The Vatican

Vatican publishes long-awaited document on human dignity

At the press conference to present the document, Cardinal Fernandez commented that he hopes that this text will have the same repercussion as "Fiducia supplicans".

Andrea Acali-April 8, 2024-Reading time: 9 minutes

Cardinal Fernandez during today's press conference ©OSV

The long-awaited statement of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith "Dignitas infinita" on the theme of human dignity has been published. The prefect, Cardinal Fernandez, in his presentation, recalls that it took five years to prepare the document, with a substantial final modification "to respond to a request of the Holy Father, who explicitly urged to focus attention on the current grave violations of human dignity in our time, in the wake of the encyclical 'Fratelli tutti'": the drama of poverty, the situation of migrants, violence against women, human trafficking, war.

The Declaration recalls that "respect for the dignity of each and every person is the indispensable basis for the very existence of any society that claims to be based on just law and not on the force of power. It is on the basis of the recognition of human dignity that fundamental human rights, which precede and underlie all civilized coexistence, are defended. To each individual person and, at the same time, to each human community belongs, therefore, the task of the concrete and effective realization of human dignity, while it is the duty of States not only to protect it, but also to guarantee the conditions necessary for it to flourish in the integral promotion of the human person".

The Declaration is structured in four parts: "In the first three, it recalls fundamental principles and theoretical assumptions in order to offer important clarifications that can avoid the frequent confusions that occur in the use of the term 'dignity'. In the fourth part, he presents some current problematic situations in which the immense and inalienable dignity that corresponds to every human being is not adequately recognized. Denouncing these grave and current violations of human dignity is a necessary gesture, because the Church nourishes the profound conviction that faith cannot be separated from the defense of human dignity, evangelization from the promotion of a dignified life, and spirituality from the commitment to the dignity of all human beings".

Human dignity

The document, published on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recalls first of all that "the infinite dignity" of every human person, made in the image and likeness of God, is "inalienably founded on his or her very being. It is the "ontological dignity" that "can never be erased and remains valid beyond any circumstances in which individuals may find themselves". The Declaration then refers to three other concepts of dignity: moral, social and existential, which can fail but never erase the ontological dignity of every human being.

The Church "proclaims the equal dignity of all human beings, regardless of their condition in life or their qualities". This proclamation is based on three convictions: the love of God the Creator, the Incarnation of Christ and the destiny of man called to communion with God in the light of the Resurrection. Nevertheless, human dignity can be tarnished by sin: here lies the personal response of each person to make his or her dignity grow and mature, with the decisive contribution of faith to reason.

The Dicastery's document then recalls "some essential principles that must always be respected" in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and clarifies misunderstandings that have arisen around the concept of dignity. Such as the proposal to use the definition of personal dignity, which would imply that only those capable of reasoning would be recognized as persons. The consequence would be that "the unborn child and the elderly who are not self-sufficient would not have personal dignity, nor would the mentally handicapped". Instead, the Church insists on the recognition of an "intrinsic dignity" of every human being. It goes on to criticize the misuse of the concept of dignity to "justify an arbitrary multiplication of new rights, many of which are often set in opposition to the fundamental right to life, as if to guarantee the ability to express and realize every individual preference or subjective desire. Dignity is then identified with an isolated and individualistic freedom, which seeks to impose as "rights", guaranteed and financed by the community, certain subjective desires and propensities. But human dignity cannot be based on merely individual criteria, nor can it be identified only with the psychophysical well-being of the individual. On the contrary, the defense of human dignity is based on the constitutive demands of human nature, which depend neither on individual arbitrariness nor on social recognition. The duties that derive from the recognition of the dignity of the other and the corresponding rights that derive from it have, therefore, a concrete and objective content, based on common human nature. Without such an objective reference, the concept of dignity remains in fact subject to the most diverse arbitrariness, as well as to the interests of power".

The document recalls that the dignity of the human being also includes the capacity to assume obligations towards others and the importance of freedom, addressing what conditions, limits and obscures it, as well as the question of relativism.

During the presentation, Fernandez called human dignity "a fundamental pillar of Christian teaching." The Argentine cardinal started from the previous statement on blessings, "Fiducia supplicans," which "has had seven billion hits on the internet," citing a survey that showed that in Italy, among those under 35 years of age, 75% of respondents agreed with that document. "Today's is much more important and we wish it had the same level of impact, because the world needs to rediscover the immense implications of human dignity." He specified, however, that these words were not a self-defense following the heated controversy of recent weeks over "Fiducia supplicans."

The Prefect highlighted the "growth of the Church in the understanding of dignity, up to the total rejection of the death penalty, the culmination of the reflection on the inviolability of human life" and told two anecdotes. The first was about the choice of the title: they had thought of "Beyond all circumstances" because it is the key to understanding the whole Declaration, but then they chose a quote from a speech to the disabled by John Paul II in 1980, during his first trip to Germany. The other was personal, when in a difficult personal moment in Buenos Aires, on the occasion of his appointment as rector of the Catholic University, Bergoglio told him "No, Tucho, raise your head because they cannot take away your dignity...".

The last section of the Declaration "addresses some concrete and serious violations" of human dignity, beginning with the "tragedy of poverty," which affects not only rich and poor countries, but also social inequalities: "We are all responsible, albeit to a greater or lesser extent, for this glaring inequality." There is also the war that "with its trail of destruction and pain threatens human dignity in the short and long term". In addition to echoing the call "never again war", the document reiterates that "the intimate relationship between faith and human dignity makes it contradictory for war to be based on religious convictions".


And again migrants, "among the first victims of the multiple forms of poverty": their reception "is an important and significant way of defending the inalienable dignity of every human person". Human trafficking is also "considered a grave violation of human dignity" and is defined as a "crime against humanity": "The Church and humanity must not give up the fight against phenomena such as the trade in human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of children, slave labor, including prostitution, drug and arms trafficking, terrorism and international organized crime". The Church's commitment to the fight against the scourge of sexual abuse is reaffirmed.

Violence against women

Much emphasis is placed on violence against women: "It is a global scandal, increasingly recognized. Although the equal dignity of women is recognized in words, in some countries the inequalities between women and men are very serious, and even in the most developed and democratic countries, the concrete social reality testifies that women are often not recognized as having the same dignity as men". In addition to condemning the various forms of discrimination, "among the forms of violence exercised against women, how can we fail to mention the compulsion to abortion, which affects both mother and child, so often to satisfy the selfishness of men? And how can we fail to mention also the practice of polygamy?" "In this horizon of violence against women, the phenomenon of femicide will never be sufficiently condemned. On this front, the commitment of the entire international community must be compact and concrete."


It then reiterated the condemnation of abortion without exclusion, recalling the words of St. John Paul II in "Evangelium Vitae", and reaffirmed that "it is necessary to affirm with all force and clarity, even in our time, that this defense of nascent life is intimately linked to the defense of every human right". In this regard, "the generous and courageous commitment of St. Teresa of Calcutta to the defense of every conceived person deserves to be remembered".


It condemns the "practice of surrogate motherhood, by which the immensely worthy child becomes a mere object": "It violates, above all, the dignity of the child" who has "the right, by virtue of his or her 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". Recognition of the dignity of the human person also implies recognition of the dignity of the conjugal union and of human procreation in all its dimensions. In this sense, 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 himself as the recipient of the free gift of life". It then goes against "the dignity of the woman herself who is forced or freely decides to submit to it. With such a practice, the woman dissociates herself from the child growing in her and becomes a mere means at the service of the profit or arbitrary desire of others".


Another key chapter is dedicated to euthanasia, "a particular case of violation of human dignity, more silent but which is gaining a lot of ground. It has the particularity of using an erroneous concept of human dignity to turn it against life itself." "The idea that euthanasia or assisted suicide are compatible with respect for the dignity of the human person is widespread. In the face of this fact, it must be strongly 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. Certainly, the dignity of the critically or terminally ill person demands an adequate and necessary effort on the part of all to alleviate his or her suffering through appropriate palliative care and by avoiding any therapeutic obstinacy or disproportionate intervention [...]. But such an effort is totally distinct, different, even contrary to the decision to eliminate one's own life or that of others under the weight of suffering. Human life, even in its painful condition, is the bearer of a dignity that must always be respected, that cannot be lost and whose respect remains unconditional." Similar concepts for the care of disabled and vulnerable people, for whom "the inclusion and active participation in social and ecclesial life of all those who are in some way marked by frailty or disability should be encouraged as far as possible."

Gender ideology

One explicit condemnation concerns gender theory. While reaffirming the respect due to every person and the condemnation of all discrimination based on sexual orientation, with a call to decriminalize homosexuality in countries where it remains a crime, the Declaration "recalls that human life, in all its components, physical and spiritual, is a gift of God, to be welcomed with gratitude and placed at the service of the good. To wish to dispose of oneself, as gender theory prescribes, independently of this basic truth of human life as a gift, means nothing other than yielding to the ancient temptation for the human being to become God and enter into competition with the true God of love revealed to us in the Gospel." Sexual difference, therefore, is "not only the greatest difference imaginable, but also the most beautiful and the most powerful [...], respect for one's own body and that of others is essential in the face of the proliferation and claims of new rights advanced by gender theory [...]. All those attempts that obscure the reference to the ineliminable sexual difference between man and woman are therefore rejectable." In this context, "any intervention to change sex, as a general rule, risks threatening the unique dignity that the person has received from the moment of conception. This does not exclude the possibility that a person who suffers from genital anomalies already evident at birth or which develop later may choose to receive medical assistance in order to resolve these anomalies".

Digital violence

Finally, the document examines digital violence, warning against the creation of a world in which exploitation, exclusion and violence are growing, facilitated by technological progress: "Such trends represent a dark side of digital progress. From this perspective, if technology is to serve human dignity and not harm it, and if it is to promote peace rather than violence, the human community must be proactive in addressing these trends by respecting human dignity and promoting the good."

Responding to a question during the presentation, the cardinal finally affirmed that hell is compatible with human freedom, which God respects, but then there remains the question that Pope Francis often raises about the possibility that hell is empty.

The authorAndrea Acali


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