CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Catholic Online) - Dated September 8, 2008, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Vatican Congregation responsible for the protection of Doctrine (The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith) recently released a clear, well written and passionate defense of the dignity of every single human life from the moment of conception until natural death. As is the custom with “magisterial” documents, the title of this instruction was taken from the first line, “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death”. The document continues, “This fundamental principle expresses a great “yes” to human life and must be at the center of ethical reflection on biomedical research, which has an ever greater importance in today’s world.”
Since the release of this document the Press has been filled with reports on this instruction. Some have accurately described the content and properly affirmed its significance. Others have been based on mistaken caricatures of the Catholic Church and not on the substance of what is presented. Still others demonstrated that the writers did not read the document or, if they did, did not like what it had to say and chose to mislead the public. Finally, some were based on old tired assertions of the Catholic Church as being “out of touch” or “anti-technology” or “anti-sexuality” or any number of other absolutely inane, untrue and groundless assertions.
The Instruction continues the clear and consistent defense of the dignity of every human life, respect for the goods and ends of marriage and the insistence on having authentic moral criteria with which to evaluate alleged advances in medical science as presented by the Catholic Church through her teaching office. The Catholic Church is not against science. Rather, she simply insists that good science must always respect the first goods; life, marriage and the common good of our life together.
All Catholic Christians should read this well written teaching document. It is a “doctrinal” statement of the ordinary magisterium (teaching office) and must be given the full assent of our intellect and will. This is of particular importance given the number of Catholics in significant positions of authority in the incoming Obama Administration. I encourage the Vice President - Elect and all of his fellow Catholics in the incoming administration to read this instruction. Finally, the document is not only for Catholics, other Christians or even just people of faith. It is addressed to “all who seek the truth”. It presents the truth by drawing upon the “light both of reason and faith and seeks to set forth an integral vision of man and his vocation”.
The document does not discourage progress in biomedicine. In fact it encourages it within an ethical framework, one which accepts that science must always be placed at the service of the human person, the family and the common good. Any use of the so called “new technologies” must also respect that the human body is never an “it” - but an “I” - some-one who must never be treated as an object, “The body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells. The embryonic human body develops progressively according to a well defined program with its proper finality, as is apparent in the birth of every baby.”
The insistence upon this framework for evaluating biomedicine finds support in the history of other true advances in Medical Science. The ethical criterion is revealed in the Natural Law; the fundamental right to life and the dignity of human persons. This right is knowable by and binding upon all men and women and is not simply a “religious” construct. Footnote 7 within the document cites Pope Benedict XVI’s presentation to the United Nations in April of 2008 which summarizes this point well: “Human rights…in particular the right to life of every human being “are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations. Removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks. This great variety of viewpoints must not be allowed to obscure the fact that not only rights are universal, but so too is the human person, the subject of those rights”
It is in light of this fundamental moral criterion that the instruction discusses human sexuality and marital love, procreation and infertility treatments and the “manipulation of the embryo or the human Genetic Patrimony”. The section concerning gene therapy and the therapeutic use of stem cells, distinguishing both the types of cells and the techniques used to obtain them, is one of the best explanations of the complex technologies which I have read. The Church encourages the use of adult stem cells and stem cells which can be derived from non-lethal uses such as fetal cord blood. These technologies do not take human embryonic lives and have also been the subject of amazing scientific progress. I am deeply grateful for the Catholic Church, Defender and Champion of Life. No matter how many efforts there are to dismiss Catholic teaching in this fundamental area of ethics, the opponents of the truth which she defends will not prevail because her teaching is true, it is never right to take innocent human life.
To conclude with some words from the Instruction: “Just as a century ago it was the working classes which were oppressed in their fundamental rights, and the Church courageously came to their defense by proclaiming the sacrosanct rights of the worker as person, so now, when another category of persons is being oppressed in the fundamental right to life, the Church feels in duty bound to speak out with the same courage on behalf of those who have no voice. Hers is always the evangelical cry in defense of the world’s poor, those who are threatened and despised and whose human rights are violated”.
“In virtue of the Church’s doctrinal and pastoral mission, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has felt obliged to reiterate both the dignity and the fundamental and inalienable rights of every human being, including those in the initial stages of their existence, and to state explicitly the need for protection and respect which this dignity requires of everyone. The fulfillment of this duty implies courageous opposition to all those practices which result in grave and unjust discrimination against unborn human beings, who have the dignity of a person, created like others in the image of God. Behind every “no” in the difficult task of discerning between good and evil, there shines a great “yes” to the recognition of the dignity and inalienable value of every single and unique human being called into existence.”
“The Christian faithful will commit themselves to the energetic promotion of a new culture of life by receiving the contents of this Instruction with the religious assent of their spirit, knowing that God always gives the grace necessary to observe his commandments and that, in every human being, above all in the least among us, one meets Christ himself (cf. Mt 25:40). In addition, all persons of good will, in particular physicians and researchers open to dialogue and desirous of knowing what is true, will understand and agree with these principles and judgments, which seek to safeguard the vulnerable condition of human beings in the first stages of life and to promote a more human civilization.”
As we move closer to the Day when those who bear the name Christian will commemorate the Nativity of the Lord, let us remember the incredible truth revealed in the Mystery which we will celebrate, there was a Redeemer in the Womb. The Incarnate Word became one of us, at every stage. In fact, Jesus was an “embryonic person”, to use the salient phrase taken from this newest Vatican document, and is forever identified with all embryonic persons.
Thank God for the Catholic Church, Defender and Champion of Life.