Vatican says gender change, surrogacy are threats to human dignity
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Vatican says gender change, surrogacy are threats to human dignity

Francis words are one thing, and church doctrine another

Pope Francis presides over the Easter Vigil in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on March 30, 2024. (Photo: Reuters)
Pope Francis presides over the Easter Vigil in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on March 30, 2024. (Photo: Reuters)

ROME — The Vatican on Monday issued a new document approved by Pope Francis stating that the church believes that gender-fluidity and transition surgery, as well as surrogacy, amount to affronts to human dignity.

The sex a person is assigned at birth, the document argued, was an "irrevocable gift" from God, and "any sex-change intervention, as a rule, risks threatening the unique dignity the person has received from the moment of conception." People who desire "a personal self-determination, as gender theory prescribes,” risk succumbing “to the age-old temptation to make oneself God."

Regarding surrogacy, the document unequivocally stated the Roman Catholic Church's opposition, whether the woman carrying a baby "is coerced into it or chooses to subject herself to it freely.” Surrogacy makes the child “a mere means subservient to the arbitrary gain or desire of others," the Vatican said in the document, which also opposed in vitro fertilisation.

The document was intended as a broad statement of the church’s view on human dignity, including the exploitation of the poor, migrants, women and vulnerable people. The Vatican acknowledged that it was touching on difficult issues but said that in a time of great tumult it was essential, and it hoped beneficial, for the church to restate its teachings on the centrality of human dignity.

Even if the church's teachings on culture war issues Francis have largely avoided are not necessarily new, their consolidation now was likely to be embraced by conservatives for their hard line against liberal ideas on gender and surrogacy.

The document, five years in the making, immediately generated deep consternation among advocates for LGBTQIA+ rights in the church, who fear it will be used against transgender people. That was so, they said, even as the document warned of "unjust discrimination" in countries where transgender people are imprisoned or face aggression, violence and sometimes death.

"The Vatican is again supporting and propagating ideas that lead to real physical harm to transgender, nonbinary and other LGBTQ+ people," said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based group that advocates for gay Catholics, adding that the Vatican’s defence of human dignity excluded “the segment of the human population who are transgender, nonbinary or gender nonconforming."

He said it presented an outdated theology based on physical appearance alone and was blind to "the growing reality that a person's gender includes the psychological, social and spiritual aspects naturally present in their lives."

The document, he said, showed a "stunning lack of awareness of the actual lives of transgender and nonbinary people." Its authors ignored the transgender people who shared their experiences with the church, DeBernardo said, "cavalierly," and incorrectly, dismissing them as a purely Western phenomena.

Though the document is a clear setback for LGBTQIA+ people and their supporters, the Vatican took pains to strike a balance between protecting personal human dignity and clearly stating church teaching, a tightrope Francis has tried to walk in his more than 11 years as pope.

A general view of St. Peter's Square during the Easter Mass attended by Pope Francis, at the Vatican on March 31, 2024. (Photo: Reuters)

Francis has made it a hallmark of his papacy to meet with gay and transgender Catholics and has made it his mission to broadcast a message for a more open, and less judgmental, church. Just months ago, Francis upset more conservative corners of his church by explicitly allowing LGBTQIA+ Catholics to receive blessings from priests and by allowing transgender people to be baptized and act as godparents.

But he has refused to budge on the church rules and doctrine that many gay and transgender Catholics feel have alienated them, revealing the limits of his push for inclusivity.

"In terms of pastoral consequences," Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, who leads the Vatican’s office on doctrine, said in a news conference Monday, "the principle of welcoming all is clear in the words of Pope Francis."

Francis, he said, has repeatedly said that "all, all, all" must be welcomed. "Even those who don't agree with what the church teaches and who make different choices from those that the church says in its doctrine must be welcomed," he said, including “those who think differently on these themes of sexuality."

But Francis words were one thing, and church doctrine another, Fernández made clear, drawing a distinction between the document, which he said was of high doctrinal importance, as opposed to the recent statement allowing blessings for same-sex Catholics. The church teaches that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”

In an echo of the tension between the substance of church law and Francis' style of a papal inclusivity, Fernández said Monday that perhaps the “intrinsically disordered” language should be modified to better reflect that the church's message that homosexual acts could not produce life.

“It's a very strong expression, and it requires explanation," he said. "Maybe we could find an expression that is even clearer to understand what we want to say."

Though receptive to gay and transgender followers, the pope has also consistently expressed concern about what he calls “ideological colonisation,” the notion that wealthy nations arrogantly impose views — whether on gender or surrogacy — on people and religious traditions that do not necessarily agree with them. The document said that "gender theory plays a central role” in that vision and that its “scientific coherence is the subject of considerable debate among experts."

Using "on the one hand" and "on the other hand," language, the Vatican's office on teaching and doctrine wrote that "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."

"At the same time," it continued, "the church highlights the definite critical issues present in gender theory."

On Monday, Fernández also struggled to reconcile the two seemingly dissonant views.

"I am shocked having read a text from some Catholics who said, 'Bless this military government of our country that created these laws against homosexuals,'" Fernández said Monday. "I wanted to die reading that."

But he went on to say that the Vatican document was itself not a call for decriminalization but an affirmation of what the church believed. “We shall see the consequences,” he said, adding that the church would then see how to respond.

In his presentation, Fernández described the long process of the drafting of a document on human dignity, "Infinite Dignity," which began in March 2019, to take into account the "latest developments on the subject in academia and the ambivalent ways in which the concept is understood today."

In 2023, Francis sent the document back with instructions to "highlight topics closely connected to the theme of dignity, such as poverty, the situation of migrants, violence against women, human trafficking, war, and other themes." Francis signed off on the document March 25.

The long road, Fernández wrote, “reflects the gravity” of the process.

In the document, the Vatican embraced the "clear progress in understanding human dignity," pointing to the "desire to eradicate racism, slavery and the marginalization of women, children, the sick and people with disabilities."

But it said the church also sees "grave violations of that dignity," including abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, polygamy, torture, the exploitation of the poor and migrants, human trafficking and sex abuse, violence against women, capitalism's inequality and terrorism.

The document expressed concern that eliminating sexual differences would undercut the family and that a response "to what are at times understandable aspirations" will become an absolute truth and ideology and change how children are raised.

The document argued that changing sex put individualism before nature and that human dignity as a subject was often hijacked to "justify an arbitrary proliferation of new rights," as if "the ability to express and realize every individual preference or subjective desire should be guaranteed."

Fernández on Monday said that a couple desperate to have a child should turn to adoption, rather than surrogacy or in vitro fertilisation because those practices, he said, eroded human dignity writ large.

Individualistic thinking, the document argues, subjugates the universality of dignity to individual standards, concerned with "psycho-physical well-being" or "individual arbitrariness or social recognition." By making dignity subjective, the Vatican argues, it becomes subject to "arbitrariness and power interests."

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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