The National Catholic Review
A new instruction on bioethics from the Vatican
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In his dystopian novel, That Hideous Strength (1945), the late C. S. Lewis embodied his fears for humanity’s fate in the hands of an unprincipled science in the N.I.C.E. (National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments) and its nominal leader, “The Head,” the decapitated head of an executed French scientist, that served as the spokesman for evil spirits (eldila). As in his famous essay “The Abolition of Man,” Lewis’s concern was for the loss of genuine humanity to unscrupulous scientific invention, which in the novel consists in the suppression of natural human affections.

Science Outpaces Morality

For many years, I thought that Lewis was a better theologian of the moral life than he was a moralist because of his curmudgeonly opposition to modernity and his fear of science. He may have lacked the subtlety in moral matters required of a moral theologian or the penetrating insight of a spiritual director, though The Screwtape Letters showed him astute about the varieties of evil; but his grasp of the dangers inherent in the technological manipulation of human life has proved prophetic. Louise Brown, the first child conceived by in vitro fertilization, is now 30 years old. Among the affluent a market has grown up in double and sometimes triple, side-by-side baby carriages to convey the twins and triplets born to older parents through in vitro technology. Animal cloning, surrogate motherhood, even male pregnancy are realities. Stem cell research is advancing quickly, and experimental therapies using products of stem-cell generation are already being tested. In a vexing development, the British government this year approved experimental development of human-animal hybrids. Human beings are threatened with becoming the instruments of utility and desire.

Scientific advances take place almost faster than law and ethics can keep up. And in some cases, like embryonic stem cell research, popular and special-interest agitation seems to be willfully antinomian, attempting to violate moral norms out of sheer defiance, even though adult stem cells already provide a proven and reliable source of biological material for research and therapy. Even more than at the dawn of genetic revolution a generation ago, serious discussion is needed among scientists, ethicists, theologians and lawyers. Innovations like bioethics centers, institutional review boards and the President’s Council on Bioethics have failed to hold back the flood of ethically problematic biotechnologies and produce serious public examination of evolving technologies. A pragmatic attitude—“What we can do we must do”—has captured the media, the public and elites, especially in the field of law.

Dignitas Personae

Into this morally anarchic environment comes a new instruction on bioethical issues affecting the beginnings of life from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of a Person, released Dec. 12). Addressed to “the Catholic faithful and to all who seek the truth,” it will most profitably be studied by physicians, biologists (especially embryologists), geneticists, philosophical ethicists and moral theologians because of the technical scientific problems it addresses and the dry philosophical language it employs. But its significance for addressing the watershed we are crossing in the scientific control of human nature should not be underestimated.

The instruction reminds readers that the Catholic tradition favors science and supports endeavors that improve the human condition. It shares the evaluation that “science [is] an invaluable service to the integral good of the life and dignity of every human being.” It encourages the participation of Catholics in scientific research and the progress of biomedicine, expressing special hope that the benefits of research will be shared with the afflicted in poor regions of the world. While the document is primarily concerned with problematic innovations in biomedicine, it commends the contribution of contemporary science in advancing knowledge of the beginning stages of life. Furthermore, it regards new developments as “positive and worthy of support when they serve to overcome or correct pathologies and succeed in re-establishing the normal functioning of human procreation.” Its criticism and condemnation falls on those developments that “involve the destruction of human beings” and on techniques that “contradict the dignity of the person” or are employed contrary “to the integral good of man.”

The Argument

The twin piers of the instruction’s argument are familiar from the moral teaching of Pope John Paul II and the congregation’s previous instruction, Donum Vitae (1988): (1) “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception,” and (2) “The origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and in the family,” and so responsible procreation must be “the fruit of marriage.” The text is strong, and sometimes eloquent, in expounding its insistence upon respect for the human person in every stage of its development and in whatever natural condition (of ability or disability). It reminds the reader, however, that the role of the magisterium in declaring its moral judgments is not to intervene in medical science, but rather to call “everyone to ethical and social responsibility for their actions.”

The first chapter of the instruction lays out the suppositions about human life and procreation taken from “anthropology,” i.e., the philosophy of human nature, ethics and theology. The following section addresses issues related to conception, in vitro fertilization and allied techniques; and a third takes up genetic engineering, commenting on gene therapy, stem cell research and hybridization. It is not possible here to list all the issues reviewed in the instruction or to summarize all its turns of argument. What I present are some highlights of greater public and pastoral interest. Those interested in reading the full document can find it online at www.americamagazine.org.

Selected Topics

The instruction’s treatment of in vitro fertilization re-applies the teaching of Donum Vitae and elaborates it with regard to recent medical developments. Briefly put, conception must take place as a result of the conjugal act, so only techniques that aid sexual intercourse and its fertility are licit. The document encourages adoption for infertile couples and research to prevent sterility, and it deplores the destruction of embryos that takes place as a matter of course during in vitro fertilization. Furthermore, it regards the freezing of embryos in connection with in vitro fertilization as weakening respect for the human person. Finally, it explicitly rejects intracytoplasmic sperm injection (I.C.S.I.) as a technical intervention by a third party in what ought to be a fully interpersonal act between spouses.

With respect to genetic engineering, the instruction approves of strictly therapeutic interventions to bring an individual to normal functioning, so-called “somatic cell gene therapy,” but it prudently judges so-called “germ-line cell therapies” aimed at correcting an abnormality not only in the patient but also in his or her offspring as morally impermissible for the present, because the risks are considerable and the technique not fully controllable. The congregation opposes nontherapeutic or eugenic uses of genetic engineering to improve the gene pool through the selection or elimination of inherited traits. These, it says, favor the preferences of some over the will of others and, as the example of Nazism has shown, are notoriously liable to ideological taint.

Rejecting the use of embryonic stem cells, it recognizes as licit the use of stem cells taken from adults, from umbilical cords and from fetuses who have died of natural causes. Clinical use of stem cells from these sources is morally permissible; and “research initiatives involving the use of adult stem cells, since they do not present ethical problems” are encouraged. Human cloning is rejected because it does not proceed from sexual union and because it violates the dignity of the unique individual person. Therapeutic cloning, moreover, is regarded as especially heinous in that creating “embryos with the intention of destroying them, even with the intention of helping the sick, is completely incompatible with human dignity.” It would make one human being a means to the end of health and life for another.

Reaching Postmodern Minds

The instruction’s subject matter is technical. It offers a sustained and serious treatment of vital problems. Just as the sciences have their own languages, so moral theology needs technical terminology and patterns of argument. The problems the congregation addresses are pressing; but the obstacles to communication are great. The language of natural law has limited power today to turn back the tide of technological transgression we face. Pastorally, the church needs to find an improved rhetoric to engage the postmodern mind, and in its apologetics it must experiment with varied genres of persuasion to affect the fluid imaginations of the Digital Age. Who will be the C. S. Lewis for our day, defending human nature and celebrating the Christian vision of life for the 21st century?

Drew Christiansen, S.J. is editor in chief of America.

Comments

Sues Krebs | 2/13/2009 - 11:18am
In accepting some medical advances that prolong life and improve health, we have to antiscipate some scientific explorations will miss the mark. In terms of fertitility issues, there are many couples out there that would be denied the right to raise children or give birth personally to children because nature needed a little help. Not all advances in this area are such horrible ideas. Of course that doesn't mean that all advances in science are a great idea but in order to gain what we do from science, we have to accept some foly in the name of advancement.
Christopher Powers | 12/29/2008 - 5:57pm
Dear Fr. Christensen, I read with great interest and prayerful thanksgiving your consummate article on the recent Vatican document Dignitas Personae. I am currently serving as an active duty military physician and the biomedical ethics chair at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, TX. I frequently work in and around the intensive care unit. I can personnally attest to many wide and varied clinical cases requesting ethics committee consultation and involving very challenging ethical and moral dilemmas. The Catholic Church has been a beacon of light in providing guidance and moral authority to many of the critical biomedical ethical issues surrounding end of life care. I can personnally attest to tremendous graces received in my own efforts to care for and support my medical patient's at all stages of their natural life. I have felt that my Catholic faith has clearly been a source of these graces through the Church's teaching to respect the dignity of every human person at every biological stage of life. I continue to pray that all those seeking the truth and who work in the broad field of medicine would thoughtfully and prayerfully consider the recommendations made in this timely document.
ROBERT MCNULTY | 12/26/2008 - 2:50pm
The church has always taught that it is possession of an immortal soul that separates us from other creation. The teaching on when God infuses this soul has varied. Aquinas taught that it was abiut four months, as do the Muslims today. If God infuses a soul at conception, what happens if twinning occurs six days later? The Anglicans hold that the soul enters at implantation when there is no further possibility of twinning. Is the Vatican (and USSCCB) headed for another Galileo case?
David Pasinski | 12/21/2008 - 6:39pm
Michael Binder's remarks resonate with my experience of the nexus of the holy self-giving and of the passion of human sexuality. The poetry of the human sexual experience can never be separated from its animality. This is not a degrading judgment, but a fact of nature and "natural law" that I'm not sure can be explained adequately at all and surely not by a panel of celibates any more than than a panel of married persons could wax poetically and authenticallt about the celibate experience of a single celibate life commitment dedicated to contemplation and service.
Michael Bindner | 12/17/2008 - 10:18am
The sexual ideal represented in the Congregations's statement is beautiful poetry and idealism. Human sexuality is far more ambiguous, however. While the goal of all sexuality being focused around married conjugal love open to the creation of life is very poetic, there is a point when one must distinguish a poetic aesthetic from natural reasoning, which must be more firmly based in reality then can ever be provided by a celibate Curia which formally held that one cannot say Mass or receive the Eucharist for a period after engaging in conjugal relations. The CDF must be more open to the sciences of both embryology and human sexual behavior to recapture any kind of teaching credibility with what is now a much better educated Catholic populace.
Chris Sullivan | 12/14/2008 - 10:07pm
I think the "improved rhetoric" is the language of social justice, which the document to its credit does touch on at the end. I'm sure there are opportunities to explain this teaching in a social justice framework, one of concern for the poor and the powerless. God Bless
Michael Bindner | 12/14/2008 - 5:07pm
Regarding the Congregation's statement, I don't think my wife and I would ever have considered in vitro, mostly because we could not have afforded it. We were eventually blessed with a child conceived the natural way. To get to that point, we did need invasive testing and therapies and frankly, there is little difference between the degree of clinical involvement required for that and full scale in vitro therapy. If egalitarianism in access to such therapies is of concern, the proper course is not to denounce them, but to call for insurance coverage for all who require them to have a child, as well as a living wage so that all may afford as many children as they wish to raise or adopt. It is mildly ironic that elitism is cited in this area, while rich families are going to Russia, Asia and Africa to adopt infants. I agree that eugenics is a slippery slope, however I do not share the life concerns for the blastocyst propounded by the Congregation. I suspect that embryologists would agree with me on this issue, as prior to implantation and gastrulation, the blastocyst shows no directed development or organization beyond cleavage into many cells and the separation of the stem cells from the chorion, which will become the afterbirth. Stem cells in the blastocyst and the eventual adult stem cells are not ontologically different. There is no organism to protect at this stage. While there are practical concerns to stem cell research, owing mostly to the poor quality of most embryonic stem cells (many of which would never be viable in the normal course), the moral concerns are overblown. Until the Congregation deals honestly with the status of the blastocyst, instead of starting with the goal of affirming prior doctrine, its other concerns will not be given serious weight by professionals or Catholics in search of alternate therapies.
Gabriel Austin | 12/13/2008 - 3:12pm
You ask "Who will be the C. S. Lewis for our day, defending human nature and celebrating the Christian vision of life for the 21st century?". Is this not what we poor sheep expect of our bishops, our clergy, even of members of the Society of Jesus?

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