Both Hitting and Missing the Mark
The Vatican's "Dignitas Personae" has powerful things to say about complex medical issues... but is anyone listening?
“Spare us from the Pharisees and Scribes pretending to be concerned with life!”
“It’s ridiculous that we’re still pitting science against religion in the 21st century.”
“The Catholic Church, once again, remains in the middle ages with its teachings.”
“Dear Vatican & co.: please go away.”
To say that the reactions to media stories on the unveiling of Dignitas Personae were resistant and hostile—those listed above appeared in comments to articles in the National Catholic Reporter and The New York Times—is probably an understatement. For many, this latest document is simply more evidence of a Church that is anti-science and anti-technology, obsessed with sex and having control over people’s intimate reproductive choices, and overly focused on an ideologically narrow set of concerns. As erroneous as that impression might be, sadly, the Church has herself to blame for much of it.
Radical mishandling of the sex abuse scandal; a lack of transparency and justice in its power structures; and, perhaps above all, a poor ability to communicate its message to people skeptical about its—all these factors contribute to many people tuning out this document’s message.
Though it might be understandable, dismissing Dignitas Personae would be a terrible mistake.
Biotech is out of control
Much as we may attempt to deny it, the secular West has religious ideology of its own—and the twin dogmas of technological imperative and unrestrained personal autonomy are contributing to a biotechnology movement that is, quite literally, out of control.
Britain is the first place to risk the genetic boundaries of humanity by mixing animal and human DNA and producing chimeric organisms. We keep millions and millions of the most helpless and vulnerable members of our species in frozen storage—their futures sacrificed to the twin gods of unlimited procreative liberty and cost-effectiveness. And pre-implantation genetic diagnosis of embryos is leading us down a slippery slope—already greased by a virtually universal understanding that reproduction is a choice we make rather than an unsolicited gift—toward the dignity of children coming solely from the will of their parents rather than its being inherent.
An important dissenting voice in our culture
Dignitas Personae, drawing on a deep and ancient tradition of dealing with complex issues in medicine, offers an important dissenting voice in our culture. Far from being anti-technology or anti-science, this document actually affirms a host of issues: stem cell research, gene therapy, fertility medicines, sexual aides, etc. The only types of science and technology condemned are those that, according to the Church, violate human dignity.
From Nazi Germany and Tuskegee, Alabama, we have learned the dangers of sacrificing human dignity at the altar of science, technology and medicine. But many are still going to have trouble with the central idea of the embryo’s dignity “counting” the same as a person’s.
Missing the mark
The issues are too complex to examine here, but many simply find it hard to get past the “common sense” point that an eight-celled entity cannot be a person. Though the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has done so in past documents, for some unexplained reason, in this latest one it does not take on any of the arguments against embryonic personhood offered in the last 20 years. I think the Church has credible and challenging responses to such arguments, including an appeal to take science seriously—biologically, embryos are members of the species homo sapiens—and issues of discrimination on the basis of age, size, form, and level of dependency. But Dignitas Personae risks losing the battle from the very beginning by not being more persuasive on this foundational issue.
In addition, the document unhelpfully perpetuates an unfortunate, artificial and simplistic divide in the Church between “moral status conservatives” and “social justice liberals.” The former are already largely onboard with where the Church wants to go, but the latter are the ones coming in skeptical, who need to be sold on the argument. It is baffling, then, that the CDF did not explicitly cite even one social encyclical in order to help make a comprehensive argument—and to gain the ear of social justice liberals.
The moral value of a person
If one does accept that the embryo has the moral value of a person, then social justice considerations for that embryo that prohibit certain biotechnologies and their uses follow naturally and logically. In vitro fertilization—at least as it is done in the United States and most of the developed world—produces “extra” embryos whose dignity is almost always violated either by being thrown away or killed. Human cloning risks biological and genetic slavery. Medicines that refuse to allow the embryo to implant into the uterus (like the morning-after pill) cause abortions. Killing embryos to (possibly) aid in the medical treatment of another person amounts to a straight up no chaser, utilitarian valuation of humanity. If one considers human dignity to be a check on science and technology, Dignitas Personae argues, the practices mentioned above are illicit.
Interestingly—and perhaps unlike its predecessor document Donum Vitae—Dignitas Personae sees such complexity in some issues that it refuses to take a hard line on them either way. Though it takes a mostly negative line, it does not condemn embryo adoption. It is skeptical about altered nuclear transfer—a controversial alternative to embryonic stem cell research—but says more work needs to be done on it. Even the use of Plan B—a type of morning-after pill—in rape cases, as long as one’s intention is to stop ovulation and not to kill an embryo, is not clearly condemned. This means that the Church does recognize a sphere for individual freedom and prudential judgment in many cases. It does give us some principles and warnings to think about—but the ultimate judgment is up to us.
But the Church argues that the choices should not be up to us when there are clear moral issues in play. Just as the Church spoke up in the 19th century for the dignity of vulnerable workers who were being used to further the aims of powerful business interests, the Church now (in perhaps a similar “moment”) speaks up for the dignity of the most vulnerable members of the human community—who are also having their dignity exploited by powerful interests. Unfortunately, it remains an open question whether people are willing to listen.