Tag Archives: Christian Brugger

Three controversial bioethical questions

Christian Brugger explores the complex world of bioethics in the 21st century . . .

Christian Brugger

Christian Brugger1

Imagine you’re an official with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and you receive a memo from the Holy Father asking for your ethical opinion on three innovations in the field of bioethics.

The first concerns a variation of in vitro fertilization (IVF) to help patients potentially to overcome the debilitating effects of mitochondrial DNA (m-DNA) disease. But in order to gain these benefits, IVF embryos need to be created using the biological material from three parents. The second technique uses stem cells from human fingernails and toenails to help amputees grow new limbs, and the third involves growing human organs inside a pig.

Your initial response is a combination of fascination and repugnance. But you don’t want to jump to any conclusions because of the “yuck factor.” Nor do you want to naively approve morally objectionable techniques. Realizing that not all bioethical techniques are created equal, you critique each using principles of Catholic morality.

Three parent” embryos. Because it uses a form of IVF, you already know it’s ethically objectionable. IVF transmutes the begetting of new human life from the context of self-giving in marital intercourse to the making of an object by a laboratory technique.

But you suspect the grounds for objection stretch even wider. The technique can be performed in two ways. In the first, a woman who suffers from m-DNA disease has one of her oocytes (eggs) engineered to remove all infected m-DNA. That m-DNA exists only in her egg’s cytoplasm, not in its nucleus. Another egg, from a donor, with an uninfected cytoplasm is needed. Two eggs: one with “good” cytoplasm, one with a “good” nucleus are combined, and the resulting egg is fertilized with male sperm. A human being comes into existence who allegedly doesn’t suffer from m-DNA disease.

There are several problems with this. First, we don’t know if this would cure the disease. Moreover, transferring an egg nucleus is complicated and would take many trials to perfect. Further, we could not possibly be sure of the long-term effects on human development. Thus it would subject embryos — human beings — to the risk of grave developmental harm. Finally, the genetic composition of the embryo derives from “three parents.” This fact is part of the embryo’s identity and so will be an important part of the future adult’s self-understanding. Parentage confusion from this technique has been greatly minimized by some bioethicists, but shouldn’t be dismissed.

Since human dignity is violated in this situation, you decide to advise the Holy Father to oppose the technique and to back forms of research that do not destroy human beings or subject them to unreasonable risk of physical and psychological harm.

Nail stem cells. The cells used in the second type of research are adult stem cells harvested from human fingernails and toenails. You know that adult stem cell research is — in principle — morally unproblematic, so you examine the research with interest. You learn that in both mice and humans, the regeneration of an amputated digit involves the activity of stem cells found in the nails.

Studies have shown that if an amputation removes the nail stem cells, no regeneration of the corresponding digit occurs. If the nail stem cells remain, regrowth can occur. The technique’s principle requires learning how nail stem cells are biochemically signaled to regenerate limbs. If that can be understood more fully, then researchers might be able to artificially signal the cells from amputees to grow them new limbs. You decide to advise the Holy Father to cautiously support further research into the matter.

Pig incubators. The third technology involves injecting a human stem cell into a pig embryo that’s been genetically engineered not to develop a certain kind of internal organ (e.g., a pancreas). The embryo is then transferred into the uterus of a female pig to develop to birth; the developing pig develops with a human organ!

The technique at first sounds benign, sort of like using a pig’s body as a kind of incubator to grow human organs. But you learn that the human stem cell injected into the pig embryo does not merely develop into a human organ. Human cells incorporate randomly and in unknown proportions throughout the developing organism.

In other words, the technique produces a human-pig chimera, which may even generate human rather than porcine sperm and possess a significant percentage of human brain matter. Although organs might be prompted to grow, the problematic nature of creating human-non-human organisms leads you to recommend against supporting further research using this technique.

CHRISTIAN BRUGGER, PH.D., is the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colo.

The Year of Faith and the Christian moral life

Christian Brugger explains why the Year of Faith, which marks Veritatis Splendor‘s 20th anniversary, calls for a renewed effort to evangelize. Pope Benedict, he says, is aware of the loss of Christian faith in formerly Christian Europe and the Americas. For years he’s been saying that Europe’s loss of faith spells the ultimate end of its culture . . . .

Christian Brugger

Christian Brugger

A comment on the New York Times’ website is rather telling: “I am tired of the Catholic bishops interfering” (11/24/12). The writer was worked up over the Wisconsin bishops’ statement issued last July criticizing a new type of living will for fear it might open the way for passive euthanasia.

People don’t seem to care much about the doctrines of Catholic faith. Unlike in the fourth or 15th century, beliefs such as the two natures of Christ or the power to confer the sacraments don’t elicit much protest. But the Church’s stance on moral issues brings out the fight in people: Keep your religion to yourself; get your hands off my body parts; stay out of my bedroom, etc. Catholics are told that they oppose “marriage equality,” that they wage “war on women,” and that they “condemn people to die from AIDS.” Moral issues are the battlegrounds of our age.

We’ve just begun the Holy Year of Faith. It’s called “holy” because its purpose is to encourage holiness among Christians. Holiness is more than professing beliefs, even true beliefs. Holiness is the integration of all one’s thoughts, plans and actions around the truths of the Christian faith so that our whole person expresses and serves charity. We might say that holiness is living faith — faith perspicuously and coherently alive in action.

But what is faith? Faith, the Catechism teaches, is our response to divine revelation. Divine revelation is God’s self-communication to humanity — God’s gift of himself to us. Through this gift, he invites us into a personal salvific relationship with himself.

Faith is our acceptance of God’s invitation. Our acceptance has two chief dimensions: a cognitive one and a moral one. The cognitive one — believing in the truths of revelation — is responsible for shaping our understanding of reality, how we think. The moral one is responsible for shaping how we live our lives in light of reality. It includes all the implications of the truths of faith for Christian living.

Faith and life. It sounds simple. And yet the temptation to separate the two, to detach what we believe from how we live, is strong. When he observed that temptation increasing in the Western world 20 years ago, Pope John Paul II issued his great encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor (1993). The Pope wrote the document in response to the raging crisis of dissent from the Church’s authoritative moral teaching in Europe and North America. Traditional norms in sexual ethics and the ethics of human life were being systematically denied by large numbers of Catholic theologians, including those teaching at Catholic universities and seminaries.

In the encyclical’s first chapter, John Paul reflects on the dialogue between Jesus and the rich young man in Matthew 19, reasserting the inseparable connection between faith and life. Jesus says to the young man who wishes to know what he should do to gain eternal life: “Go, sell all your possessions and give them to the poor, then come follow me.” John Paul notes that Jesus here inextricably links discipleship to conduct.

He then goes on to write, “The Church is in fact a communion both of faith and life; her rule of life is ‘faith working through love.’ No damage must be done to the harmony between faith and life.” He then warns: “The unity of the Church is damaged not only by Christians who reject or distort the truths of faith, but also by those who disregard the moral obligations to which they are called by the Gospel” (# 26). Authentic Christian faith always expresses itself in a Christian way of life.

Pope Benedict XVI is well aware of the fact that the Year of Faith coincides with the 20th anniversary of Veritatis Splendor’s publication. He is also keenly aware of the loss of Christian faith in formerly Christian Europe and the Americas. For many years he’s been saying that Europe’s loss of Christian faith spells the demise of the continent’s 1,500-year-old culture. When a people loses its faith, the culture that their faith built goes with it.

There are two types of holy years — ordinary and extraordinary. An extraordinary holy year marks some outstanding event or theme; an ordinary one marks the passage of years. The Year of Faith is an extraordinary holy year. And extraordinary it is! The post-Christian Western world badly needs extraordinary grace to throw off the fatal mistress of disbelief with whom she’s danced now for over a century.

More than ever we need to pray for the new evangelization!

E. Christian Brugger is the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. He is also a Senior Fellow in Ethics and Director of the Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, D.C.