January 22, 2009
As the United States receives with great enthusiasm its 44
th President, great hopes have been ignited and expectations have risen to a fever pitch. The country is poised for change. But not all change is progress. Not all change is good.
In the recent presidential election, the economy no doubt was the single most important issue that opened the door of the White House for our first African-American President. Nonetheless, other important issues that touch the very meaning of life and the fundamental structure of society are at stake. In fact, this week’s remembrance of the 1973 Supreme Court
Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion is a jarring reminder of the urgent need to protect the life of the unborn without hesitation.
Even before his inauguration, the new President faced opposition for selecting a pro-life and pro-marriage minister to lead prayer. In response, the newly elected President enlisted New Hampshire Episcopalian openly gay bishop to deliver the prayer at the opening of the first inaugural ceremony that the President-elect was to attend at the Lincoln Memorial. His action was more than a simple acquiescence to a minority group.
Given the cultural climate in our country today, we should expect, in the days ahead, a strong push for unrestricted abortion, same-sex marriages, embryonic stem cell research and the removal of the freedom of conscience for those who object. Speaking to the Roman Curia just three days before this past Christmas, Pope Benedict XVI offered a way to contextualize some of these issues that confront us as Catholics at this crossroads moment of our national history.
The Pope spoke of the Church’s responsibility to protect the created world. And, he included man within that world created by God. The Pope coined a new phrase to capture this truth. He said, “It is necessary that there be something such as an
ecology of man…The Church must protect not only the earth, the water and the air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. It must also protect man against self-destruction. The tropical forests certainly deserve our protection, but man as a creature does not deserve any less.”
No doubt the Pope was echoing the truths affirmed in an instruction issued just days before by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. On December 12, 2008, the Holy See issued the instruction
Dignitas Personae. The document examines many new scientific technologies that deal with the question of human life. This was not the first time the Church has offered serious reflection of these matters. Previously, the Vatican issued
Donum Vitae (1987)
, Veritatis Splendor (1993)
and Evangelium Vitae (1995).
Each of these statements reaffirms the dignity of all human beings and the dignity of procreation itself in the face of techniques developed through biomedical investigation. The new document
Dignitas Personae addresses issues such as infertility treatments, morning-after pills, embryo experimentation and stem cell therapies. It not only continues the consistent teaching of the Church on these matters but also takes up such new issues as human cloning and hybrid embryos (embryos created from animals and humans together).
The methods and procedures of biomedical research are not just medical questions. They are moral questions. They are also political issues. How society responds to these new biomedical technologies will determine the future of family life as well as human life itself.
Dignitas Personae enunciates two principles that are the basis of a true “
ecology of man.” The first is the respect due to every human person. “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life” (n. 4).
The dignity of a person is not conditioned on properties such as conscious reasoning or the ability to be productive. These are unequally shared by individuals. All human beings have equal rights from the fundamental fact that they are human and alive. If this principle is not safeguarded, then there is no basis for respecting the equal and inalienable rights of any person.
The second principle that
Personae gives as the basis for the true “
ecology of man” is the natural order of creation itself. In the natural order, man and woman are made to complement and fulfill one another as husband and wife in order to bring other persons into the world. Thus, “the origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and in the family, where it is generated through an act which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman. Procreation, which is truly responsible vis-à-vis the child to be born, must be the fruit of marriage” (n. 6).
On the basis of these two principles, the instruction explains why such technologies as
in-vitro fertilization, embryonic stem cell research (not adult stem cell research), human cloning, morning-after pills that act as an abortifacient, and the adoption of frozen embryos are morally wrong. The instruction recognizes that science can do much good for human life. But it also balances its praise of science by insisting on the right use of science and technology. The new instruction reaffirms the value and the dignity of the human person: something most needed today.
The ancient Stoics as well as the Founding Fathers of the United States held to the fundamental principle of human dignity when they spoke of the inalienable rights of every individual. The United Nations’
Universal Declaration on Human Rights explains that the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
Dignitas Personae defends the recognition of this principle in the most inclusive way.
As Pope Benedict XVI remarked in his Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia, unless we “listen to the language of creation, we end up with destruction of the work of God.” In a social climate poised to downgrade the dignity of the human person, Catholics cannot remain a silent majority. In fact, a Catholic who has voted to put in office any politician who works against the dignity of the human person has an added moral obligation to work strenuously to protect life at all its stages and to uphold the created order of marriage as a union of man and woman.
This is the second article on Dignitas Personae