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Defining—and defending—dignity

The Vatican offers a timely corrective on contemporary sexuality


A copy of the "Infinite Dignity" declaration at a Vatican press conference on Monday Associated Press/Photo by Gregorio Borgia

Defining—and defending—dignity
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This month the Vatican issued a declaration on human dignity, Dignitas Infinita, which reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s long tradition of commitment to this profound topic. The declaration not only defines dignity, but also applies the concept as a corrective to some significant contemporary challenges, perhaps most notably as it relates to human sexuality. The document was occasioned by the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which as the Vatican declaration describes it, was a document that “reaffirmed authoritatively” the “ontological dignity and the unique and eminent value of every man and woman in the world.”

Dignitas Infinita proceeds by exploring theoretical and theological grounds for human dignity before turning to contemporary challenges identified as “grave violations of human dignity.” The historical, philosophical, biblical, and theological explication of human dignity in this declaration is worthwhile, but perhaps most significant for the pontificate of Francis is the church’s crystal clear condemnation of a predominant ideology of the age. While Dignitas Infinita examines perennial challenges such as poverty, abortion, and war, the declaration also criticizes gender theory and sex-change procedures. The clarity of this teaching is laudable and edifying for all people of good will.

A foundational distinction in Dignitas Infinita is the difference between what it calls ontological dignity and moral dignity. The former is the ground and basis for the latter. Ontological dignity is given by God in His act of creation of humanity in the image of God (imago Dei). Moral dignity has to do with how humans respond to this gift that is given. Moral dignity involves “how people use their freedom,” a freedom grounded in their identity as human persons. Ontological dignity is absolute, while moral dignity can be gained or lost, grown or lessened, depending on how we live within the givenness of God’s creation.

Being created in the image of God, as the Bible relates it, involves sexual differentiation and reciprocation: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

Sexual complementarity is part of the givenness of creation and is thus an expression of ontological dignity. Moral dignity can only flourish when it recognizes what God has willed in and through creation. One aspect of this created goodness is the natural law, which establishes moral norms that apply to everyone, everywhere, always. True freedom as taught by Dignitas Infinita is grounded in and bounded by God’s normative will. “Every individual possesses an inalienable and intrinsic dignity from the beginning of his or her existence as an irrevocable gift,” we read. “However, the choice to express that dignity and manifest it to the full or to obscure it depends on each person’s free and responsible decision.”

Sexual differentiation is part of what God has given to us in creation, and that gift comes with a corresponding duty.

One way in which people abuse freedom is to ignore God’s will and deny the normative value of His created gifts: “Without any ontological grounding, the recognition of human dignity would vacillate at the mercy of varying and arbitrary judgments.” Dignitas Infinita rightly diagnoses much of mainstream gender theory and transgender ideology ultimately as an idolatrous rejection of God’s good gifts.

Sexual differentiation is part of what God has given to us in creation, and that gift comes with a corresponding duty. Male and female sexual complementarity must not only be acknowledged and affirmed but put to proper use in marriage and procreation for social flourishing. “Desiring a personal self-determination, as gender theory prescribes, apart from this fundamental truth that human life is a gift,” reads the declaration, “amounts to a concession to the age-old temptation to make oneself God, entering into competition with the true God of love revealed to us in the Gospel.” The declaration does not shy away from the clear implication: “Any sex-change intervention, as a rule, risks threatening the unique dignity the person has received from the moment of conception.”

There are certain things that it is wrong to do to anyone simply because they are human. These rights are absolute, and they are founded in the absolute dignity of the human person, which is not dependent on circumstance, context, or concrete realization. As the declaration puts it, “Only this inalienable character of human dignity makes it possible to speak about human rights.”

Dignitas Infinita also distinguishes between other ways of speaking about dignity, including social and existential dignity. But all of the other types of dignity—whether moral, social, or existential—are derivative of and determined by the reality of ontological dignity. Human dignity comes as a gift from God, and in the givenness of that gift we discover the limits defining the free space for the proper use of his created blessings. Confusing male and female, including “all attempts to obscure reference to the ineliminable sexual difference between man and woman,” is only plausible when we, as the Apostle Paul puts it, exchange “the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:25).

The declaration Dignitas Infinita is a timely corrective to so much distorted contemporary discourse about sexuality and dignity and is instructive not only for all Christians, but all human beings as well, who “possess a sacred value that transcends every distinction of a sexual, social, political, cultural, and religious nature.”


Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.


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