Vatican Announces Opposition to Anti-LGBTQ+ Laws, Surrogacy and Gender-Affirming Surgery

On April 8, the Vatican issued a new document, the Declaration of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith “Dignitas Infinita” on Human Dignity, approved by Pope Francis. The 20-page Dignitas Infinita, five years in the crafting, makes a range of statements on what the Vatican calls “human dignity” issues: poverty, the situation of migrants, violence against women, human trafficking, war, abortion, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, the death penalty and gender-reassignment surgery.

For queer and trans people, the document provides, yet again, seemingly conflicting statements regarding LGBTQ+ people and the Church. The document states that the Church believes that gender fluidity and transition surgery as well as surrogacy and in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination — which gay and lesbian couples often use to create their families — are ultimately affronts to human dignity, yet it makes the same statement about anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

The sex a person is assigned at birth, the document argues, is 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.” The document explains that individuals who “desire a personal self-determination, as gender theory prescribes,” in turn put themselves at risk of “the age-old temptation to make oneself God.”

It seems a contradiction when as recently as November, Pope Francis widened the door to acceptance of trans people within the Church by announcing that trans people can be baptized and be godparents. As GLAAD noted, “Pope Francis’ ministry has been defined by putting people at the center, and he has met with and blessed transgender people, insisting that they are part of the Church and should be included and treated with respect. This document from the hardliners in the Vatican reveals the threat they feel from the Pope’s inclusion and acceptance.”

As it is laid out, the document is an in-depth explanation of the Church’s view on human dignity and its many facets, most notably in protecting vulnerable people and populations. The Vatican stated that in the current climate of upheaval, restating where the Church stands on these issues was an important point to be made.

The Vatican also takes a strong stand against anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the new document and particularly cites and chastises Catholic groups that support such laws, like those in the U.S. The U.S. funded such programs during the Trump administration via then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s USAID programs

The Vatican is against laws that criminalize same-sex acts, even when Catholic groups support those laws, the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office said. Like the laws recently enacted in Uganda, Russia and Ghana, the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office said April 8, “punish LGBTQ people,” which is against the church’s stance on LGBTQ+ people as defined by Pope Francis.

Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez called laws punishing LGBTQ+ people “a big problem” and said, “of course we are not in favor of criminalization.”

Fernandez, a liberal theologian and longtime associate of Pope Francis from Argentina, was appointed as head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith less than a year ago by Pope Francis. Fernandez has taken a liberal stance on many issues, including LGBTQ+ issues. He told reporters it was “painful to see” some Catholics support such legislation.

In February 2023, while returning from a trip to Africa where the most anti-LGBTQ laws are, Francis said laws criminalizing LGBTQ+ people were a “sin and an injustice,” because “God loves and accompanies people with same-sex attraction.” 

“The criminalization of homosexuality is a problem that cannot be ignored,” Pope Francis said then, citing statistics according to which 50 countries criminalize LGBTQ+ people “in one way or another” and 10 others that have laws, including the death penalty. Under Francis, the Catholic Church has become more welcoming towards LGBTQ+ people. In December, Cardinal Fernandez’s office issued a landmark document allowing the blessing of same-sex couples. That in turn caused a furore against Pope Francis from conservative Catholics and other religious groups.

Yet at the same time, the Church maintains an official doctrine that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”

When Fernandez was asked by reporters April 8 if that language might be softened, he said, “it is true that it is a very strong expression and that it needs a lot of explanation, perhaps we could find a clearer one.”

Fernandez asserted that Catholic teaching stipulates that same-sex unions are not equivalent to “the immense beauty” of heterosexual unions. But he affirmed that the Church “could find more apt words to express” this.

GLAAD, New Ways Ministry and Dignity USA responded to the Vatican document with regard to trans and nonbinary people.

GLAAD addressed the immediate conflict by stating, “Every major medical association supports health care for transgender people and youth as lifesaving and safe. Read 30+ statements here. The Vatican document rejects so-called ‘gender theory’ and efforts to change sex assigned at birth, claiming people should not try to ‘make themselves God.’ However, the document does support health care intervention to resolve genital differences like those present in intersex babies at birth or that develop later.”

GLAAD also noted that, “Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken up for LGBTQ+ people and has met with transgender people, calling for them to be included in Catholic Church rituals and celebrations including as witnesses in weddings and godparents in baptisms. The “Dignitas Infinita” marks a stark departure from his pastoral approach of opening the church. It demonstrates that the pervasive disinformation about transgender people that has fueled anti-transgender laws in the United States and attacks around the world, is also flowing through the Vatican.”

GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said, “Pope Francis’ ministry has been defined by putting people at the center, and he has met with and blessed transgender people, insisting that they are part of the Church and should be included and treated with respect. This document from the hardliners in the Vatican reveals the threat they feel from the Pope’s inclusion and acceptance. People are not a ‘theory’ or ‘ideology’ and the church now risks further perpetuating harm against an already-marginalized population by denying their personhood.”

For DignityUSA leader Maddie Marlett, the tack the document takes on gender reassignment surgery is deeply personal. Marlett said, “As a transwoman, I am told by this document I am playing God and misapplying my moral freedom. This is not the reality of my life. My journey to self-acceptance was through realizing my self-worth as God’s creation. My choice to transition and affirm my gender was rooted in my search for existential dignity and social dignity. This document classifies my identification as ‘determining one’s identity and future independently of others, without regard for one’s membership in the human community.’ This could be nothing further from my truth.”

Marlett continues, “I made one choice and that was to live. This choice has let me continue my membership in this living human community. For a document that condemns the death penalty, I can’t help but mourn the irony of church leaders wanting to doom me and others like me to a life headed toward a serious mental health crisis instead of affording me the moral dignity to find my truth as reflected in the diversity of love God’s image holds. I wish the Vatican would see my inalienable dignity and move with respect and love for us transgender and nonbinary folks.”

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