Tag Archives: Stephen Napier

The Vatican invests in stem cells

The Vatican’s investment in adult stem-cell research is a bold venture . . .

Dr. Stephen Napier

It’s almost passé these days to revile the Catholic Church for being “against science.” Yet critics continue to label the Church as uncaring about the sick because of its opposition to embryonic stem-cell research.

The secular liberal culture assumes that the Church is not scientific, archaic in its moral commitments, and eschews virtually every modern development. None of these accusations is true, and the charge that the Church is against science is laughable. The Church pioneered the university system and developed dozens of scientific methods and principles.

The Church has long taught that medicine and the healing arts are a participation in Christ’s own ministry of healing the sick. In 1998, Blessed John Paul II told the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Heath Care Workers that “every act of helping the sick, whether in the foremost health-care structures or in the simple structures of developing countries, if done with a spirit of faith and fraternal sensitivity, becomes in a very real sense a religious act.”

Clearly no one, after reading this, would get the sense that the Church is against science and the development of medical therapies. John Paul is telling us that whether health care workers know it or not, they are participating in Christ through their work. And yet, we still hear charges of being “against science” with regard to the Church’s position on human embryonic stem cell research.

In fact, the Church teaches that some stem-cell therapies are permissible — therapies developed using adult stem cells, stem cells that have been reprogrammed to be more plastic and changeable, stem cells extracted from the umbilical cord blood, and stem cells extracted from miscarried fetuses. This is quite a list. The truth is that the only stipulation the Church places on medical developments is that they ought not to kill human beings in the process!

One of last year’s most underreported business-science stories had to do with the Holy See and stem-cell research. Last May, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture announced a joint five-year initiative with a company called NeoStem to expand research and raise awareness of adult stem-cell therapies. NeoStem’s Stem for Life Foundation, formed to create awareness about the promise of adult stem cells to treat disease, and the Pontifical Council’s foundation will work on a variety of collaborative activities to advance scientific research on adult stem cells, exploring their clinical application in the field of regenerative medicine — and the cultural relevance of such a fundamental shift in medical treatment options.

The Vatican has invested $1 million in NeoStem to develop these adult stem-cell therapies. It’s a rare move for the conservative Holy See to make a business investment like this. But its rarity is a lesson: The Church is serious about developing effective medical therapies that don’t involve destroying human beings in the process. This is a perfect example of the Church not simply issuing a “do not” against killing young human life, but taking it a step further by rendering a powerful “do” to develop effective and life-saving therapies.

Although the Church is stepping up by being proactive in the field of science, it still has an image problem. And the problem stems from ignorance — ignorance of what the Church holds dear. To a certain extent, the secular liberal public doesn’t get it. “Pro-choice” politicians, for example, have typically said that they are personally opposed to abortion but don’t think that the decision to have an abortion should be dictated by the government.

Such a position speeds across the border of the non-rational into the land of the ridiculous. If one is personally opposed to rape, then one would seek stiff laws and weaker evidentiary standards for convicting rapists. If one were personally opposed to murder, one would seek laws that prosecuted murderers and incarcerated them for very long periods of time. If one were personally opposed to stealing, one would enact laws that made stealing legally impermissible.

What this illustrates is that pro-abortion politicians, if they are being honest, don’t understand what abortion is. They don’t get it, nor do they understand the issues at stake. Abortion is the direct killing of innocent human life, a life which cannot speak for or defend himself — and therefore requires our protection. Such lives are the most vulnerable among us. To say that one is personally opposed to killing the most vulnerable among us, yet believes that such killing should be legal is utterly fatuous.

In the arena of human embryonic stem-cell research, the claim is even more ignorant. Many want to use taxpayer dollars for the destruction of young human beings. Clearly there’s a considerable amount of ignorance regarding human life and the protections human life is guaranteed under the Constitution. The Vatican has made a bold move by investing in NeoStem. If it’s promoted and explained correctly, this alliance may help clear up some of the ignorance regarding what Catholics consider most dear: human life.

Stephen Napier, Ph.D., is a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He serves on the University of Pennsylvania’s Institutional Review Board.

The Church, bioethics and reason

Dignitas Personae defends against the misperception that the Church opposes science . . .

Dr. Stephen Napier

The new bioethics document from the Congregation to the Doctrine of the Faith released last Decmeber, Dignitas Personae (DP), begins: “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death” (# 1).

This sets an appropriate tone for what follows in that the document addresses several contemporary bioethical issues and relates them all to the respect we owe to each human being regardless of his or her developmental maturity.

In the introduction, the Congregation (CDF) offered several reasons for issuing the document — or instruction. It notes the importance of Donum Vitae (the 1987 instruction on bioethical issues) and its limitations. The development of “new biomedical technologies … including embryonic stem cell research, cloning, genetic engineering and others” necessitates an updated Vatican instruction. Additionally, DP promises to provide “additional clarification” to the issues addressed in Donum Vitae.

Though DP begins by noting that it is written in line with Veritatis Spendor and Evangelium Vitae it also notes that the teaching articulated in the document is founded upon reason enlightened by faith:

“In presenting principles and moral evaluations regarding biomedical research on human life, 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” (# 3).

This statement serves as a crucial interpretive guide. The bioethical teachings of the Church should not be regarded as strictly “religious” teachings which only Catholics should follow, but are teachings consistent with the natural moral law. DP says that these teachings can be universally accepted by anyone because they are rooted in reason. Of course, it’s not just reason per se, but reason and faith. This is to indicate that the teaching outlined in DP can rationally be accepted by non-Catholics.

An analogy may help explain why. If you were to discuss the existence of God with an atheist, you would want the person first to ask the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” or “What explains the intelligent design in the world?” It’s desirable to have the person stop looking at the world, but instead look along the world. What does the existence of the world say about its origins? What does the intricate design say about its origins? Once one looks along the world, one is drawn to that which is beyond the world. If the atheist accepts, he or she is no longer an atheist.

Likewise with the bioethical teachings of the Church. If we look at them, they are consistent with reason. If we look along them, we are drawn to the Divine vision and vocation for man. If one asks the question “Why does the Church teach that?” enough times, the answers will eventually fill out the “integral vision of man and his vocation.” The conclusions of reason and of faith are complementary in making up a complete vision for man.

Dignitas Personae also defends against a common misperception of the Church as “opposing science.” It corrects this misperception by clarifying the appropriate ends of medicine. “The Magisterium also seeks to offer a word of support and encouragement for the perspective on culture which considers science an invaluable service to the integral good of the life and dignity of every human being” (# 3). Here the end of medicine is seen as fundamentally a healing art for every human being. In this regard, DP references the Hippocratic Oath:

“In the current multifaceted philosophical and scientific context, a considerable number of scientists and philosophers, in the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath, see in medical science a service to human fragility aimed at the cure of disease, the relief of suffering and the equitable extension of necessary care to all people” (# 2).

DP drives home the point here that what follows is consistent with reason and that the traditional ends of medicine (life and health) remain the appropriate aims of this discipline. The Church encourages practitioners to seek these good ends.

None of this should be taken to “oppose” science. Rather, the Church is aiming to shape science consistent with the principle outlined in the opening sentence: “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death” (# 1). Medical activities inconsistent with this principle are not “science” any more than Tuskegee and the Nazi experiments count as science.

Dignitas Personae goes on to address first the ethical and anthropological principles needed to assess the moral character of some developments in biotechnology. Second, the document turns to analyze “developments” in engendering human beings.

In the third section, DP addresses the new ways in which human beings, once engendered, are then manipulated further. Commentaries on these sections and their subsections will follow.

Stephen Napier is a staff ethicists at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He serves on the University of Pennsylvania’s Institutional Review Board.

Ending lives or perfecting love

They will die anyway. It will put them out of their misery. I wouldn’t want to live like that. These are common phrases in defense of physician-assisted suicide. The typical justification for a doctor helping a patient kill himself is that a continued existence would be miserable and full of suffering.

One frequently hears, “We treat our animals better than we do our fellow human beings” or “We are willing to watch our mother writhe in pain, and yet we don’t think twice about putting down our suffering cat.”

These are serious misunderstandings of Christ’s mandate that we love one another as he loves us. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount includes a series of rather difficult moral injunctions. He says, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Mt 5:41). This injunction is filling out what Christ himself says is the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37-39). What would this love look like to those who are approaching death and experiencing the suffering that characterizes the dying process?

It is important to keep in mind that persons who are dying often do suffer — and some horribly. We all desire for people to die in peace. This is what compassionate care demands. But it is equally important to note that we cannot eliminate the pain by getting rid of the one experiencing the pain. Those who espouse assisted suicide are clearly opting to get rid of suffering by ending the life of the sufferer. As Catholics, we know there is another way that Christ himself charted out.

To return to St. Matthew, what does it mean to “walk with a friend for another two miles”? You first walk with the friend one mile to accommodate what they have asked. You then go with them another two, totaling three miles. Saint Augustine entertains the idea that in walking for double what is asked for, one is completing love. Augustine suggests that the number three in Scripture indicates perfection. By doing double what the person has asked, we perfect love.

This is the attitude we should take in our care for the dying. Our love is complete only in doing that which exceeds what they have asked for. It is typical that for many moral “dilemmas,” the hardest route is usually the one which accords with love. Compassionate care for the dying, ministry to the family and simply being present with the patient, “walking with her double what she has asked,” respects the human dignity of the dying and constitutes the perfection of our love. When we walk with the dying, we take away loneliness and spiritual suffering and give witness, by our very actions, to the resurrection. For if we lead lives transfigured by grace, we give hope for the resurrection as well.

The “arguments” in favor of physician-assisted suicide are that it allows the patient to end his or her suffering. Since ending one’s suffering is seen as a good thing, assisted suicide is proposed as a good thing. This style of argument is woefully inadequate: It proposes that human suffering has no value, and it wrongly presumes that one has the right to end one’s own life.

In 1984, Pope John Paul II wrote a beautiful letter to the Church called Salvifici Doloris (On the Meaning of Human Suffering) in which he identifies a “supernatural” quality to human suffering by rooting it in the divine mystery of the redemption of the world.

He states that “suffering seems to be particularly essential to the nature of man. It is as deep as man himself, precisely because it manifests in its own way that depth which is proper to man, and in its own way surpasses it. Suffering seems to belong to man’s transcendence: It is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense ‘destined’ to go beyond himself.”

How can human suffering have a transcendent dimension? Because in suffering we are united most closely with the Man of Sorrows, Jesus Christ. And as St. Paul stated of his own suffering: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24).

No one wants to see a loved one suffer, but with the eyes of faith one can see, not an absence of God’s love, but his love at its most profound and mysterious level. To state that suffering is an evil to be destroyed by taking the life of the one suffering is to rob a person of their most intimate moments with our Lord as he prepares them to join him in eternity. To take one’s own life or the life of another is to reject God’s sovereignty over life and to refuse his love, which we are assured of to the very end of our lives.

Stephen Napier is a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He serves on the University of Pennsylvania’s Institutional Review Board.