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Digital ills and bio-ethical developments added to Vatican list of threats to human dignity

09 April 2024


The Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, presents Dignitas Infinita during a press conference at the Vatican

The Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, presents Dignitas Infinita during a press conference at ...

THE Vatican has reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s condemnation of abortion, euthanasia, and assisted dying, as violating human dignity. It has also added new phenomena to its list, among them surrogacy, changing sex, “digital violence”, and “cyber-bullying”.

“Every human person possesses an infinite dignity, inalienably grounded in his or her very being,” the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith says in a new declaration, published on Monday.

“Dignity is not something granted to the person by others based on their gifts or qualities, such that it could be withdrawn. Were it so bestowed, it would be given in a conditional and alienable way, and the very meaning of dignity, however worthy of great respect, would risk being abolished.”

The assertion begins a 16,000-word document, Dignitas Infinita, prepared for the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It says that the Church draws its “commitment to the weak and those less endowed with power” from the idea of human dignity authoritatively set out in the 1948 Declaration, adopted by the United Nations in the aftermath of the Second World War. But it goes on to say that it also needs to “clarify some frequent misconceptions” already highlighted by recent popes.

Pope Francis’s October 2020 encyclical on fraternity and social friendship, Fratelli Tutti (News, 9 October 2020), provided a “Magna Carta” of contemporary tasks in promoting human dignity, Dignitas Infinita says, seeing this as key to a “new coexistence among people”.

The indelible “ontological dignity” which remains “valid beyond any circumstances” can be distinguished, however, from the “moral dignity” with which people choose to exercise their freedom, as well as from the “social dignity” and “existential dignity” which reflect living conditions.

All such concepts developed from classical antiquity, through biblical revelation and early Christian thought, the declaration says, and have reached fullest expression in contemporary Christian anthropology, as “progressively developed” by the RC Church’s magisterium.

“By exercising the freedom to cultivate the riches of our nature, we grow over time with a complete and inalienable dignity — this applies to an unborn child, an unconscious person or an older person in distress,” Dignitas Infinita continues. It is signed by the Dicastery’s Argentinian Prefect, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández.

“Only this inalienable character of human dignity makes it possible to speak about human rights. . . All human beings possess this same intrinsic dignity, regardless of whether or not they can express it in a suitable manner.”

In his introduction, Cardinal Fernández says that the declaration was found “unsatisfactory” when first prepared in 2019, and passed through various drafts before being finally approved by Pope Francis in late March.

He adds that it seeks to tackle the “ambivalent ways” in which human dignity is currently understood, and to condemn certain “grave and current violations”, which threaten to open a lost humanity to “more wounds and profound sufferings”.

The Vatican declaration says that individual dignity can “manifest itself freely, dynamically and progressively”, but can also be misdirected by ideological manipulation, and by the “misused reason” which justified past evils, such as the slave trade and 20th-century totalitarianism.

Proposals to replace the term “human dignity” with “personal dignity” should be opposed, since these imply that dignity and rights “are deduced from the individual’s capacity for knowledge and freedom, which not all humans possess”.

They could place unborn children, the dependent elderly, and the mentally disabled, “at the mercy of varying and arbitrary judgments”, as well as of social attitudes and “power interests”.

“Viewed through the lens of the relational character of the person, human dignity helps to overcome the narrow perspective of a self-referential and individualistic freedom that claims to create its own values,” the declaration says.

“Human history shows clear progress in understanding human dignity and freedom, albeit not without shadows and risks of regression — there is an increasing desire to eradicate racism, slavery, and the marginalisation of women, children, the sick and people with disabilities, and this aspiration has been bolstered under the influence of the Christian faith, which continues to be a ferment even in increasingly secularised societies. However, the arduous journey of advancing human dignity remains far from completion.”

The declaration reasserts the RC Church’s opposition to the death penalty and torture, as well as practices ranging from arbitrary imprisonment to prostitution and degrading work conditions, which were condemned at the Second Vatican Council.

Among current violations of human dignity, it lists extreme poverty and widening economic inequalities, as well as persecution, terrorism, and warfare, the modern indiscriminate nature of which can invalidate the idea of “just or legitimate war”.

The plight of migrants, victims of human trafficking, slave labour, and sexual abuse, are also listed, together with violence against women, and abortion, whose true nature is often concealed by “ambiguous terminology” and the “temptation of self-deception”.

The Vatican declaration says that the Church condemns surrogacy as a “grave violation of the dignity of woman and child”. It also condemns euthanasia and assisted dying, which, it says, rely on “a mistaken understanding of human dignity to turn the concept of dignity against life itself”.

On gender theory and sex change, the document deplores the mistreatment of people in some countries because of sexual orientation; but it says that attempts to “introduce new rights” have spurred “ideological colonisation” and denied the “foundational difference” between male and female.

Although advancing digital technologies may offer “many possibilities for promoting human dignity”, they also risk exacerbating “exploitation, exclusion, and violence” by facilitating fake news and slander.

The digital environment fuels loneliness and manipulation, Dignitas Infinita says, and exposes people to “addiction, isolation, and gradual loss of contact with concrete reality”, blocking “authentic interpersonal relationships” and encouraging cyber-bullying and pornography.

Presenting Dignitas Infinita on Monday, Cardinal Fernández said that the document summarised the “novel approach” offered since his 2013 election by Pope Francis, who was concerned to recall that “not everyone is born with, or has access to, the same possibilities in life” in the current market-based, individualistic “model of the success of the strong”.

He said that the Pope, now 87, wished to “welcome everyone even if they think differently on issues of sexuality, marriage etc.”, and said that the RC Church was also ready to embrace people who had “undergone a sex change or are experiencing gender dysphoria”.

The Cardinal said that he had “wanted to die” when he read about Catholics praising laws against homosexuals, adding that there should be “no doubt” about the Vatican’s support for decriminalising same-sex relationships.

In his first media appearance since the Dicastery’s Fiducia Supplicans declaration, which permitted priests to bless same-sex couples (News, 22 December 2023) in non-formal circumstances, Cardinal Fernández said that the pre-Christmas text had received more than seven billion internet views, and gained approval from more than 75 per cent of under-35s in Italy.

Asked about the definition of homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Cardinal said that a “clearer expression” might now be needed, but such acts could not “even remotely reflect” the beauty of male-female encounters.

Read more on this story in this week’s Leader and Press column

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