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Leader comment: Dignitas Infinita: the Vatican’s balancing act

12 April 2024

IT IS inevitable that many will demur from the conclusions drawn by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in its document Dignitas Infinita, released on Monday. But it is to be commended for its firm interpretation of the ontological nature of human dignity, summed up in the sentence: “Every human person possesses an infinite dignity, inalienably grounded in his or her very being, which prevails in and beyond every circumstance, state, or situation the person may ever encounter.” In too many people’s minds, dignity is contingent on a certain level of bodily functionality, hence the attraction of dying “with dignity”. But this is to introduce conditions that are not shared by a God who became fully human in the person of Jesus Christ. A moment’s thought will show how vital it is that governments subscribe to a universal interpretation of human worth, and formulate policies that privilege no group within their care.

The matter of self-determination is trickier. For many, the ability to make moral choices for oneself is a key element of human dignity. The dicastery acknowledges this, quoting Pope St John Paul II’s view from 1979 that dignity “is infringed on the social and political level when man cannot exercise his right of participation, or when he is subjected to unjust and unlawful coercion”. None the less, the dicastery continues to include what to many are personal choices on its prohibited list. Its reasoning is persuasive: there is a relational element in the exercise of dignity, since one person’s choice can adversely affect another. This most obviously applies to abortion, where the unborn foetus should be considered, and it is also central to the debate about assisted dying. It is less certain on topics such as gender reassignment or surrogacy. On all these issues, however, an ecumenical statement might have laid more emphasis on individual conscience rather than dismiss personal reflection, as the dicastery does, as “the narrow perspective of a self-referential and individualistic freedom”.

A person’s conscience is, of course, informed by the moral teaching and example found in the context in which they live. The Vatican, not a fan of contextualisation, seeks to establish universal truths through universal exposure to the teaching of the magisterium. There are, however, other corrective influences at work in what the dicastery hails as the “clear progress in understanding human dignity and freedom”. The present Pope is willing to acknowledge that the Church has been at times far from the vanguard of such progress, to put it mildly. Vatican documents would carry more weight if they paid more attention to the ethical deliberations of other bodies, both religious and secular, such as this week’s Cass report on gender dysphoria. Until then, their attempts to frame truths are likely to be read merely as opinion.

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