Tag Archives: Donum Vitae

God’s plan for marriage and family

We’ve encountered a brave new world of sci-fi and moved into an absurd reality. . .

Dr. John Haas

Dr. John Haas

There really shouldn’t be a need for the Vatican to produce a document explaining what marriage is and how babies come to be. However, we live in a world which can no longer see reality for what it is. I once listened to a week of lectures on human sexuality by an Anglican theologian from Cambridge. Never once did he mention children in relation to sex.

When I asked him at the end of his fifth lecture why he had never mentioned children in relation to human sexuality, he declared, “My good man, you can’t expect me to cover everything in a week!” No. Not everything. But how about the reason why God created sex in the first place?!

Another time I was having lunch with a “Catholic” homosexual activist who wanted to legalize gay “marriage.” He expressed the desire to have children and a family. Finally I said, “Look, don’t you think God has a plan for the way children should be brought into the world and a family established?” “Well, I used to,” he replied. He may have called himself a Catholic, but he was in fact a nonbeliever. If God doesn’t have a plan for the way in which he wants the crown of his creation to be brought into the world, it’s hard to imagine his having a plan for anything.

Dignitas Personae (DP), the Vatican document issued last December, deals fundamentally with bioethical issues at the beginning of life. It reminds us that God does indeed have a plan for human procreation and families.

The Church was compelled to provide this teaching in our day when a woman will carry in her womb a child engendered by her husband’s sperm and her sister’s (or a stranger’s) egg; when parents will engender their children in a glass dish, perform genetic tests on those embryonic children, and then destroy the ones who are the wrong sex; when human beings will be brought into being in glass dishes for the sole purpose of being experimented upon and then destroyed; when over 500,000 embryonic human beings are frozen in liquid nitrogen.

We have encountered the brave new world of science fiction and moved beyond it into an absurd reality. In the face of these countless assaults on the dignity of husbands and wives, the institution of marriage, and helpless embryonic human beings, the Church tries to pull us back to reality.

When Dignitas Personae speaks of the dignity of human persons, it does so squarely in the context of marriage. “The origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and the family, where it is generated in an act which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman” (DP I.6). There is a profound truth to the saying that when a husband and wife make love, they do not make babies. The marital act is not a manufacturing process and children are not the product.

A husband and wife express their love for one another physically, emotionally and spiritually in the marital act, and that act may or may not be blessed with the gift of life. In Latin, the gift of life is Donum Vitae, the name of the 1987 Vatican document which analyzed the ethics of various means of overcoming infertility. Donum Vitae (DV) taught that any attempt to overcome infertility which replaced the personal loving act of a husband and wife was immoral.

Such attempts at engendering children by eliminating the marital embrace have invariably led to children being treated as manufactured products, subject to quality control and liable to destruction if they do not meet sufficiently high standards.

In vitro fertilization takes place in a glass dish. The healthiest ones are chosen for implantation; the others discarded. If too many to be carried safely take hold in the uterus, the weakest are killed. If a surrogate mother who has been artificially inseminated by a “contracting” couple is carrying a defective baby, the “contracting” couple can order her to abort it. If she does not, the contract is voided, and she’s left with the financial responsibility of raising the child. The child’s father, who artificially inseminated the “surrogate” mother, would subsequently have no legal or financial obligations vis-à-vis the child or the mother. When one departs from God’s plan for marriage and family, there is suffering and injustice.

Dignitas Personae is careful about how it refers to the act of bringing a human being into the world. Human beings do not reproduce. Lower animals do that. Human beings procreate — they co-create with God. They do not act alone!

Such cooperation with God bestows a supernatural quality on the actions of our souls and bodies in the marital bed. This is not a mere human activity, but a divine one. “By taking the interrelationship of these two dimensions, the human and the divine, as the starting point, one understands better why it is that man has unassailable value: He possesses an eternal vocation and is called to share in the Trinitarian love of the living God” (DP I.8). God has a plan. Follow it.

John M. Haas is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and founding president of the International Institute for Culture. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

The moment of personhood

Dr. Edward Furton writes that the Catholic Church has always condemned abortion . . .

Dr. Edward Furton

Has anyone ever told you that the Catholic Church does not teach that the human soul is infused into the body at conception? Would you be shocked to learn that this is pretty much true? The Church holds that a “human being” begins at conception, but you will not find any official Vatican statement asserting that there is a “human person” at conception.

Regardless of whether or not a person is present from conception, the Church has always condemned abortion. The sacredness of human life remains inviolable. But it is easy to see why those who are hostile to Catholic teaching would want to use this “loop hole” to argue that human embryos do not really deserve protection.

Donum Vitae (DV), a 1987 document from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), said that the point at which the soul is infused into the body is not a scientific question but a philosophical one. “No experimental datum can in itself be sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul,” the document notes. But it also says that science confirms that there is a personal presence from the moment of conception. The zygote, or single-celled organism that is formed from the sperm and ovum, is a unique individual, not identifiable with the life of either the mother or father. Donum Vitae then asks: “How could a human individual not be a human person?” (DV I.1)

That rhetorical question strongly implies what the correct answer must be, but that was as far as Donum Vitae was prepared to go. Thus it concludes that:

“The fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence … 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” (DV I.1).

To say that the human embryo is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception is not the same thing as saying that the human embryo is a person from the moment of conception. There is, in fact, a very significant difference.

The document issued late last year from the CDF, Dignitas Personae (DP), took a further step toward affirming personhood at conception, though it continues to resist arriving at a definitive conclusion.

DP makes it increasingly difficult to imagine how the Church could affirm that there is any other moment at which the soul is infused.

“In recent decades, medical science has made significant strides in understanding human life in its initial stages” (DP I.4). The document acknowledges that great progress has been made in the field of embryology since Donum Vitae. What is now even more evident than before, according to DP, is that “the embryonic human body develops progressively according to a well-defined program with its proper finality” (DP I.4). At no point during that development do we find any other moment (besides conception) that would qualify as the transitional point at which the soul could be infused. Science shows us that embryological development is a continuous process that admits of no sudden leaps or changes.

These are the scientific facts that would seem to justify a stronger conclusion. Dignitas Personae therefore states: “The reality of the human being for the entire span of life, both before and after birth, does not allow us to posit either a change in nature or a gradation in moral value, since it possesses full anthropological and ethical status. The human embryo has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person” (DP I.5).

We no longer see here Donum Vitae’s language of “as if,” but instead we see the words “the embryo has.” But DP still has not stated point-blank that “the embryo is a person.” Nonetheless, this is the only conclusion that one could possibly draw, for if it is true that the embryo undergoes no change in nature throughout its development, and if it is true that the embryo, by its very nature, has the dignity of a person, then it must also be true that the embryo is a person — and from the moment of conception.

Dr. Edward J. Furton is director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Once more into the breach: the Church’s new bioethical document

We live in a biotech age, and the Holy See knows it. Almost daily we read of attempts to engender new creatures using, for example, cows’ eggs that have had their DNA genetic material replaced with human genetic material.

We learn that vaccines are produced using cell lines developed from tissue taken from aborted babies. We find ads in women’s magazines for cosmetics made from human stem cells. We discover that there are more than 500,000 frozen human embryos in liquid nitrogen. Sometimes it is as though we have walked through an open door into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, but this is the world we live in today!

In December, the Catholic Church once again raised her voice against these abuses of human dignity in a new formal teaching document known as Dignitas Personae. Indeed, the Church is the sole surviving institutional voice defending humanity against such indignities. On Dec. 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Holy See released a document on bioethics which had been officially approved by Pope Benedict XVI on Sept. 8, 2008, the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Holy See usually pays close attention to the significance of dates when it promulgates and releases documents. This bioethics document, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the highest doctrinal office in the Church, was formally approved and then released on two great Marian feasts, as if to say that Mary stands as the example of love for God’s precious gift of life. After all, she was the one who bore within her womb the helpless, the vulnerable, the unseen human life of God himself! Her example bears witness for all time to the veneration we should all have toward God’s precious gift of life.

In 1987 — more than 20 years ago — the Holy See issued its first major document on contemporary bioethics known as Donum Vitae. This was issued also by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was headed by then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger on Feb. 22, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, representing the teaching authority of the See of Rome. It embraced scientific advances in overcoming infertility and rendered ethical assessments on the most commonly used methods for achieving pregnancy.

The Catholic Church is often accused of being behind the times and not scientifically current. Donum Vitae itself, however, puts the lie to that perception. The document was thoroughly conversant with the science of the day. In fact, it judged human cloning to be beneath the dignity of the human person and an illicit way to overcome infertility.

This was in 1987 — 10 years before Dolly the Sheep was cloned. When the Holy See reached that judgment, many mammalian biologists thought it would be impossible to clone a mammal. So we see that rather than being behind the times, the Church was ahead of the curve!

With Donum Vitae, the Church formally taught that in vitro fertilization — or the engendering of human life in a Petri dish — was a violation of human dignity. It violated the dignity of the child at its coming into being by making it susceptible to the life and death decisions of others, and in vitro fertilization was judged to be a violation of the nobility of the means God established for bringing new life into the world — the profoundly personal act of marital intercourse. It warned then of abuses that would occur. Now, 22 years later, the Church speaks again in defense of human dignity in the face of more than 500,000 human embryos frozen in liquid nitrogen, left over from in vitro procedures.

Even as the Church pays close attention to the feast day on which its documents are issued, even so it pays close attention to the opening words, which invariably become the title of its documents. In 1968, Paul Paul VI issued his encyclical on contraception and began it with the words humanae vitae — of human life. In 1987, the document on bioethics was entitled Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life). This most recent document is entitled Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of the Person).

We can see that the Church’s fundamental concern in assessing these human actions — and passing judgment on them — is preserving the dignity, goodness and inviolability of the human person. The Church looks with horror on human life being engendered for experimentation and destruction in our day. It is appalled to see scientists playing God.

John M. Haas is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and founding president of the International Institute for Culture. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.