kinds of documents from the church as if they’re meant to elicit instant automatic agreement from every Catholic. That’s just not the way church teaching works. We absorb it more slowly, and sometimes parts of it are challenging, parts of it call for a change in our own thinking and approach. But it’s a teaching that gets articulated over time.

One of the things I thought was really beautiful and helpful about this document is that it lays out almost a case study of how the articulation of human dignity as a central component of Catholic social teaching and Catholic moral teaching has developed over the history of the church’s tradition, starting in antiquity and Scripture and then moving forward, through to the 20th century where human dignity was the linchpin concept of Vatican II’s declaration on religious freedom.

It’s important to see that there’s a positive understanding and appreciation of the way the development of doctrine happens around human dignity here. And the way it’s being applied certainly has plenty of challenges; the articulations there may be difficult to hear, some people are going to feel hurt by them, and that’s certainly something that needs to be taken seriously and understood pastorally. But I wouldn’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water here. I think it’s important to appreciate what’s deeply beautiful about this document.

CD: Sam, do you think that this document represents an actual development of Catholic doctrine? Is there anything new?

SS: I would say it represents a consolidation of a development of doctrine. I don’t think there’s anything radically new here in any specific moral claim. It wasn’t like before Monday the church was fine with sex change and now it is not fine with sex change.

What might be new here is Pope Francis has spoken before about the need to hold together the idea that there are severe violations of human dignity that need to be treated as of deep moral gravity and not just cherry-picking one issue or another. And particularly he said this in relationship to how the church stands in opposition to abortion. He said that issue can’t be isolated and made the sole element of the church’s moral teaching that we’re concerned about. So by putting this together in a declaration, which is a very high level of teaching from the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith, I think that is a new development—that we’re listing things like war and poverty, and also things like abortion and surrogacy and gender theory, that we’re putting those things together and not isolating one of them out for significant moral concern distinct from the rest.

CD: Sam spoke about how some people may be hurt by the articulations in this document. Mike, could you talk to us about the reactions from the L.G.B.T. Catholic community, and particularly about the sense of whiplash that you wrote about feeling for Outreach?

Michael O’Loughlin: At Outreach, we consulted with a number of L.G.B.T. Catholics, particularly Catholics in the transgender community, to ask how they felt after reading the document. On the one hand, we heard a lot that people weren’t really surprised because this was pretty widely known—the church’s view on issues related to transgender people—and to see it was disappointing to some people we talked to, but they weren’t surprised by it.

At the same time, there was this sense of: How do we make sense of Pope Francis’ pastoral outreach to the L.G.B.T. community, including the transgender community, where he’s made a special point to meet with transgender people, learn about their lives and experiences, but not see that present in this document? So while there’s understanding that it’s a teaching document, it’s a doctrinal document, there was a hope that there would at least be some kind of pastoral response, some kind of affirmation of the lived reality, the challenges that especially transgender people face.

There was also an interesting [question of], how do we feel about this? On the one hand, the document was a step forward for the gay and lesbian Catholic community—the church calling for Catholics not to support laws that criminalize homosexuality. Pope Francis made history with that fairly recently, reiterating the church’s position that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, including gay and lesbian Catholics. So that was actually seen as a positive thing. But that was the introduction to this more challenging section that I think people had some trouble with.

Even the creation of the document itself, which Pope Francis broadened to include some of these other threats to human dignity, I think there was probably a pastoral sense there: Let’s not have a whole document focused on this one issue related to gender identity. But there was actually some hurt in the community that they would equate the issues around gender identity with things like war and poverty and mistreatment of migrants as if they’re all equally bad. It made a lot of trans people feel bad about what the church was saying about them. [It was] a confusing week for many in the L.G.B.T. community with a lot of hurt and anger and disappointment because hopes had been raised so high due to the pope’s really warm embrace of the L.G.B.T. Catholic community.

CD: One big critique of this document has been that the gender theory idea that’s expressed in this document doesn’t seem to cite or accurately represent the field of gender studies. The Vatican document summarizes gender theory as eliminating all differences between men and women, which obviously is not the case for, say, transgender individuals, who think that difference is very important. Can we discuss that a bit? Does the Vatican have an obligation to engage substantively with gender theory?

SS: Certainly, I think everybody has an obligation to engage substantively with something that they’re critiquing. And I think it’s difficult to specify exactly what gender theory is. We published a great piece by Nathan Schneider about this. So I would certainly recommend that piece to folks because it asks for a deeper curiosity about what gender theory or gender ideology means. And I can certainly say from my experience, pastorally, with people who are trans, I’m thinking of several parishioners, certainly what the Vatican is describing and what I’ve heard listening to those people, those are not the same thing.

But what I think is there, maybe under the hood, is this question: What is the fundamental relationship of bodily sex—embodied sexual difference—to gender as a social construct and in social relationships? At the core of the Catholic understanding of the human person is [the belief] that we are body and soul together—not souls in bodies, but soul and body together. That’s a very different starting place than a lot of secular explanations of how gender works and what gender is, even from a transgender perspective. So I think that’s maybe the difference that the document is naming when it’s critiquing gender theory: that the Catholic tradition starts from a different kind of reverence for embodiedness itself.

MO: I don’t think the Vatican has an obligation to do anything; it can certainly issue pronouncements on whatever it wants. I think its arguments are taken most seriously when it shows that it did interact with or really consider the arguments that it is critiquing. Some of the feedback we’ve gotten in our own reporting on this from people in the transgender Catholic community [is] they didn’t see in the document any sense of engaging with transgender Catholics or even trying to understand the latest, medical, scientific or sociological understandings of gender and sexuality, which I think would’ve probably made the document a little stronger.

SS: I think that’s a mark of [the fact that] the academic fields around gender studies and the Vatican are almost talking past each other because they don’t have any kind of shared starting point. The place where those approaches diverge is so fundamental, at the level of metaphysics and a basic understanding of what the human person is. That’s where the conversation would need to happen, almost at the level of philosophical underpinnings more than just having people read the right recent journal articles. But I agree that that conversation doesn’t seem to be happening, at least not in a way that is being publicly acknowledged or recognized in this document.

CD: One thing that struck me in terms of overlooking transgender people was something really basic. In the section where they’re reiterating that no one should be subject to any form of unjust discrimination due to their sexual orientation, they don’t say, “and due to their gender identity or due to their however much their gender presentation might conform or not conform to their biological sex.” It seemed like an oversight.

SS: So three things there. Number one, the document is quoting the catechism there. And when that sentence in the catechism was written, trans issues were not as much on the table. So I think one explanation of that is just the quote source didn’t have it. The second thing is, I think it would be difficult because of those very fundamental philosophical divergences for the Vatican to use a term like gender identity or gender presentation, which is a term that comes out of gender theory. That’s where those terms are situated. And the Vatican is saying we need a different way to talk about this. But lastly, I would absolutely affirm that principle against any unjust discrimination. Absolutely. One thousand percent that holds for trans people, in civil life and the life of the church as well.

CD: I think that the exclusion of it gets in part to the criticism that this document didn’t use the term transgender at all. And I can see how Mike, especially for some of the folks that Outreach was consulting about the reactions to this document, feel excluded in part because they’re not identified the way they would prefer to be identified.

MO: In my essay at Outreach about the whiplash L.G.B.T. Catholic communities feeling, I mentioned that in 1986, when the Vatican released its letter on homosexuality, there was a dynamic where there was a lot of hurt and anger in the community. But again, not much surprise. It had been pretty clear that the church was headed this way, to articulate this moral teaching about homosexual acts. But what I think did surprise people was the way that this document led to some maybe surprising consequences. The document comes out, and then you have gay and lesbian Catholic groups kicked out of Catholic parishes across the country, citing this very document as a rationale for it.

I think there’s some fear that this [new] document could serve as the launching point to further restrict the visibility or the way that transgender people live out their faith, whether it’s in Catholic schools—we’ve seen a lot of movement among different dioceses in implementing policies around gender identity in Catholic schools. In parishes, are there certain leadership roles that transgender people won’t be able to have with this document as the basis? Or even in employment in Catholic health care, which has been struggling to articulate that Catholic hospitals are open and welcoming and respectful to all people, including transgender people, even if certain surgical interventions aren’t allowed. So there are some historical considerations about how this document might be used going forward that are causing some fear and anxiety.

SS: It’s an absolutely understandable concern, and I think it’s something we’re going to see play out in different ways in different national contexts, in different dioceses, even within the same country. But I also think it’s important to say there is nothing in this document that requires the church to discriminate against or exclude transgender people from any part of the life of the church. On the side against such exclusion or discrimination, we have the example of the D.D.F. response on transgender people’s ability to be godparents. We have Pope Francis’ own pastoral example in reaching out to trans people. And I think that those should be taken seriously as well.

But there’s always going to be the need to discern carefully how the church responds in moments like this. I think the document is leaving open that room for discernment because it hasn’t set down strict definitions one way or the other. But there’s also a very natural and understandable sense of hurt and threat, especially for trans Catholics, because the document doesn’t explicitly rule out discrimination against them either.

CD: This document is certainly more doctrinal than pastoral. That is to say, it’s reiterating Catholic teaching more than telling people exactly how to live those teachings. I wonder, Sam, does this document change anything for you as a pastor?

SS: [There is something] I’ve learned to do when I’ve been in pastoral conversations where someone talks about someplace where they’re deeply out of step with what the Catholic norm or the Catholic ideal would be. Sometimes this can be someone disclosing that they’re gay, someone who is in a divorced and remarried situation, someone who’s trans. One of the things I’ve learned to do is not to assume that that is the main pastoral and spiritual issue in their lives.

In a conversation like that [I try] to let my first question be: What is your hope for your life in the church right now? Sometimes it turns out that what that person really needs is to learn to pray more deeply or to have someone accompany them through grief that is not about this particular tension in their life with a church. But that tension, or the impression of that tension, has been keeping someone away from the church because they felt like they weren’t welcome. Very often the place to start is: They’re not coming to a priest because they need to hear me explain 20 centuries worth of theology about how we got to this particular moral teaching. But because they need someone to pray with or because they need someone to listen to their confession and grant them absolution or because they want to talk [ask], “How do I approach the Eucharist in a situation that is complicated and difficult?”

It’s not just about explaining moral teaching; it is about accompanying people in their need for God. That is the way I make sense of Pope Francis’ profound and beautiful pastoral outreach to trans people and how it lines up alongside this document. Both are still true, and I wish there had been a more explicit reaffirmation of that pastoral outreach and the fact that trans people have a home in the church. But that is absolutely still true, and I think it’ll be incumbent on those of us in pastoral work to help reassure people of that.

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