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Dangers Within
Magus, Prophet and Poet for Our Dark Times

The Failure of “Dignitas Infinita” on Gender

This week’s new declaration by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Dignitas Infinita” (“Infinite Dignity”) takes aim at what it calls “gender theory,” “sex change” and “the deplorable practice of so-called surrogate motherhood,” among other concerns it identifies as “grave violations of human dignity.”

The document was in the works for five years in various forms, and despite the pains it takes to frame itself as a wide-ranging but not comprehensive document on human dignity, America Magazine’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, told me this week on our podcast that the document’s genesis was in 2019 when the Dicastery was focused in particular on the question of gender. The document itself states that it underwent major revisions on the orders of Pope Francis, who encouraged the writers to study his encyclical Fratelli Tutti and incorporate additional subjects. The Vatican has not confirmed what topics those were, but it is not unimaginable that at that point, this document was transformed from one based on gender to one that was framed as a more general reflection on human dignity, tied to the recent 75th anniversary of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Vatican’s declaration affirms that the U.N. “authoritatively” reaffirmed the principle of human dignity, but takes pains to distance itself from what it calls “new rights”—a familiar refrain in Pope Francis’ frequent criticisms of the U.N.

In any case, the parts of the document that have garnered the most attention are those sections on gender, which, aside from the shockingly languid single paragraph on sexual abuse (“it also affects the Church”), form the weakest part of the document.

The section denouncing “gender theory,” by far the longest in the document, constructs a strawman argument, as Dan Horan, O.F.M., wrote for New Ways Ministry:

Cardinal Fernández writes in his introductory preface that the five-year-long work on this document sought to “take into account the latest developments on the subject in academia.” However, for all its talk about “theory,” the text fails to directly engage any specific theorist, philosopher, theologian or other scholar who works on the subject of gender ostensibly under consideration here. Not a single citation points to any source this text intends to critique.

Instead of accounting for real research, this document constructs a strawman called “gender theory,” whose tenets represent no actual theory or study with which I am familiar. The vagueness of the concept is presented at once as a catch-all and an ominous threat, which serves the purpose of establishing a boogeyman to be feared but does little to advance any real dialogue or understanding.

Rather strikingly, this DDF document creates its own original “gender theory” according to the patchwork of concepts it weaves in paragraphs 56 to 59.

That patchwork “theory” elaborated by the Vatican “intends to deny the greatest possible difference that exists between living beings: sexual difference…thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family” and is imposed on cultures that would otherwise reject it by “ideological colonization”—a term Francis has often used to refer to the United Nations’ work protecting “new rights” that are not detailed in the 1948 declaration, including things like abortion.

The section concludes with the assertion that, “‘biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.’ Therefore, all attempts to obscure reference to the interminable sexual difference between man and woman are to be rejected.” This argument is incoherent: What distinction between sex and gender can be made that cannot be interpreted as an “attempt to obscure reference to” sexual difference? If I cut my hair short or wear my husband’s jeans and hoodie, is that too far? What if I do “men’s work” like changing the oil in my car or fixing a leaky toilet?

Throughout these sections, the document, which speaks on behalf of “the Church,” fails to take the Church to account for the discrimination it denounces, in what at this point reads like a boilerplate statement before negative comments on LGBTQ+ people: “‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided.” In contrast to its language in other sections that “the Church and humanity must not cease fighting…” and “the Church also takes a stand against…,” it employs passive voice to say, “It should be denounced as contrary to human dignity the fact that, in some places, not a few people are imprisoned, tortured and even deprived of the good of life solely because of their sexual orientation.” It fails to say anything at all about the fact that people are imprisoned, tortured or killed because they are transgender. In fact, it does not use the word “transgender” at all.

For all the years of study and preparation that went into this document, “Dignitas Infinita” notably lacks any substantive engagement with the theory it denounces, makes incoherent arguments regarding gender presentation as related to sex, and overlooks violence and discrimination against the very transgender people Pope Francis has gone out of his way to minister to.

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has been tasked with responding “in light of the faith, to the questions and arguments arising from scientific advances and cultural developments.” To do so, it needs to engage these advances and developments seriously. In “Dignitas Infinita,” it has failed.


Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming book on grappling with faith while covering the Vatican will be published by Penguin Random House in spring 2025.

Comments

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Christine Firer Hinze

Thank you, Colleen, for this extremely helpful commentary.

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