“A Painful Lack of Understanding”: Theologians Respond to Vatican’s Latest Declaration

“Fundamentally unserious,” “not just insulting, devastating,” and “a painful lack of understanding.” These are some Catholic theologians’ appraisals of Dignitas Infinita, the Vatican document on human dignity released Monday that condemns “gender theory” and “sex change,” appraisals featured in today’s post.

Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 featured initial brief reactions to Dignitas Infinita from eight LGBTQ+ or ally Catholics. Today, we feature the voices of eight prominent theologians, listed below alphabetically by last name. Previous articles in our ongoing coverage and analysis of the new declaration, such as New Ways Ministry’s statement, are listed below.

Elizabeth Sweeny Block

Elizabeth Sweeny Block

Elizabeth Sweeny Block is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics in the Department of Theological Studies at St. Louis University and the author of numerous articles on gender identity and transgender persons:

If one is reading Dignitatis Infinita with transgender persons in mind, then one sees the foundation for exclusion being laid in the opening sections. For instance, even as we are told that dignity is intrinsic to the person, cannot be lost or withdrawn, and is prior to any recognition, we are also told that “the choice to express that dignity and manifest it to the full or to obscure it depends on each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” (22). Even before we arrive at the section on “Gender Theory,” the document reminds us of the dignity inherent in each person’s body—indeed true and significant—but this groundwork is laid so that a particular argument about trans and nonbinary bodies can be made. The document condemns, in no uncertain terms, unjust discrimination, including imprisonment, torture, and being deprived of the good life, because of one’s “sexual orientation,” and for this we can be minimally grateful. Yet it rehashes the same unsubstantiated arguments detached from science and medicine: that “gender theory” allows people to make themselves God and “any sex-change intervention” violates human dignity, the latter continuing the mistakes of the U.S. Bishops’ doctrinal note by assuming all trans individuals seek “sex-change intervention.” The new Vatican document notes that dignity is compromised when physical and mental integrity are not valued (4), but it is, of course, physical and mental integrity that trans and non-binary individuals seek. Their dignity and flourishing require us to listen to them and their needs, rather than shame them for not adhering to a so-called natural order that excludes them.

Miguel Diaz

Miguel Diaz is the John Courtney Murray, S.J., University Chair in Public Service at Loyola University in Chicago, served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See from 2009 to 2012, and is the author of Queer God de Amor:

Dignitatis Infinita rightly begins by stating the cornerstone of Christian theological anthropology: “Every human person possesses an infinite dignity…which prevails in and beyond every circumstance, state, or situation the person may ever encounter” (1). This Declaration beautifully situates human dignity within the theocentric origin and destiny of all persons. It acknowledges the ways that “the individual’s dignity can manifest itself freely, dynamically, and progressively; with that, it can also grow and mature” (22). But the Declaration’s statements on gender and sexuality evidence that the Roman Catholic Church’s official teaching needs further growth and maturity with respect to understanding the human dignity of LGBTQ+ persons. Many of us who identify as LGBTQ+ Catholics should question our Church’s ongoing failure to listen to our concrete human experiences and the theocentric nature of these experiences. In political environments characterized by culture wars, misinformed religious teachings on gender and sexuality—that perpetuate essentialist and binary anthropologies—tragically will threaten and be weaponized against the lives of already vulnerable queer bodies, especially trans bodies.

Craig A. Ford, Jr.

Craig Ford is Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University, Louisiana:

As is the case with so many documents addressing controversial moral topics today, Dignitas Infinita offers us a laudable moral horizon but also forces us to ask how much time will elapse until the Church’s official teaching will realize more fully that same horizon.

We need a world, as the document proclaims, where human dignity is inalienable, inviolable, and sacred. But we also need a world where the Church’s official imagination leads us to more nuanced ways to celebrate human freedom as the capacity to bring our lives into closer alignment with God’s call—something that, for trans and nonbinary people, also includes gender transition.

Dignitas Infinita lends a skeptical eye towards the efforts of trans people to follow God’s call in their lives, regarding such efforts as (mis)uses of the person’s freedom in violation of their human nature. The story that trans people tell us, however, invites us to an expanded understanding of human nature—just like people of color and women have forced reconsiderations of previously inadequate conceptions of human nature in the past.

Jason Steidl

Jason Steidl Jack is Assistant Teaching Professor of Religious Studies at St. Joseph’s University in New York and author of LGBTQ Catholic Ministry: Past and Present:

The Vatican’s misunderstanding of “gender ideology” and trans experiences is fundamentally unserious theology that offers only base caricatures of gender theory and science while denigrating the sacred lives of trans and other gender diverse folks. Unfortunately, Dignitas Infinita will cause serious harm to those who are already among the most vulnerable in society and the Church.

Therese Lysaught is Professor at the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics & Health Policy at the Stritch School of Medicine and the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and the editor of the Journal for Moral Theology:

M. Therese Lysaught

Dignitatis Infinita marks the first time that the Holy See has treated the complex and hyper-politicized topics of gender theory and medical interventions for transgender people in an authoritative document. It profoundly misrepresents these topics and demonstrates a painful lack of understanding of both. Despite correctly noting that they continue to be “the subject of considerable debate” among scientific experts (no. 57), the DDF appears to believe that no further study is needed, that six paragraphs are enough to treat these difficult and sensitive topics, and that the only evidence needed to support its startling assertions that gender theory and medical interventions for transgender people are morally equivalent to poverty, war, human trafficking, the abuse of migrants, abortion, and clergy sexual abuse are prooftexts from documents by Pope Francis. After five years, one would have expected a careful and thorough analysis, informed by rigorous scientific evidence, academically-sound theological scholarship, as well as the perspectives of women and transgender persons themselves. Instead, the DDF has promulgated precisely the type of claims that historically have been used to marginalize women and LGBTQ+ persons, to justify violence against them, and to violate their dignity.

Mary Doyle Roche

Mary Doyle Roche is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, and author of Schools of Solidarity: Families and Catholic Social Teaching:

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) struggles to receive its own insights about the intrinsic good of the person when it comes to the dignity of LGBTQIA+ folx, particularly trans and non-binary persons: that the image of God is entrusted to human freedom and that the person’s likeness to God may grow in response to God’s love. [22]. The document notes the “immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity” … “in honest pursuit of the whole truth” that are possible in this age. But the document reflects no such encounter with persons who are striving to live into the freedom to which they are called, a freedom that is not merely an exercise of control over body or identity, as the DDF suggests, but a freedom for authentic relationships with self and others. The lack of genuine encounter casts into question the commitment to intrinsic dignity full stop.

Ish Ruiz

Ismael Ruiz is Provost-Candler Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and has published and worked extensively on LGBTQ+ inclusion in Catholic education:

With one breath, the document beautifully and powerfully declares that human dignity is infinite for all persons… and with another breath, it erases, invalidates, and – ultimately – violates the dignity of transgender persons. Its pitfalls are the same as they have been in prior magisterial statements: lack of consultation with the lived experience of trans persons, lack of engagement with contemporary scholarly research on gender, conflation of sexual orientation and gender identity, self-referential statements, strawman arguments about trans persons under the categorization of “gender ideology,” paranoia about gender theory and the destruction of the fabric of society via the elimination of difference, and the added scapegoating of transgender persons in the wake of conservative reactions to Fiducia Supplicans. No matter how much sugar-coating Pope Francis and the other Vatican officials engage in through pastoral caveats, this document is another reminder of what gay, lesbian, bisexual, and (especially) transgender persons yearn for but are continuously refused: recognition, grace, and dignity present in the fullness of their queerness.

Cristina Traina

Cristina L.H. Traina is the Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., Chair in Catholic Theology at Fordham University, where she teaches Christian theology and ethics:

As others have remarked already, Dignitas Infinita‘s conclusions on sex and gender are sloppy and unfounded, which is insulting to LGBTQ Catholics.  But even worse, the declaration violates the synodal process. Last fall the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome called for theological descriptions of the human that “grasp the complexity of the elements emerging from experience or knowledge in the sciences” (III.15.g) and “[integrate] them into a more mature synthesis” (III.14.h). In particular, it asked for accounts of the human-before-God that help us reflect morally on “bodiliness” (III.15.g), including sexuality. Preempting that ongoing, global, synodal conversation with a new declaration that does not engage the wisdom of the larger church or even meet the assembly’s own standards of knowledge suggests that the Synod’s deliberations are a sham. And that’s not just insulting, it’s devastating.

Previous Posts about Dignitas Infinita

What Transgender Catholics and Their Allies Are Saying About Dignitas Infinita” (Bondings 2.0)

The Strawman of “Gender Theory” in the Vatican’s New Document” (Fr. Daniel P. Horan)

Vatican Document on Human Dignity Fails LGBTQ+ People” (New Ways Ministry)

New Vatican Document Condemns Gender Transitions and Undefined ‘Gender Theory’” (Bondings 2.0)

Brian Flanagan (he/him), New Ways Ministry, April 11, 2024

10 replies
  1. Dr Claire Jenkins
    Dr Claire Jenkins says:

    There is no more to say, these commentators make the point very clearly – the church has a long road to travel if it wants to understand God’s rich diversity, but only if it wants to.

  2. Duane Sherry
    Duane Sherry says:

    It’s my understanding this document was five years in the making, yet it’s obvious not even five minutes were spent listening to the lived experience of transgender people.

    To paraphrase lines from The Wizard of Oz:

    “Pay no attention to the men behind the curtain; the great and powerful institution has spoken.”

    If the safety and very lives of transgender people weren’t being placed at risk, this document would be a joke!

    Duane Sherry (he/him)
    Proud parent of an adult transgender daughter

  3. Paula Ruddy
    Paula Ruddy says:

    Thanks for the theologians’ responses. The disconnect between the Vatican’s words about human dignity and their failure to hear and understand trans and non-binary humans is stunning. And painful.

  4. Joseph
    Joseph says:

    Thank God, there are dedicated expertise on what should be the Catholic Teachings on LGBTQ÷ issues. We should congratulate these 8 experts on their stance fir the truth. Hopefully, someday, the church will listen to the message of Jesus Christ and not the politicL stances of the new Pharisees and Sadducees

  5. Mary McAleese
    Mary McAleese says:

    Dignitas infantilis would be a more apt name for what is little more than a tacky, thin theology of gender according to Chicken Licken. Too awful to even bother trying to take its fake scholarship seriously, too embarrassing to have even the remotest respect for its authors. Goodbye synodality. Welcome back righteous cynicism. Jesus wept.


    This dissent by theologians to statements in this Vatican document reminds me of the dissent by theologians to Humanae Vitae’s condemnation of “artificial” methods of birth control.

    Only a minority of Catholics have ever supported Humanae Vitae’s teaching. My guess is that the sections of Dignitas Infinita that address transgender people, will ultimately end up in the dustbin of irrelevant statements – devoid of authenticity – emanating from the Vatican.

  7. John Calhoun
    John Calhoun says:

    Given the “spot on” quality of everyone’s reactions – how best for NWM to proceed? How can this “New Ways Ministry” serve the Church in this situation- at a juncture of this sort? Discussion Clearly Needed. Rather than being “drawn in” as disputants, how can the Ministry suggest a ‘reset’ and engage authority – and everyone – around the underlying issue of “Theodicy”. * Only A Suggestion*! What do we see and denounce as Evil(s in a “Good Creation”. Is All Creation All Good All The Time? Why? Why Not? And How, Why and When do we so identify certain matters as “Evil “? In All Respects? All the Time? The list seems endless with groupings aplenty- seemingly- at times – of apples and oranges, as the document seems to do. “Where” is God in Christ – in all this? Is God in allll this? “Quaestiones Disputatae”? Make A List! Where Might It Take Us?

  8. Vernon Smith
    Vernon Smith says:

    And yet again, I am reminded that the centuries past predecessor to the DDF, the Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, condemned Galileo and heliocentrism as heretical. Fear is dangerous, as the Vatican is demonstrating yet again. How many centuries will it take to learn that lesson?

  9. Vernon Smith
    Vernon Smith says:

    I forgot to add that Rome’s ignorance of serious science while making up its own fear laden, incomprehensible concept of “gender theory” renders the emperor to be lacking clothes.


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