After “Dignitas Infinita,” can the church reclaim its gospel mission?

The Vatican's new document highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of the institutional church.
Catholic Voices

The Vatican recently released Dignitas Infinita (Declaration on the Dignity of the Human Person). After the introductory sections, the document addresses several areas where grave violations of human dignity occur in our world today. These violations include poverty, war, human trafficking, migration, sexual abuse, violence against women, abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia, marginalization of people with disabilities, gender theory, sex change, and digital violence.

The resulting analysis varies widely, depending on the area it addresses. This inadvertently highlights both the areas where the church has historically succeeded in respecting people’s dignity—and where it has historically failed to adequately defend human dignity in the public square.

The principle of the dignity of the human person, a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching, states that every person is made in God’s image and likeness, born with inherent dignity, regardless of any differentiating characteristic, and that such dignity must be respected. Dignity is not something to be earned; it is not something that increases based on our actions or merits. Rather, it is something we fully possess simply by being born.

I personally had very high expectations for this document because the principle of the dignity of the human person is widely accepted by the church, and it is one I hold in high regard. Overall, however, Dignitas Infinita lacks the force and strength the church usually demonstrates in teaching about dignity. It definitely lacks the prophetic voice that has characterized Pope Francis’ papacy.


In the sections on poverty, war, human trafficking, and migrants, the document excels. It recognizes that individuals belonging to these groups are marginalized and vulnerable, and that, as the principle of preferential option for the vulnerable commands, it is the church’s mission to defend them. The document unequivocally denounces the systemic oppression and abuse these groups endure at the hands of their own governments and society. Nowhere in these sections are the affected individuals blamed for the systemic oppression and abuse they face. Instead, Dignitas Infinita demonstrates a healthy understanding of the lived experiences of people who are poor, migrants, victims of human trafficking, and impacted by war. This understanding is built on the church’s own engagement with these segments of the population.

Meanwhile, the remaining sections of the document, particularly those concerning women and transgender people, are clearly underdeveloped. This reflects the church’s historical tendency to disregard the lived experiences of these groups.

Only a single five-sentence paragraph is dedicated to the topic of sexual abuse. Throughout history, women have been the primary targets of sexual abuse, yet the document’s treatment of this issue feels insufficient. While it rightfully acknowledges the church’s need to address sexual abuse within its own ranks, referencing its own crisis, the section fails to fully recognize the extent of harm inflicted by sexual abuse across all sectors of life, particularly affecting women.

I had hoped this issue would be more thoroughly addressed in the subsequent section on violence against women—but, although briefly mentioned, the document’s tone lacks the prophetic fervor I had hoped for. This section does acknowledge that women deserve equal pay and fairness in career advancement, and it affirms their equal dignity and rights; however, unlike the previous section that calls for addressing problems within the church itself, this section fails to recognize the need for the church to discern its own stance on women’s leadership roles within the church. Other sections referring specifically to issues affecting women are mostly just a reiteration of previous arguments, with a clear failure to include and listen to the lived experiences of women.


Finally, in my opinion, the section that lacks the most is the one that refers to “gender theory,” which seeks to address gender identity. On LGBTQ+ issues, Dignitas Infinita falls far short.

While clearly and unequivocally stating that the principle of human dignity applies to all human beings regardless of sexual orientation, Dignitas Infinita fails to include the fact that teaching this dignity also applies to all humans, regardless of gender identity or gender expression. By lumping all LGBTQ+ people under the umbrella of sexual orientation, the document fails to recognize even the mere existence of transgender people. Purposely making a person invisible is the worst way to undermine their dignity because it dehumanizes them. In this regard, Dignitas Infinita demonstrates what many of us already know: The church’s understanding of gender identity is underdeveloped and lacking.

On the prophetic end, Dignitas Infinita does call us to avoid “every sign of unjust discrimination . . . particularly any form of aggression and violence” and to denounce as contrary to human dignity any initiatives to imprison, torture, or even deprive individuals of rights “solely because of their sexual orientation.” Once again, though, there is no specific mention of people who are deprived of rights solely because of their gender identity or gender expression.

Unlike the sections on poverty and war, which explicitly mention specific injustices and inequalities suffered by people who experience these hardships, there is no mention of the particular, all-too-common injustices that transgender people endure. The document never acknowledges that trans individuals are more than four times more likely than cisgender individuals to be victims of violent crimes, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault. Additionally, the document does not mention the fact that transgender women of color are more likely to be murdered than other transgender people, or that transgender adults are more likely to experience job and housing discrimination. Dignitas Infinita never makes a specific call to respect these individuals’ dignity or even to acknowledge their existence. By focusing on disembodied casuistries, this section fails to integrate the lived experiences of trans people—their sufferings, their glory, their needs, and the beauty of their souls.


Institutional leaders have to do better. Our younger generations are tired of disembodied equivocation—and that is, perhaps, a positive sign of the times. The Holy Spirit is leading us in a more human and humane direction; she is calling us to listen to the voices of people living on the margins of our society. As we listen, we have opportunities to learn. We can ask ourselves what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us through the lives of the vulnerable and marginalized.

Some Catholics may worry that, by doing this, the church will lose its own identity. I believe, however, as the church begins to hear these lived experiences, it may find its way back to a prophetic path. We can be a church that protects the most sacred while, at the same time, developing our understanding of God’s creation.

I am not asking for a church that changes so much as I am calling for one that grows and develops. We are a church of living waters, not stagnant ones.

Image: Pexels/cottonbro studio


About the author

Yunuen Trujillo

Yunuen Trujillo is an immigration attorney, faith-based community organizer, and lay minister. She is the author of LGBTQ Catholics: A Guide for Inclusive Ministry (Paulist Press).

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