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By Most Rev. Joseph Strickland, The Wanderer, June 1, 2020
(Republished with permission of Mr. Joe Matt, The Wanderer)
Bishop Joseph Strickland. (Diocese of Tyler, Texas)
I was once a baby. If someone had killed that baby, he would have killed me. I would not be writing this. In fact, I was once an embryo and then a child in the womb and had someone killed me at that stage of my life, he would have killed me.
That’s the point the director of The Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford, England, made in a 2016 paper on the ethics of embryo research. David Albert Jones asked: “What then is the significance of destroying a human embryo?” He answered with a clarity all too often missing: “It is destroying a human being at the first stage of his or her life.”
Christians celebrate Christmas every year. We call it the Feast of the Nativity for a reason. Too often the words Nativity and Incarnation are used interchangeably to refer to the event. The Nativity is a part of the Incarnation, the actual birth of Jesus. But the Incarnation began with the conception of Jesus. This is a crucial point.
St. John begins his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” In the fourteenth verse he writes: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”
From the moment that the Word became Incarnate, His saving mission began. He was the Savior from the moment of His conception. There was a Redeemer in the womb of Mary! In the Eastern Christian Churches, one of the most popular icons is called the Panagia. It depicts Mary in prayer and reveals the Child Jesus ruling and teaching from within her womb.
That icon points to a profound truth. Jesus lived in the first home of every human person, His beloved and Blessed Mother’s womb. This means that every human pregnancy, every womb, every child in the womb, is elevated even beyond the dignity it already has. Jesus was an embryonic person and He is identified with all embryonic persons.
We, the members of His Mystical Body, the Church, must also be identified with every embryonic person. In an age which is using these embryonic persons for unethical research, always taking their lives in the process, we must come to their defense.
Never An “It”
On September 8, 2008, the Vatican released a passionate defense of the dignity of every single human life. The Latin title, Dignitatis Personae, is taken from the first line, “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death.” The document explained, “This fundamental principle expresses a great ‘yes’ to human life.”
The human being is never an “it,” but an “I” — someone who must never be treated as an object: “The body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells. The embryonic human body develops progressively, according to a well-defined program, with its proper finality, as is apparent in the birth of every baby.”
Noting what science shows us about the development of each person, Dignitatis Personae points out that we cannot believe in “either a change in nature or a gradation in moral value.” The unborn child does not change into a “real person” at some point, nor does he or she become more worthy of our care. “The human embryo has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person.”
As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in a 2006 address to a conference in Rome: “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. God does not distinguish between them because he sees an impression of his own image and likeness in each one.”
As is the custom with magisterial documents, the title of this Instruction was taken from the first line, “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death.” The document continues, “This fundamental principle expresses a great ‘yes’ to human life and must be at the center of ethical reflection on biomedical research, which has an ever greater importance in today’s world.”
At the release of the document, many in the secular and religious press filed reports on the Instruction. Some accurately described the content and properly affirmed its significance. Others were written based upon mistaken caricatures of the Catholic Church and not on the substance of what the teaching document actually presented.
Still others demonstrated that the writers did not even read the document or, if they did, they did not like what it had to say and actually chose to mislead the public. Finally, some were based on old tired assertions of the Catholic Church as being “out of touch” or “anti-technology” or “anti-sexuality” or any number of other absolutely untrue and groundless assertions.
The Instruction continued the clear and consistent defense of the dignity of every human life, respect for the goods and ends of marriage, and the insistence on having authentic moral criteria with which to evaluate alleged advances in medical science. Such criteria are offered by the Catholic Church through her teaching office. The Catholic Church is not against science. Rather, she simply insists that good science must always respect the first goods — life, marriage, and the real common good.
All Catholic Christians should all read, study, and assent to this important teaching document. It is a doctrinal statement of the ordinary Magisterium (teaching office) of the Catholic Church and therefore must be given the full assent of both our intellect and will.
I encourage all professing Catholics in political office who openly reject the teaching of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church on the inviolable dignity of every human life, including embryonic life, to also read this Instruction. I pray that it draws those who need to do so, to repent and once again embrace the truths taught by the faith they claim to embrace.
Finally, the document was written not only for Catholics, other Christians, or even just people of faith. It is addressed to “all who seek the truth.” It presents the truth by drawing upon the “light both of reason and faith and seeks to set forth an integral vision of man and his vocation.”
The document does not discourage progress in biomedicine. In fact, it encourages it within an ethical framework, one which accepts that science must always be placed at the service of the human person, the family, and the common good. Any use of the so-called “new technologies” must also respect that the human body is never an “it” — but an “I” — someone who must never be treated as an object. Let’s read these words again:
“The body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells. The embryonic human body develops progressively according to a well-defined program with its proper finality, as is apparent in the birth of every baby.”
The insistence upon this moral framework for evaluating bio-medicine finds support in the history of other true advances in medical science. The ethical criterion is revealed by the natural law. It is the fundamental right to life and the inherent dignity of every human person. This right to life is knowable by and binding upon all men and women and is not simply a “religious” construct.
Footnote 7 within the document cites Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s presentation to the United Nations in April of 2008 which summarized this point well:
“Human rights, in particular the right to life of every human being, are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations. Removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social, and even religious outlooks. This great variety of viewpoints must not be allowed to obscure the fact that not only rights are universal, but so too is the human person, the subject of those rights.”
It is in light of this fundamental moral criterion that the Instruction also discusses human sexuality and marital love, procreation and infertility treatments and the “manipulation of the embryo or the human Genetic Patrimony.” The section concerning gene therapy and the therapeutic use of stem cells, distinguishing both the types of cells and the techniques used to obtain them, is one of the best explanations of the complex technologies which I have ever read. I strongly commend it to my readers.
The Catholic Church encourages the use of adult stem cells and stem cells which can be derived from non-lethal uses such as fetal cord blood. These technologies do not take human embryonic lives and have also been the subject of amazing scientific progress. Extracting embryonic stem cells kills the human person at the first stage of their life.
The Catholic Church must always remain the Defender and Champion of Life. No matter how many efforts there are to dismiss Catholic teaching in this fundamental area of morality, the opponents of the truth which she defends will not prevail because her teaching is true — it is never right to take innocent human life, from conception up to and including natural death.
To conclude, I offer these words from the Instruction to put it into some historical perspective. The Church has always been at the forefront of defending those whom the culture of the time too often ignored. She must once again rise to the challenge by defending the embryonic human person:
“Just as a century ago it was the working classes which were oppressed in their fundamental rights, and the Church courageously came to their defense by proclaiming the sacrosanct rights of the worker as person, so now, when another category of persons is being oppressed in the fundamental right to life, the Church feels in duty bound to speak out with the same courage on behalf of those who have no voice. Hers is always the evangelical cry in defense of the world’s poor, those who are threatened and despised and whose human rights are violated.”
“In virtue of the Church’s doctrinal and pastoral mission, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has felt obliged to reiterate both the dignity and the fundamental and inalienable rights of every human being, including those in the initial stages of their existence, and to state explicitly the need for protection and respect which this dignity requires of everyone.
“The fulfillment of this duty implies courageous opposition to all those practices which result in grave and unjust discrimination against unborn human beings, who have the dignity of a person, created like others in the image of God. Behind every ‘no’ in the difficult task of discerning between good and evil, there shines a great ‘yes’ to the recognition of the dignity and inalienable value of every single and unique human being called into existence.
“The Christian faithful will commit themselves to the energetic promotion of a new culture of life by receiving the contents of this Instruction with the religious assent of their spirit, knowing that God always gives the grace necessary to observe his commandments and that, in every human being, above all in the least among us, one meets Christ himself (cf. Matt. 25:40). In addition, all persons of goodwill, in particular physicians and researchers open to dialogue and desirous of knowing what is true, will understand and agree with these principles and judgments, which seek to safeguard the vulnerable condition of human beings in the first stages of life and to promote a more human civilization.”