Illusions and Realities: The Vatican’s Self-Respect

The Catholic Church has done it again. It has dissented from the conventional wisdom of the “progressives” of our time. It has said what it thinks on the technologies of birth.

What I like best about the Catholic Church is its self-respect. In an age when most church leaders elsewhere burn to appease the cultured despisers of religion, and dread nothing so much as to be thought behind the times, the Catholic Church (and especially this pope) continues to make its own calm judgments, consistent with those it has made for 2000 years.

What other agency in the world has such self-assurance? What other agency in the world could so attract the attention of governments — and, more powerful, of television journalists — simply by explaining its own conscientious position? Who cares? The whole world seems to care, that’s who. It is amazing, the vitality of a church that so many wise European commentators a century ago thought to be on its deathbed.

Since I had been traveling, it took me several days to obtain a full text of the new Vatican “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation.” It is much more intelligent, better argued, and more open to counterargument, than news reports had led me to believe.

Leave aside particular points for a moment, on which people of good will are sure to disagree. The main thrust of this document is to defend a human right never before articulated in such detail and clarity: the human right of a child to be born to two married persons through the mutual gift of their bodily and personal love for one another.

The nub of the issue, of course, is the Catholic vision of when and how human life begins. The Church is now able to follow science in affirming that “from the time an ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother.” This new life has its own independent genetic code. It is an individual. It has begun the dynamic of human growth that will not end until death.

As such, in the view of the Church, it has a right to life and to integrity of growth. It is a gift. Parents have a right to express their love “through the language of the body” and the soul, but they do not have a right to a child. As their love is a gift to one another, so the fruit of that love is a gift to them, one of the most precious that humans receive. That gift, that child, has rights which not even they, nor doctors, nor scientists, nor persons of commerce, nor the state, may take away: inalienable rights.

Many intelligent persons today — indeed a large and powerful culture of abortion — do not view human reproduction as the Catholic tradition does. So it always goes in a pluralistic society. As Catholics are asked to respect the views of others, so others are requested to consider those of Catholics.

If you wish a clear statement of the Catholic vision, perhaps the clearest on record, here is the text to study. It is written with the open-minded clarity for which Cardinal Ratzinger, once considered among the “progressive” leaders of the “open church” at Vatican II has long been praised. That his words often now stick in the craw of today’s “progressives” is the measure of how far they, not he, have moved away from the tradition during the past twenty years.

From this vision, the “Instruction” patiently takes up two urgent medical questions of the day: (1) the new technologies used upon human embryos; and (2) the new technologies of artificial fertilization. A number of points are raised, and distinctions made, under each heading. Not everybody agrees with each of these particular points.

Still, probably everyone will agree that real problems do occur under each heading. By stating its own position with extraordinary clarity on each of these, at the very least the new Vatican “Instruction” will help others to clarify their points of disagreement, and to state their own alternative vision. There are many versions of humanism, some secular, some religious. Different persons have different visions of what it is appropriate and just to do concerning the origins of human life. Now everyone in the debate will have to be at least equally clear at each step of the moral argument.

The Vatican “Instruction” is especially good in pointing out that, in reaching a moral point of view, good intentions are not a sufficient criterion. (This is also true, by the way, in the Vatican’s teaching on nuclear deterrence.) It recognizes and applauds “understandable motivations,” “natural impulses,” and “subjectively good intentions.” In the Catholic view, however, these are not sufficient criteria for respecting the right of the child to be born through “the bodily language” of the conjugal act between two loving parents.

The main worry of the church is the surrender of dominion over the origins of life to “third parties” — to commerce, science, medicine, or the state — who begin to play God. The legitimation of third party dominion over who shall be born (and what shall be born), the “Instruction” argues, would give illegitimate power over human life to those who have no rights to such power.

In the normal practice of in vitro fertilization, e.g., the “Instruction” observes, more eggs are fertilized than are implanted in the womb. Who decides which one will be implanted? And what human being has the right to destroy the human lives already begun in the “spare” embryos? To destroy these human lives in experimentation or to subject them to commercial trafficking would be to violate their fundamental human dignity. Alas, the “spare” embryos may be “exposed to an absurd fate, with no possibility of their being offered safe means of survival.”

The “Instruction” worries, as well, about the confusion that results for children born of surrogate mothers — a confusion of genetic, gestational, and educational bonds between (multiple) parents and child.

Critics say the Catholic vision involves too narrow a definition of “natural” and too unfeeling a view of the good intentions, happiness, and joy of those new parents to whom the new technologies have brought children they otherwise could not have had. These are good arguments. But the “Instruction” gives clear and considered replies to them.

This field of inquiry as a whole is beyond my own expertise. I have not made medical ethics a specific field of study. So I am not able to pass judgment on specific points of disagreement between the “Instruction” and its critics. But I am certain that Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II have issued a well-argued and courageous document, one which will prove immensely beneficial even to those who disagree with it.

Yet virtually everyone will also find in this document much with which to agree. Commercial trafficking in embryos, wholly unregulated and destructive experimentation, and a “brave new world” of third party dominion over the origins of human life are not likely to be desired by many. On the more disputed points, a long and thorough public argument is in order. Our society will act more wisely if, behind these, all of us spell out for each other our own visions of human nature and destiny, in all their variety, in civil discourse and in respect for one another.

Civilization itself, Thomas Aquinas once wrote, is constituted by such conversation — argument even — among free persons in community.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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