Analysis of the new Vatican declaration on human dignity

Dignitas infinita: Between empty phrases and ideological blinkers

Bonn - The Vatican paper on human dignity has been long awaited – and surprises with its tame language and narrow arguments. However, when analysed, the accusation that gender theory is trying to turn itself into God makes people sit up and take notice.

Published  on 08.04.2024 at 13:00  – by Christoph Paul Hartmann

This paper was already being discussed before a publication date had even been set: following the widely criticised Vatican gender paper from June 2019, Rome wanted to revisit the topic. Prefect of the Faith Víctor Manuel Fernández repeatedly announced his intention to do so on a larger scale: in an official declaration on human dignity. This is what has now happened - but somehow not. The declaration on human dignity "Dignitas infinita" also deals with the topic of gender, but only as one of several aspects as part of an all-round effort that the Vatican claims to have taken several years and correction loops to complete. This is both enlightening and annoying, as a glance at the text shows.

One point of reference for the declaration is the publication of the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948, more than 75 years ago. The text emphasises how important the preservation of human dignity is for the Church: "This principle, which can be fully recognised by reason alone, is the basis for the primacy of the human person and the protection of his rights." (DI 1) This is underpinned in detail with quotes from Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the current pontiff Francis (3-6). Various dimensions of dignity are then explained: ontological dignity, for example, which a person has by virtue of their humanity, moral dignity, which they can lose through their actions without forfeiting their ontological dignity. In addition, there is the social and existential dignity associated with living conditions (7-8).

The fresco "The School of Athens" by Raphael depicts the philosophers of ancient Greece.
Bild: ©picture-alliance / akg-images

The explanation derives its reasoning from the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition.

The Vatican bases its position on the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition, the testimonies of the Old and New Testaments and the history of thought of the Church (10-16). "Classical Christian anthropology, based on the great tradition of the Fathers of the Church, emphasised the doctrine of man created in the image and likeness of God and his unique role in creation." The fact that this is not necessarily always reflected in the concrete actions of the church, especially in the historical perspective, is ignored.

Instead, other aspects of dignity are discussed: that it is not only related to the soul, but also to the body (18), that it was revealed through Christ with reference to the kingdom of God (19) and that it is connected to the relationship with God (20). Man has the freedom to express this dignity, whereby sin can obscure it (22). Dignity, on the other hand, has nothing to do with individualism (25); on the contrary, it also gives rise to obligations (26). The rather theoretical introductory section, which takes up around half of the text, concludes with statements on the fact that other beings besides humans also enjoy dignity (a reference to the topic of environmental and animal protection), that freedom does not exist in the absence of God (30) and that it is dependent on living conditions (31) and therefore also includes the fight against slavery, racism or exclusion as part of its defence (32).

Fixation on the global West

Some aspects that will continue to accompany the text become clear here. Firstly, there is a fixation on the global West. With the derivation from the philosophy of the Greco-Roman tradition, only a single tradition of thought is listed here. This does not fit in with the many perspectives on dignity that the text mentions. Likewise, the exclusion of historical diversity, for example in the actions of the Church over the centuries, thwarts an approach of the document that is characterised by diversity.

In the second and more controversial section, the text is dedicated to "some serious offences against human dignity". The aim here - as Fernández writes in his introduction - is not to provide an exhaustive list, but merely to highlight a few. The selection is illuminating:

On the one hand, it is about poverty as a threat to human dignity, linked to the unequal distribution of wealth in the world. "In absolute terms, global wealth is increasing, but inequalities are widening", the paper quotes Pope Benedict XVI (36). The text is equally general on the subject of war: "With its trail of destruction and pain, war attacks human dignity in the short and long term" (38). Long quotations from Popes Francis, Benedict XVI and Paul VI are cited. Both sections are rather vague. Which economic injustices exactly are a threat to human dignity? What is required of people in order to change this? The paper does not deal with such detailed questions. The text remains mould-like - also due to the many quotations. The only thing worth mentioning is the emphasis that it is difficult to speak of a "just war". This is an intensification of earlier papers.

Undercomplex argumentation

Similarly general are the statements on the "suffering of migrants" (40), who in their countries of origin and arrival "are not considered worthy enough to participate in social life like everyone else, and it is forgotten that they have the same inherent dignity as all human beings". The section on human trafficking has a similar tone, subsuming such extremely different things as organ trafficking, prostitution and terrorism. This comes across as rather under-complex - not least because the extensive and differentiated range of voices does not play a role when it comes to prostitution, for example.

The section on sexual abuse is noticeably short (43, seven lines). Only generalisations are listed here, ending with the acknowledgement that the Church is "tirelessly" committed to "putting an end to all types of abuse, starting from within the Church". Critical self-reflection on the extremely mixed success of the Vatican's and the world church's commitment to combating abuse is apparently not considered appropriate in Rome at this point.

Bild: ©KNA/Harald Oppitz

The text is noticeably short on the subject of abuse.

Things get interesting when it comes to several topics where women take centre stage: Firstly, there is violence against women, "a worldwide scandal that is increasingly recognised". (44) Even "in the most developed and democratic countries, the concrete social reality shows that women are often not accorded the same dignity as men", the text states. The keywords mentioned include legal equality, equal pay for equal work and sexual violence. But there is also the "coercion of abortion" (45) and the "practice of polygamy", which contradict the equal dignity of women. The mention of feminicide is striking, with an entire section devoted to it, as it "could not be condemned enough". (46) However, the disadvantage and discrimination of women in the church remains unmentioned; here too, one searches in vain for words of self-criticism.

The comments that follow are all the longer, starting with a detailed discussion of abortion (47). It is emphasised once again that "the Church's magisterium has always spoken out against abortion". Numerous quotations from the Pope are used to list the well-known doctrinal positions in a clichéd manner. The fact that there are also controversial discussions among Catholics on this subject is ignored. Apart from an honourable mention of Mother Teresa, who is now partly discredited, no specific women are mentioned, let alone quoted.

Intervention in Italian politics

The following section on surrogacy is also revealing - partly because it responds directly to a discussion in Italy. According to a bill by the far-right governing party Fratelli d'Italia, a tightening of the current rules is planned there, and the Chamber of Deputies has already approved it. In recent days, there have been demonstrations in Italy by both supporters and opponents of the bill.

The Church is opposed to the practice of surrogacy, which turns the immeasurably valuable child into a mere object," the Vatican statement states programmatically. (48) The legitimate desire to have a child cannot be transformed into a "right to a child". Such a right would not respect "the dignity of the child itself as the recipient of the free gift of life". (49) At the same time, surrogacy violates "the dignity of the woman herself". "Through such a practice, the woman is detached from the child growing inside her and becomes a mere means subject to the profit or arbitrary desire of others." (49) Here, too, the attentive reader searches in vain for nuances or multi-perspectivity - or for women themselves to have their say instead of being spoken about.

Many tablets lying next to a glass of water on a wooden table
Bild: ©KNA/Julia Steinbrecht

When it comes to euthanasia, the statement sticks to familiar church positions.

The following statements on euthanasia and assisted suicide are also familiar. Even a sick body has its dignity, it says. It is against this to help someone commit suicide. The dignity of the sick person demands "that everyone makes the reasonable and necessary efforts to alleviate their suffering through appropriate palliative care and to avoid any therapeutic overzealousness or disproportionate measures". (52) Especially with the subsequent reference to the needs of the patient, this can certainly be interpreted to mean that keeping the brain-dead alive for years is not in the spirit of these statements. The Vatican does not provide Christian hardliners with any arguments here.

Immediately afterwards, the paper is dedicated to people "who find themselves in a situation of physical or psychological deficits". (53) The language alone shows how important it is to the authors to emphasise the living conditions of people with disabilities. A "throwaway culture" is lamented several times. Instead, however, all people should be integrated into social and church life and play an active part in it.

Choice of words makes you sit up and take notice

Now comes the section that quite a few observers have been waiting for - and which catches the eye with its title: Because it says "gender theory", not "gender ideology". This is at least a verbal disarmament compared to recent statements by Pope Francis on this topic. In fact, the term "ideology" only appears twice and only in direct connection with a quote from Pope Francis. On the other hand, a turn of phrase right at the beginning of this complex of topics makes us sit up and take notice. It must be "denounced as an offence against human dignity that in some places quite a few people are imprisoned, tortured and even deprived of their lives solely because of their sexual orientation". (55) Such a clear plea in favour of the rights of homosexuals has not yet been heard from the Vatican. A pointer not least for Catholics in African countries, who - right up to bishops' conferences - make derogatory statements and in some cases advocate the criminalisation of homosexuals.

However, this is followed by the expectedly charged talk of gender discourse as"ideological colonisation" in a repetition of the Pope's well-known statement. "To want to dispose of oneself, as gender theory prescribes, means nothing other than giving in to the age-old temptation of man to make himself into God, regardless of this fundamental truth of human life as a gift." (57) Similar to the widely criticised Vatican gender paper from 2019, a uniform gender theory is constructed here that is opposed to an equally uniform understanding of faith. Once again, there is no room for a differentiated discussion; instead, there is a tendency to resort to formulations such as interpreting gender as the "greatest possible difference between living beings". A great fear of even listening to arguments to the contrary shines through here. "Only when every human person can recognise and accept this difference in reciprocity will they be able to fully discover themselves, their dignity and their identity." (59) This passage contains the most culturally militant tones in the entire text. Like the sections on abortion, for example, these formulations stand out from the unctuous vocabulary of the rest of the text; they seem like foreign bodies.

The remarks on gender reassignment surgery, which are labelled "sex reassignment" in the document, make us sit up and take notice. However, this fits in with the thinking of the Vatican, which adheres to a binary view of gender and recognises neither the need nor the possibility of gender reassignment. "This is not to exclude the possibility that a person with genital anomalies already present at birth or developing later may decide in favour of medical treatment to correct these anomalies. In this case, the operation would not constitute gender reassignment in the sense intended here." Surgery is therefore legitimate for the Vatican where it presses intersex people into its own binary gender image and pathologises everything in between as an anomaly.

Much more tangible than expected

Overall, however, the section on the topic of gender is much more tame than previous statements from Rome. Although the stance remains the same as in 2019, there is significantly less verbal sabre-rattling than five years ago. In addition, there is explicit appreciation for homosexual people. It is therefore not too far-fetched to speak of a shift in emphasis and disarmament. The last point before the final chord is also interesting: "Violence in the digital world". Although technological progress also offers opportunities to promote human dignity, it is increasingly tending to create a world in which exploitation, marginalisation and violence are on the rise, which can go so far as to violate the dignity of the human person. Slander, loneliness, dependency and cyberbullying are the key points mentioned. Above all, the objectification of people is denounced here (61).

The concluding remarks refer once again to the Declaration of Human Rights and call for "respect for the dignity of the human person, whatever the circumstances, to be placed at the centre of the commitment to the common good and of every legal system". (64) This brings the text back to its beginning in a cyclical structure.

Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez
Bild: ©picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Natacha Pisarenko

The declaration was signed by Prefect of the Faith Víctor Manuel Fernández .

Several aspects of the declaration are striking: While the introduction actually lays the foundation for a multi-perspective discussion of the topic of human dignity, this is not realised in the argumentation. The individual aspects are merely touched on and dealt with in keywords. As a result, the text and the numerous topics addressed remain less tangible. The social concerns of the text suffer as a result, as they are not given sufficient attention. When it comes to socio-political concerns, the Vatican falls back into familiar patterns: the ideological blinkers are still tightly fastened and leave little room for new impulses. This is shown not least by the quotations which, with a few exceptions, self-referentially cite popes or magisterial statements. The statements on the rights of homosexuals can be positively emphasised here. However, these lag far behind social developments in the Western world.

This focus on the West is another striking point: the derivation of human rights is based exclusively on a (!) Western tradition of thought, and the paper also limits itself to Western phenomena when describing problems - with the exception of poverty, which is, however, seen through Western eyes. The thinking of the East, the Global South, problems such as repressive family structures in the world's community-orientated societies - none of this is mentioned. In contrast, there is a direct intervention in an Italian legislative process. The margins of the world often cited by Pope Francis hardly seem to play a role when it comes to human dignity.

The end result is a compendium of numerous topics - most of which are extremely relevant and certainly under-analysed by the media in the West. However, due to the lack of depth and diversity, the text leaves the reader somewhat perplexed as to what the Vatican actually wanted to say with this declaration, apart from its own self-assurance.

by Christoph Paul Hartmann