December 9, 2004
Superman is dead. The man. Actor Christopher Reeve first soared through the air in the 1978 Superman film, then through three other films and finally through life after his tragic 1995 accident. He died October 10, 2004. The man died. Not the myth. Superman is one of our day’s most enduring icons. Superman was created in Cleveland in January, 1933. But it took five years of hard labor to get him into print. Just sheer human effort. From the first days he flew across the printed page in 1938, Superman evolved. At first, a crass individual with super powers. Then, as he soared higher and higher through the golden age of radio, off the comic book pages and onto the silver screen, Superman emerged in the imagination of America as a protector of "Truth, Justice, and the American way." Come from Krypton, he is more than human. Herein his fascinating appeal. Superman embodies a striving within us for extraordinary power over the forces that threaten us. He enkindles a dream that we can overcome the limits of this world into which we mere mortals have been born. Not an unfounded desire.
Genesis teaches that we are made “in the image and likeness of God” (
Gen 1:26). Of the earth, we are more than matter. God breathes into us a living soul that elevates us above all creatures. Into our hands, he has entrusted a share in his dominion over creation. As truly human, we have the capacity to transcend matter. We are challenged to humanize the world in which we live. As co-operators with God, we are gifted with reason and intelligence that make us stand in wonder before the gift of creation itself. It is precisely this wonder that led ancient philosophers to reflect on the meaning of our existence and modern scientists to uncover the secrets of our world.
In the Second Vatican Council’s magna carta of human dignity, the Church reaffirmed, “Indeed whoever labors to penetrate the secrets of reality with a humble and steady mind, even though he is unaware of the fact, is nevertheless being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence, and gives them their identity” (
Gaudium et Spes, 26). Today we are being swept away in a flood of new discoveries and exuberant promises to move beyond present limits by curing diseases and extending life. If we are to fulfill the role God has given us in shaping His world, we must first acknowledge the truth that we receive from His hands a world that He creates, a world that slowly unfolds its mysteries and calls us to share in its truth.
Like the death of former president Ronald Reagan, Superman’s death refocused attention on a hotly debated issue tossed about in the media--stem cell research. Many are claiming that the cures for Alzheimer’s and other debilitating diseases are right before us in this research. Not to mention the enormous financial gains for those who obtain rights for this work. We need clarity on this issue.
There are two potential sources for stem cell research. Adult stem cells can be taken from the umbilical cord blood, the bone marrow and other tissues. Embryonic stem cells can come from human embryos. Adult stem cells have been used for years and with success for the healing of various tissues and organs, particularly hearts damaged by myocardial infarction. Adult stem cells continue to hold out promise for diseases such as diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders. By contrast, embryonic stem cell research has not yet produced a single unqualified therapeutic success. But the issue is deeper than success and failure. It centers on the question of what exactly is a human embryo created in a laboratory and then disaggregated for experimentation, research and the possible cure of another person.
Life begins at conception. Science itself has discovered this great mystery of our beginning. It has unraveled some of God’s plan. Science tells us that, in that very small beginning of the human embryo, everything about the person’s development is already present. Whether conception takes place naturally between a husband and a wife exchanging the gift of human sexuality or whether it happens cold and clinically in a test tube, at conception, the embryo exists. It is human. It is alive. It is human life! Beyond the fact that there have been exactly zero cures from embryonic stem cell research, there is the more pressing question: Do we have a right to produce human life and then dissect and destroy human life for any good?
The Church’s concern for health care needs no proof. The Catholic Church provides the largest network of hospitals and health care facilities in the world! And this precisely because the Church recognizes the dignity of every person, even at the weakest and most vulnerable stages of life. In his World Day of Peace Message, January 1, 2001, the Holy Father put it clearly and succinctly, “Human life cannot be seen as an object to do with as we please, but as the most sacred and inviolable earthly reality…” It is repugnant to generate new human life and at the same time plan its demise to cure other human beings. It places human life in servitude for the convenience of those who are stronger.
“Earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God” (
Gaudium et Spes, 26). This December 8
th, the Church celebrates the 150
th anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. This truth from divine revelation can strengthen our understanding of a truth from science. From the very first moment of her conception, Mary was preserved free from original sin. Hippolytus (d. 236) insisted on Mary’s perfect innocence because of the holiness of Him whom she begot. Mary gave the Messiah his humanity. He was without sin; she too, was immaculate (
Apud Theoderetum, in dialogo Eranistes, PG 10, 610). From the beginning of her human life, she was already saved by the grace of God. The Mother of the Redeemer was the first person redeemed by the Redeemer so that she would be a worthy dwelling place for the Incarnation of the Son of God. If God himself paid such respect to the very beginning of human life even before the person was able to respond, so should we. In fact, the more we co-operate with His plan for the creation and salvation of the world, the more we remain open to God who gifts us with the supernatural gift of eternal life and allows us to truly transcend this world.
O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.