The Vatican's pronouncement on ethical aspects of procreation and the origins of human life has produced a not-unexpected hue and cry. Defenders applaud its concern for the foundations of human existence. Opponents deplore its meddling in the realm of medical science.
While rejecting some of its prescriptions, editorials tend to uphold the church's right to supply moral guidance in so vital an area of human concern. And Vatican observers see the solicitous hand of Pope John Paul II rather than the abrasive cautions of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the document's argumentation.
While lauding modern advances in biomedical science, the document exhibits concern for a valid understanding of the procedures it criticizes. It offers a cogent explanation of the principles with which it condemns all non-therapeutic experimentation with the human embryo. Thus it outlaws the artificial transmission of human life, including embryo and sperm banks and surrogate motherhood. It maintains that such manipulation of the human embryo does not respect the dignity of human life in which, from the moment of conception, an immortal soul has been implanted.
In keeping with the laws of nature, the church feels that the only legitimate situs for that ensoulment is the body of the woman upon insemination by her husband in a loving conjugal act.
In proscribing experimentation on the human embryo, the Vatican feels it is upholding the divine command, "Thou shalt not kill." In so saying, it is accused of an obscurantist approach to human nature. By way of rejoinder, the Vatican points to the danger of hubris in the scientist. Failure to consider the unique value of human life can be the equivalent of ruthless Nazi experimentation aimed at achieving the master race.
Here there is little room for argument: Over the centuries the church has proclaimed its right to interpret the natural law in a consistent fashion. That consistency was due primarily to a lack of authentic information about the makeup of material reality. Now, with the noetic revolution and the quantum jump in genetic knowledge, critics feel the church has failed to honor its obligation to redefine the laws of nature in keeping with the new understanding of man's makeup.
Through fear of change, particularly in sexual morality, the church has prevented its thinkers from a realistic reinterpretation of its ethical code.
In coping with an infertile couple's desire to parent, for example, compassion is not a Vatican concern. "Having a child is not a universal right," is a blithe clerical assertion. This attitude infuriates critics who deplore the church's failure to consider the problem of infertility in a marital dimension and its remedy in a rational medical procedure.
On the basis of their successful practice, conscientious Catholic physicians in Australia, France, Belgium and Holland have indicated their disagreement with the papal teaching on in vitro fertilization. They contend that their procedures are in keeping with the new appreciation of the laws of nature.
But Vatican officials are concerned with both the means and the end results. They object to masturbation to obtain the seed as a self-serving procedure that injures a conjugal relationship. And they worry about the disposal of non-developed embryos.
Citing the state's obligation to protect human life and dignity, the pronouncement calls upon governments to prevent dangerous and unbecoming experimentation with the genetic code and basic elements of human gestation. It does concede, however, that for the sake of public order, a government can tolerate things it cannot correct in order to prevent a greater evil.
In an attempt to offset a thoughtless rejection of its teaching, the document calls for dialogue within the church, and among opinion-makers, scientists and politicians, doctors and teachers. It asks its own moralists to study its conclusions in the light of a valid anthropology concerned with sexuality and marriage. While insisting on the validity of its teaching, it leaves room for further reflection. It thus elicits the hope that progress is possible in the pursuit of Catholic genetic morality.
The latter is not impossible. Recently, the church has updated its teaching on the liceity of pleasure in conjugal acts not directed to procreation. While interest-taking was condemned as usury in the Middle Ages, the church later came to accept the legitimacy of maritime insurance. In each instance a new understanding of the values involved brought about the turnaround.
A recent attempt to describe the process of change in church teaching maintains that when forced by new knowledge the church is challenged to reconsider an ethical position, the whole of its conservative tradition refuses such an innovation. With the publication of a document rejecting change, that instrument, by its very existence, acknowledges that change is already in being. Such would seem to be the situation regarding certain prohibitions in the current document.
Should the Vatican pronouncement provoke a greater appreciation of the values involved in current biomedical advances, it could result in a more responsible evaluation of what the bio-scientists are up to.
Should the Holy See honor Pope John's caution that differences of opinion in important church matters should be exercised with full respect for each human person, then this controversial document will have achieved a major advance in the church's accommodation to the modern world.