Must-read Vatican document slams surrogacy, gender theory, war and abortion

Earlier this week the Vatican published a 16,000-word document reaffirming Catholic condemnations of a wide range of moral issues, from war to surrogacy and human trafficking. Dignitas Infinita, or “Infinite Dignity”, is both a philosophical and a theological essay, appealing to open-minded people of all faiths and none.

Seldom has there been so much media coverage about a Vatican document which contains so few surprises. It’s no secret that the Catholic Church opposes abortion and euthanasia. Perhaps both the fans and foes of Francis thought that he might open up a crack for sex changes or for surrogacy.

But almost nothing has changed. Under Francis the Church is as severe as ever on life issues. Over at the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat opined that the Pope’s “style has been to consistently push at the boundaries of his office, testing how far a pope can go in altering Catholic teaching”. He sounded mortified to report that Dignitas Infinita was “a clearer-than-usual line against developments in progressive thought and culture”.

Controversial issues

Here are some notable highlights.

Dignitas Infinita condemns surrogacy, first as a violation of the child’s dignity and second as a violation of the surrogate mother’s. It says:

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 … 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.

The document also rejects gender theory. In a few perceptive sentences, it criticises the transhumanist impulse to “self-determination”, describing it as “a concession to the age-old temptation to make oneself God”. Furthermore, it describes the difference between male and female as “foundational”.

In the male-female couple, this difference achieves the most marvellous 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.

Sex-change interventions are also condemned. The document quotes the Pope: “creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift. At the same time, we are called to protect our humanity, and this means, in the first place, accepting it and respecting it as it was created.”

One possible innovation in Dignitas Infinita is its approach to war. While lamenting the cruelty and senselessness of wars, the Catholic Church has traditionally supported the possibility of a “just war”. However, with weapons of mass destruction, asymmetric warfare and terrorism, perhaps the nature of war has changed. The document quotes the Pope -- “it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’ Never again war!”

Does this mean that requirements for a just war will be updated? Possibly.  


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Explaining human dignity

Even though there appears to be little novelty in Dignitas Infinita, it was five years in the making. The Pope’s top theologian, fellow Argentinian Cardinal Victor Fernández, explains in an unusual preamble that the document went through several versions, because the Pope had ordered some significant changes. He wanted the list of violations of human dignity to include issues like poverty, the wretchedness of migrants, violence against women, human trafficking, and war.

This is consistent with Francis’s impatience with what he feels is some Catholics’ single-minded focus on abortion and other pro-life issues. Dignitas Infinita endorses the notion that Catholic moral teaching is a “seamless garment” and that abusing migrants and abortion are both horrendous violations of human dignity.

But what is human dignity? The first half of the document offers a very helpful and thoughtful exploration of the topic.

It begins with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whose 75th anniversary occurred last year. After the barbarism of World War II, the UDHR was a high-minded commitment by its signatories to restore a respect for human dignity. Its opening sentence asserts “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. John Paul II described the UDHR as “one of the highest expressions of the human conscience”.

However, it’s obvious that the concept of human rights has become so muddled that it is almost meaningless. Accompanied by claims to be advancing human dignity, rights have multiplied and morphed. Nowadays internet access, air conditioning and same-sex marriage are claimed as human rights, along with a right to abortion.

Although this is a very complex question, one reason for this proliferation is that people base their approach to human dignity on different foundations.

The Church’s approach is ontological; human dignity flows from the very fact of being a human being created by God. This means that all humans have dignity, not just those who possess privileges like awareness or intelligence or autonomy. Notoriously, Peter Singer (and other philosophers) say that "the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee."

In a brief, but very insightful observation, Dignitas Infinita analyses Singer’s notion of human dignity (without naming him):

Some people propose that it is better to use the expression “personal dignity” (and the rights “of the person”) instead of “human dignity” (and the rights “of man”) since they understand a “person” to be only “one who is capable of reasoning.” They then argue that dignity and rights are deduced from the individual’s capacity for knowledge and freedom, which not all humans possess. Thus, according to them, the unborn child would not have personal dignity, nor would the older person who is dependent upon others, nor would an individual with mental disabilities. On the contrary, the Church insists that the dignity of every human person, precisely because it is intrinsic, remains “in all circumstances.”

As well, the document deploys a very important concept: that we humans are relational beings. Fundamentally, none of us are individuals. We are all bound up in a web of relations with other humans, past, present and future: “Indeed, there is an ever-growing risk of reducing human dignity to the ability to determine one’s identity and future independently of others, without regard for one’s membership in the human community.

The document condemns “a self-referential and individualistic freedom that claims to create its own values regardless of the objective norms of the good and of our relationship with other living beings” Unless one grasps this, it may be hard to appreciate why the Church rejects surrogacy, transgenderism, euthanasia and so on.

Dignitas Infinita may contain no surprises, but its clarity and consistency are admirable. It’s a good springboard for responding to today’s ethical challenges.

Does the Catholic Church have anything valuable to say about human rights? Leave a comment in the box below.

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator

Image credits:  rawpixel


Showing 9 reactions

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  • Malcolm McLean
    commented 2024-04-29 08:48:51 +1000
    You were born with free will and just how, just how did God give you that gift? But you quite obviously have it. But not with any rights, not with any rights at all. Those were all granted to you by men, not by God.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-04-15 10:48:50 +1000
    On a practical level we probably agree more than you think.

    It was what I read here that, after some further reading and talking to medical professionals, led me to conclude that most of the “gender dysphoria” industry is a scam.
  • Michael Cook
    commented 2024-04-15 08:20:33 +1000
    So we can agree on something, at last!
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-04-14 20:55:29 +1000
    In case I did not make myself clear in my previous post, I am NOT a Prager fan.

    I do not agree that Francis is some kind of “leftist”.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-04-14 20:53:05 +1000
    Hi Michael Cook,

    ‘You would have to be pretty mix-up to regard that as “Communist”.’

    Links to two articles by Dennis Prager, founder of “PragerU”

    Pope Francis, the Climate, and Leftism


    The Pope and the Hammer and Sickle


    “My heart breaks for the millions of Catholics who feel that their beloved church is being led over a moral and religious cliff by a Leftist pope and innumerable other Leftists among cardinals, bishops and parish priests.”

    In Prager-speak “leftist” and “communist” are, if not synonyms, at least close cousins.
  • Michael Cook
    commented 2024-04-14 20:20:27 +1000
    Good questions. I did mention that he insisted on including brief discussions of "issues like poverty, the wretchedness of migrants, violence against women, human trafficking, and war.
    This is significant, albeit not newsworthy. “This is consistent with Francis’s impatience with what he feels is some Catholics’ single-minded focus on abortion and other pro-life issues. Dignitas Infinita endorses the notion that Catholic moral teaching is a ‘seamless garment’ and that abusing migrants and abortion are both horrendous violations of human dignity.”
    You would have to be pretty mix-up to regard that as “Communist”.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-04-14 19:55:09 +1000
    BTW here is a link to Fratelli Tuti that I referenced in my previous post:

    19. A decline in the birthrate, which leads to the aging of the population, together with the relegation of the elderly to a sad and lonely existence, is a subtle way of stating that it is all about us, that our individual concerns are the only thing that matters. In this way, “what is thrown away are not only food and dispensable objects, but often human beings themselves”. 14 We have seen what happened with the elderly in certain places in our world as a result of the coronavirus. They did not have to die that way. Yet something similar had long been occurring during heat waves and in other situations: older people found themselves cruelly abandoned. We fail to realize that, by isolating the elderly and leaving them in the care of others without the closeness and concern of family members, we disfigure and impoverish the family itself. We also end up depriving young people of a necessary connection to their roots and a wisdom that the young cannot achieve on their own.

    20. This way of discarding others can take a variety of forms, such as an obsession with reducing labour costs with no concern for its grave consequences, since the unemployment that it directly generates leads to the expansion of poverty. 15 In addition, a readiness to discard others finds expression in vicious attitudes that we thought long past, such as racism, which retreats underground only to keep reemerging. Instances of racism continue to shame us, for they show that our supposed social progress is not as real or definitive as we think.
    End quote

    No wonder so many “conservatives” regard him as a communist.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-04-14 19:46:30 +1000
    I will say one thing for Francis.

    He is as much concerned about the welfare of born children as unborn ones. That is more than I can say for most anti-abortion activists. Unlike them, Francis is not a hypocrite.

    Pope Francis has presented his blueprint for a post-COVID-19 world, covering a vast number of issues from fraternity and income inequality to immigration and social injustice.

    The document, released Sunday, is his third encyclical — the most authoritative form of papal teaching.

    Its title is Fratelli Tutti, and it is a scathing description of laissez faire capitalism and a meditation on the coronavirus pandemic that has swept across the globe.
    End Quote

    It’s a fair summary of his Fratelli Tutti.

    So, those of you who praise Francis’ attack surrogacy, gender theory, war and abortion, do you also endorse his critique of capitalism?

    Just wandering.
  • Michael Cook
    published this page in The Latest 2024-04-10 15:41:02 +1000