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Legatus Magazine

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Stephen Napier | author
Mar 01, 2009
Filed under Culture of Life

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.


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