By Cardinal Justin Rigali

In an Address which Pope Benedict XVI gave to a group of young people, he spoke of the challenge presented by a “widespread prejudice that Christianity, with its commandments and prohibitions, sets too many obstacles in the path of the joy of love and, in particular, prevents people from fully enjoying the happiness that men and women find in their love for one another.” “On the contrary,” the Holy Father went on to say, “Christian faith and ethics do not wish to stifle love but to make it healthy, strong and truly free: this is the exact meaning of the Ten Commandments, which are not a series of “noes” but a great “yes” to love and to life” (Address to the Participants at the Ecclesial Convention of the Diocese of Rome, 5 June 2006).

These words of our Holy Father place the Instruction, issued last week by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the expressed approval of the Pope, in its proper setting. This Instruction, released on December 12, represents the Church’s pastoral response to new bioethical questions that have arisen as a result of recent biomedical research. It is appropriately called: Dignitas Personae, the “Dignity of the Person,” because its primary concern and overriding theme is the preservation of this dignity.

An issue open to the understanding of all people
In proclaiming the dignity of the human person in the many circumstances in which this dignity needs to be defended, the Church does not merely wish to address what may be considered Catholic or internal, disciplinary issues. Since the dignity of the person is so fundamental and has its foundation in creation itself, in this document the Church “draws upon the light both of reason and of faith and seeks to set forth an integral vision of man and his vocation, capable of incorporating everything that is good in human activity, as well as in various cultural and religious traditions which not infrequently demonstrate a great reverence for life” (Dignitas Personae, 3).

We all know from our own human experiences that it is often easier to say “yes” to our immediate desires than to reflect upon them with all the ramifications of our “yes” or “no.”

Many of us had the experience as children of accusing our parents of not loving us because they would not allow us to do something that we wanted to do at the moment, or something which everyone else was doing. A loving parent in that situation must point out, according to the understanding of the son or daughter and with great love, the greater significance of what the child is asking for and its ramifications.

As adult Christians we are certainly not to be treated as children but in this area of scientific progress, which the Church embraces, encourages and exalts, there is the danger that we will look to a momentary promise without seeing the long‑term ramifications upon the dignity of the human person. This is especially true when issues are accompanied by great emotion.

Fundamental principles
I am sure that it is no mere coincidence that this Instruction was issued on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, just a few days after the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and two weeks before the celebration of Christmas. All of these feasts proclaim the reality of human life from the moment of conception and the great dignity of the human person.

When our Lady chose to appear in the Americas, she chose Juan Diego, a humble, simple man to whom she would reveal her love and the promises of her Son. She did not choose to appear to someone who was important and powerful and in this way silently proclaimed the dignity of every person. The fact that the Christian faithful have always believed that Mary was free from all stain of sin in the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, reflects our awareness of the beginning of life from that first moment.

Finally, the Eternal Word of God, taking flesh in the sinless womb of the Virgin Mary and coming among us as the Baby we will receive with great tenderness at Christmas, proclaims the basic truths about when life begins and its great worth in the sight of our heavenly Father.

These are the basic principles that the first part of this new Instruction teaches. Specifically: “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” (Instruction, 4). While we welcome the marvelous technological advances of science, they must always have this concept as their fundamental principle in order to be valid and truly good for the human person and for society.

Man and woman coming together in love to continue the work of creation
When we keep in mind our God and Father as the source of life, lovingly willing each person who comes into existence, we come to a great awareness of the sublime vocation of husband and wife, who are called to share in that very act of loving creation. When seen as a sharing in the internal love of the Most Blessed Trinity, we can better understand the exalted nature of the loving commitment of a man and woman within marriage and their sharing in creation by conceiving children in love. It is within this context that the Instruction addresses issues concerning procreation. The desire to bring children into the world is most natural, beautiful and praiseworthy.

When there are issues concerning fertility, science can be a great help in aiding a loving couple who are having difficulty in conceiving. However, while “techniques which act as an aid to the conjugal act and its fertility are permitted” (n. 12) it must always be affirmed that any procedure or assistance involved “respects the dignity of the persons when it seeks to assist the conjugal act either in order to facilitate its performance or in order to enable it to achieve its objective once it has been normally performed” (n. 12).

In vitro (in a test tube or similar device) fertilization is addressed in a particular way in this document we are discussing. It is pointed out that in all recent techniques of in vitro fertilization “the number of embryos sacrificed is extremely high” (n. 14) and “embryos produced in vitro which have defects are directly discarded” because an increasing number of couples “are using artificial means of procreation in order to engage in genetic selection of their offspring. Although many embryos are produced in vitro, as many as 80 percent of them are destroyed, implying a purely utilitarian treatment of embryos” (n. 15).

I would like to quote this summary taken from the document: “The blithe acceptance of the enormous number of abortions involved in the process of in vitro fertilization vividly illustrates how the replacement of the conjugal act by a technical procedure leads to a weakening of the respect owed to every human being. Recognition of such respect is, on the other hand, promoted by the intimacy of husband and wife nourished by married love. God’s love does not differentiate between the newly conceived infant still in his or her mother’s womb and the child or young person, or the adult and the elderly person” (n. 16). Although the important issues concerning the reduction of embryos in the womb, the procedure in which unwanted embryos implanted in the womb are directly exterminated because they are too numerous, and gene therapy and human cloning are also covered in this document we are discussing, I would like to summarize another aspect of the Instruction: the therapeutic use of stem cells.

Stem cell research
One of the most harmful and unjust accusations that is sometimes leveled against the Catholic Church is that she is against stem cell research. In the Gospels, Jesus cures the man who is unable to walk; for centuries the Church has run hospitals and institutions for the physically challenged; shrines such as Lourdes and Fatima are filled with crutches and braces attesting to the miracles worked by God in those places.

Why would the Church be against a scientific practice that held great promise to cure people of their paralysis and other physical ills? It is the method of obtaining these cells that sometimes presents a problem. When tissues are taken from a living person (adult stem cells), from the blood of the umbilical cord at the time of birth or from fetuses who have died of natural causes, we are not presented with any ethical problem. In fact, many studies have shown that adult stem cells give more positive results than embryonic stem cells.

However, “the obtaining of stem cells from a living human embryo invariably causes the death of the embryo and is consequently gravely illicit. In this case, research is not truly at the service of humanity, in fact it advances through the suppression of human lives that are equal in dignity to the lives of other human inspaniduals and to the lives of the researchers themselves” (n. 32). History should have taught us by now the slippery moral slope we begin to descend when we justify an immoral means in order to bring about what we perceive at a given point in history to be beneficial.

This has obviously been a very brief summary of just some of the points addressed in Dignitas Personae. My intention has been to draw your attention to it and deepen your desire to study it further. I know that this newspaper, your own parishes and the guidance of your parish priests will continue to put forth the teaching of this important document in all its beauty and practical application.

18 December 2008