The Declaration Dignitas infinita and the Mystery of the Church in our time

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By Roberto de Mattei

On April 8, 2024, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, published the Declaration Dignitas infinita on Human Dignity, with the “ex audientia” approval of Pope Francis. Cardinal Fernández, dwelling in the Introduction of the Declaration on its genesis, clarifies that the first draft of the text, which dates back to 2019, is due to his predecessor, Cardinal Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer.

The “infinite dignity” that gives the Declaration its title has its foundation in the classical definition of the person as an “individual substance of rational nature” according to Severinus Boethius’ classic formula (No. 9). The document criticizes “the misunderstandings” of those who believe that “it is better to use the expression ‘personal dignity’ (and rights ‘of the person’) instead of ‘human dignity’ (and rights of man)” (No. 24), inferring dignity and rights from that capacity for knowledge and freedom, with which all human beings are not endowed. “The unborn child would not have personal dignity, then, nor would the non-self-sufficient elderly person, nor would those with mental disabilities.” The Church, on the contrary, “insists that the dignity of every human person, precisely because it is intrinsic, remains ‘beyond all circumstances,’ and its recognition cannot in any way depend on judgments about people’s capacity to understand and act freely” (ibid.).

We are far from a certain personalism here, which claims to base human dignity and rights on the “person,” rather than on human nature. The reaffirmation of natural law is a cornerstone of the document. Therefore, in the face of the so-called “new rights,” Dignitas Infinita affirms that “the defense of the dignity of the human being is founded, instead, on the constitutive demands of human nature, which depend neither on individual arbitrariness nor on social recognition. The duties that flow from the recognition of the dignity of the other and the corresponding rights that derive from it therefore have a concrete and objective content, based on common human nature” (No. 25).

 Cardinal Fernández, pointed out in his presentation of the document, that the Pope asked that some issues dear to him be highlighted in it: the tragedy of poverty, the situation of migrants, violence against women, trafficking in persons, war, and others. However, all observers stressed that the most significant part of the Declaration is the one dedicated to violations of human dignity perpetrated in the contemporary world against life and the family.

Regarding abortion, “the Church does not cease to remember that ‘the dignity of every human being has an intrinsic character and is valid from the moment of conception until his natural death…'” (No. 47). The document, citing John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, affirms that “no words are worth changing the reality of things: procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, however it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, between conception and birth” (ibid.).

Particularly significant is the condemnation of the practice of surrogacy, which “violates the dignity of the woman” (no. 50) and that of “the child” (no. 49), who “has the right, by virtue of his inalienable dignity, to have a fully human and not artificially induced origin, and to receive the gift of a life that manifests, at the same time, the dignity of the giver and the receiver. (…) The legitimate desire to have a child cannot be transformed into a ‘right to a child’ that does not respect the dignity of the child itself as the recipient of the free gift of life.” Pope Francis calls for a commitment by the international community “to prohibit universally this practice” (No. 48). It should be recalled that in Italy a project to make surrogacy a “universal crime” has been approved by the Chamber of Deputies and is now under discussion in the Senate.

Also condemned were euthanasia and assisted suicide, “a particular case of violation of human dignity, which is quieter but gaining much ground.”  “There is a widespread idea that euthanasia or assisted suicide is consistent with respect for the dignity of the human person. Faced with this fact, it must be forcefully reaffirmed that suffering does not cause the sick person to lose that dignity which is intrinsically and inalienably his or her own, but can become an opportunity to strengthen the bonds of mutual belonging and to become more aware of the preciousness of each person for the whole of humanity” (No. 51).

After condemning the culture of “discarding the differently abled” (No. 53), the Declaration goes on to examine Gender Theory, which it calls “most dangerous because it erases differences in its claim to make everyone equal” (No. 56). “To want to dispose of oneself, (self-determine oneself, in the English version) as gender theory prescribes (…) means nothing other than yielding to the very ancient temptation of the human being becoming God and entering into competition with the true God of love revealed to us by the Gospel” (n. 57). Gender theory “wants to deny the greatest possible among the differences existing among living beings: the sexual one” (no. 58), “envisions a society without sex differences, and empties the anthropological basis of the family” (no. 59). “It should not be ignored that biological sex (sex) and social-cultural sex role (gender), can be distinguished, but not separated.” “All those attempts are, therefore, to be rejected that obscure the reference to the ineradicable sexual difference between man and woman” (ibid.).

Equally radical is the condemnation of sex changealso based onthe need to respect the natural order of the human person” (no. 60). Dignitas infinita states that “any sex-change operation, as a rule, risks threatening the unique dignity that the person has received from the moment of conception.” Clearly, this is not to exclude the possibility that a person with obvious anomalies at birth may choose to resolve those anomalies, but, the document points out, “in this case, the intervention would not constitute a sex change” (ibid.).

In the statement Dignitas infinita, one statement contradicts Catholic teaching: the death penalty is condemned not because it is inappropriate, but because it is considered intrinsically immoral. In contrast, the constant teaching of the Church, up to the New Catechism of John Paul II, affirms its permissibility in principle. A few other shortcomings can be pointed out, but with the caution that is due to pontifical documents. Unless one detects in them errors or ambiguities, which can directly harm souls, as was the case with the exhortation Amoris laetitia (2016) regarding remarried divorcees or the declaration Fiducia supplicans (2023), regarding the blessing of same-sex couples. In this case, a filial resistance was and remains necessary. However, if it is true that the words of Benedict XVI and John Paul II on nonnegotiable values are an important aid against the dictatorship of relativism, without necessarily meaning adherence to every act or statement of these Pontiffs, the teaching of Pope Francis must also be welcomed when it is along the lines of his predecessors, as is the case in the latest document.

History is made up of shadows and light, and we cannot forget that the Church is a mystery, like the sacrifice of the Cross from which She was born on Calvary (Pius XII, Address of December 4, 1943). In the hour of confusion in which we live, this mystery must be accepted and contemplated with all our interpenetration and piety. 

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