Living Persons and Natural Bodies

Rev Dr Gerald Gleeson
Issue 27, April 2009

While preparing this lecture I was struck by the following headline: "Natural and healthy pushing ethical and green off the shelf". The story reported that:

The most frequently used word on new products in the last year was 'natural'... Natural appeared on nearly one in four products...a 9 per cent increase on the previous year (The Sydney Morning Herald, 5th Feb 2009, p. 24)

As a Catholic ethicist, I was struck by this story because an understanding of what is 'natural' has long been at the heart of our Catholic ethical tradition, which is rightly known as a Natural Law tradition. In this lecture I will explore a common objection to Catholic moral teachings, and to the recently developed "Theology of the Body", namely, that Church teachings exaggerate what is supposedly "natural", at the expense of what is good for us as persons.

In accord with "nature"

"Natural" has several meanings, and at least different two meanings are used in Natural Law theories of ethics. One meaning is that favoured by today's advertisers: what's good about certain conduct is that it is in "accord with nature" – with the way things are, at their best – and, conversely, what's wrong with other forms of conduct is that they are "contrary to nature" at its best. A second meaning of "natural" depends on the recognition that by their nature or essence, humans are rational beings: whether conduct is right or wrong depends on whether it is reasonable, or whether it is a rational way of achieving what's good for us. In terms of the first meaning of "natural", some of the conduct that is bad for us is bad, not only in the sense that it is not reasonable, but also in the distinctive sense that it is "contrary to nature" or contrary to the way in which it is "normal" for human beings – at their best – to think, to feel and to act. In this sense, for example, treating the bodies of the dead with respect is normal or natural to human beings. If we met people who simply discarded the bodies of their deceased along with the garbage we would be baffled to know what to say to them: we might wonder if they really were human at all, or whether their humanity hadn't been damaged by some terrible trauma. [1]

This aspect of the Natural Law tradition is now much diminished in the minds of contemporary men and women, though it remains prominent in approaches to environmental ethics. So today, we are likely to hear that a course of action is wrong simply because it diminishes natural eco-diversity, or that GM food is bad because it is an "unnatural" tampering with nature, or that climate change must be prevented because it will destroy the natural environment.

Ironically, this concern with what is "natural" is less obvious in the case of what is good for human beings: same-sex marriage and IVF are now commonly regarded as unproblematic – as "natural" for those people who request them. The idea that there is something "naturally" untoward about these practices is no longer the default position: the burden of proof is on those who would defend traditional Christian teachings. This change of sensibility has occurred, in part, because in our culture we have come to think of human beings as "persons", rather than "natural beings". We think that what is "naturally" good for us as physical beings is less important than what is good for us as persons – namely, individual freedom and self-determination, finding meaning in life, forming intimate relationships, and so on. [2]

Another factor driving this cultural change is the extraordinary progress of modern medicine. The case of organ donation by a living donor is highly instructive. When first mooted, many Catholic ethicists rejected living donation on the ground that it meant mutilating the body of a healthy person (e.g. by removing a kidney) not for the sake of that person's overall health, but for the sake of someone else. Further reflection, however, led ethicists to argue that since a person's bodily resources often exceed what is necessary for healthy living, it could be a generous act of solidarity to share one's tissues or organs with another, provided this did not damage the functional integrity of the donor's body. Hence, while it may not be in keeping with what is natural (normal or healthy) to excise a kidney, it can be ethically right or reasonable – in accord with our rational nature – to donate a kidney to someone in grave need.

This development in the Church's teaching on organ donation might lead us to wonder if similar developments are possible elsewhere. For example, while it is natural for children to be conceived through marital intercourse, might it be reasonable to use IVF in the case of parents who cannot conceive naturally? I raise this question to introduce a widespread objection to the Church's teachings on sexuality, marriage and procreation, viz. that in the Church's natural law approach, people become less important than their bodies and what is said to be "natural".

Exaggerating the body?

Consider the following arguments. First, in relation to the adoption of children, is it more important for a couple to be good, loving parents, even if they are of the same sex, than to be literally father and mother, male and female? Secondly, in relation to the link between sex and procreation, is it more important for a couple's sexual intimacy be "open to life" in the widest sense of serving their relationship, their existing family and other commitments, than that it be biologically open to life on "each and every" occasion? Thirdly, in relation to the processes of reproduction – involving millions of sperm, many ova, and many embryos that fail to develop, does the Church exaggerate the importance of the beginnings of life when teaching that every human embryo must be respected as a human person. Fourthly, in regard to the use of IVF itself, is it more important that a couple love and care for their child, than that their child be the fruit of marital intercourse?

At the heart of each of these examples is the objection that our bodies, in particular, our bodies as male or female, are not as significant as Catholic teachings maintain; what matters more in every case is our identity as persons, as self-determining, responsible and "authentic" individuals. Indeed, an objector might go further to claim that Church teachings subordinate our personal lives to our bodily lives.

A New Vatican Instruction: Dignitas Personae

How will people formed by this cultural for persons over bodies respond to the Church's latest teaching on the ethical use of reproductive technology? Philosopher Peter Singer echoes explicitly the objection I am concerned with. Singer writes:

Dignitas Personae says new human life should be generated through an act which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman. But if by that the church is referring to sexual intercourse, then it surely has an unduly narrow view of what kinds of acts can express reciprocal love between a man and a woman. [3]

Dignitas Personae (DP) is an updating of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1987 Instruction Donum Vitae (DV) which suggests the change of title is significant. If Donum Vitae (following Humanae Vitae) points to the natural reality of human life, Dignitas Personae – perhaps anticipating the objection I am examining – focuses on the human person. There are two main magisterial teachings in DP: first, that the human embryo has the dignity proper to a person (#5), and secondly, that the conception of a human person should occur in marriage and as the fruit of marital intercourse (#6).

The embryo as person

DP repeats Donum Vitae's teaching that "the fruit of human generation... from the formation of the zygote demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception..."(#4). Like DV, DP acknowledges that the Church does not have authority to make philosophical or scientific claims. Divine revelation – the word of God – does not tell us when human life begins: we have to work this out for ourselves, using sound human reasoning. Scientifically – there is strong evidence for the continuity of development from embryo to mature human; philosophically – there are sound arguments for the embryo's unity of being as a single organism even at the earliest stage of human development.

The reality of human life, says DP, is such that there is no rational basis for positing "either a change in nature or a gradation in moral value" during the course of life. DP concludes that the human embryo has "the dignity proper to a person". This very strong claim that an embryo is a being with the dignity of a person is surely tantamount to saying that an embryo is a person, albeit in the very earliest stage of development.

The human person as fruit of marital intercourse

The second key teaching in DP is that the conception of a human person should occur in marriage and as the fruit of marital intercourse. What many find questionable in this teaching is the claim that only marital intercourse, and not the use of reproductive technologies like IVF, can express the necessary spousal "yes" to procreation. DP says it is "the specifically human values of sexuality" that require procreation to be the fruit of marital intercourse (#12). DV had identified three values to said shed light on the link between marital intercourse and procreation: 1) the "inseparable connection" that God willsbetween the unitive and procreative meanings of sexual intercourse; 2) the unity of the person as bodily and spiritual, such that bodily union as spouses is also personal union as parents begetting the life of a new person; 3) the uniqueness and dignity of the child conceived, not as the object of a scientific procedure, but as the fruit of the marital act, as someone given by God in the context of the parent self-giving to each other.

This is a "high teaching" many find hard to accept. I would re-express the teaching in this way: marital intercourse is the only appropriate context for the coming to be of a new human being because it is the only kind of human activity by which parents can act "as one" in generating a new human being while also respecting that new human being as a unique person who transcends the parents' generative act. That is to say, marital intercourse both leads to new life as its natural and normal "fruit", and awaits the conception of new life as a "gift of God" that it does not control. This is because sexual union is not itself the act of fertilisation nor the event of conception; in giving themselves to each other, spouses can at most share their mutual, potential fertility; whether a child is conceived is not up to them, but remains a gift to be received. [4]

At this point, DP introduces a further consideration – that divine revelation purifies, completes and elevates our natural understanding. That embryonic human life has personal dignity is a truth we should be able to recognise by human reasoning alone. That embryonic human life is also sacred is a truth revealed to the eyes of faith. Life is sacred because every human person possesses an eternal vocation, is destined by the grace of Christ to share in the Trinitarian life of God (#8). Spouses are thus invited to see their procreative acts as collaboration with God's creative acts: their child is both the fruit of their act and "a new creation" that God is calling to himself.

The problem of dualism

Does the teaching in DP exaggerate the physical and biological by claiming that embryos are persons who should only result from the "personal" act of marital intercourse? The short answer to the objection, from the vantage point of Church teaching, is that bodies cannot be less important than people because people are their bodies: whatever we do to human bodies, we do to the people whose bodies they are. DP would say that far from exaggerating the body, it is 'personalising' the body – urging us to recognise what 'the body' really is, the living person as such. To think otherwise is to make the mistake of separating people from their bodies; that would be a new form of dualism that distorts the truth of who and what we are.

If the Church is right, acting contrary to these teachings involves missing out on something – in the name of fulfilment as persons, we will forgo or lose an essential aspect of what it is to be a human person, viz. an aspect of our bodiliness. This may not be obvious because whereas the wrongness of stealing and lying can be explained on purely utilitarian grounds, traditional Christian teachings on chastity are what Elizabeth Anscombe has called, "supra-utilitarian" or "mystical". [5]

"Mystical", though ordinary at the same time: like respecting the bodies of the dead. That is to say, what's wrong fundamentally with unchaste actions is not their tangible harm (although that is often quite evident), but that they "dishonour" the human body – or dishonour the bodily existence of the person.

In the case of IVF, for example, and assuming that no human embryos are frozen, lost or destroyed in the process, and even if an embryo suffers no obvious physical harm, it can be argued that the mere fact that an embryo is caused to come into existence as the result of a technological procedure amounts to dishonouring or failing to respect its body. Just as dead bodies are to be treated with respect, so embryonic bodies are to be treated with respect; in both cases, they are not to be "touched" in ways that fail to recognise what they are, people's bodies, whether people who have died or people who are just coming into being.

I am using the idea of "touch" in a more than literal sense. The beginning and the ending of a human life is a sacred moment, above all for the person whose life is at stake, but also for those affected by that beginning or ending (and even if they have no religious beliefs). How should we respect this sacredness? I believe it is possible to recognise that if human conception becomes the goal of a technological procedure a person is wronged, even if they are not harmed in a physical way. Just as it is wrong to deliberately end a human life, so it seems wrong to deliberately initiate a human life. Why? Because in both cases, a life (and so the person whose life it is) is treated as something over which someone exercises complete control, a kind of control that is inconsistent with respect for another as a person. Of course, taking life would seem to wrong a person more gravely than would initiating life. In practice, however, we know that IVF procedures commonly involve the loss of much embryonic life – so perhaps the similarity is closer than we might first think – and this is not surprising if the same attitude of unfettered control over life is found in both situations. Do we not wrong a person conceived through IVF if we make it possible for them later to have to acknowledge, truthfully, "my life was brought about at the expense of others being deliberately killed"?

The correct ethical perspective

In Veritatis Splendor John Paul II enunciated a principle that, I suggest, can help to make this teaching more accessible. [6] The pope spoke of doing ethics from the perspective of the acting subject. This means understanding the ethical significance of our actions primarily in terms of how they bear upon our being as persons or subjects, and as responsible agents. One way to explain this agent perspective is by contrast to another perspective, that of a neutral observer (this is sometimes known as the "god's eye" perspective). This is the now culturally dominant perspective of utilitarian or consequentialist ethical theories that would have us act so as to produce the best state of affairs overall – to maximise people's happiness or the satisfaction of their preferences.

From a neutral observer's perspective there may not seem to be any harm involved in the practice of IVF, provided no embryos are destroyed (and if embryos are destroyed, an observer may not see any "people" harmed.) From the first person perspective of the acting subject, however, things "look" rather different. We are not observers of our lives and actions, nor are we observers of our sexuality. We are engaged with and motivated by these goods (life, sexuality and so on) and in our intentional actions we cannot but take up and express attitudes towards them.

In relation to artificial reproductive technologies like IVF, the agent perspective alerts us to the significance of the procedures involved for both the genetic parents and the scientists. In using IVF, parents make their fertility available independently of their sexual intimacy: the Church asks them to reflect on whether, as subjects and sexual persons, this doesn't involve treating their bodies and their reproductive potential as merely 'material' separated from their personal intimacy? Instead of sperm and ova becoming available for fertilisation in the context of a reciprocal, marital act, they are made available to a third person, as a result of quite separate (solitary?) acts on the part of the spouses. If parents were to ask themselves, "what are we doing (in order to have a child)?", would their answers not have to refer to separate, non-reciprocal actions in which their potential to be parents with each other is treated as something individual and merely biological, rather than as something to be discovered together in their marital intimacy? Likewise, when a third party receives biological "materials" with which to try to initiate the beginning of a person's life, aren't they receiving, not a gift of self, but what they must treat as merely material for a procedure whose object is the making, rather than the begetting, of a child? Isn't this why the scientist could later, truthfully, say to the child conceived, "I made you"? But is that something which anyone should ever be able to say of another human person?

I have written this last paragraph in the form of questions we might ask ourselves, as we reflect on the meaning of what we would be doing in using artificial reproductive technologies. Questions, rather than bald assertions, are appropriate in an approach to ethics that highlights the first-person perspective, and urges us to appropriate our bodiliness, and the significance of our sexual embodiment as male or female, and as potential parents. This leads me to consider finally a pastoral issue raised by the Church's teaching.

A pastoral priority

In the area of sexuality and procreation, the Church's teachings should help us, in the first instance, to understand ourselves better: to appreciate who we are and how God has made us, and on this basis, to understand what conduct is in keeping with God's plan for our happiness. This means understanding that we are not only persons, but also living beings with a specific bodily nature as male or female, which to a large part determines what will make us happy. Respecting our bodily natures is an aspect of respecting God our creator.

How then might we invite people to appropriate this self-understanding as living persons and natural bodies? I believe we need to begin with our young people, in primary school, and on the verge of puberty. As a young person begins to experience their sexuality, the crucial question concerns its meaning and its place in one's life. Many young people today are keen to live in accord with nature – at least when it comes to food and medicines. What then is the "natural" way to live my sexuality, to be aware of my fertility, and to take responsibility for it? How should my sexuality be integrated into my relationships with others? If the Church is right, we are meant to experience our bodies as our living embodiment as persons, and our sexuality as our capacity for marriage and parenthood. Sexuality is more than this, of course, but that genital sex is essentially the capacity for procreation is a truth which our culture is ignoring with disastrous consequences. [7]

If you consult almost any sex education programme you will find that sex is (rightly) presented as a good and wonderful aspect of being human, and the better programmes will emphasise the quality of relationship with the person with whom one is involved sexually. This positive story will then note two dark clouds on the horizon: the risk of disease or infection and the possibility of pregnancy. If only these two problems can be avoided, sex will be "safe", and all will be more or less well.

Such programmes are shaped by the culturally dominant view that procreation is not essential to sexuality. The Church, however, teaches that it is essential – not the only aspect of sex, but the essential aspect that grounds its other meanings and its bonding power. This is the decisive issue for any sexual and reproductive ethics: clearly, if I believe that my sexual capacity is my capacity to be a parent with another, then – if my desires are well formed – I am only going to want to exercise that capacity with someone with whom I want to be a parent (viz. the person I am married to). If the Church is right, I will also only want to discover my procreative potential in the context of marital intimacy, and I will only want to become a parent with my spouse as a result of acts that are truly marital (and not by means of technologies that replace marital acts).

Our challenge, I suggest, to assist our young people from puberty onwards to value their sexuality as their procreative potential, as a gift to be shared only with the one with whom they wish to marry and to procreate. We need to start with our young ones because from puberty they are confronted with a great "fundamental option" between Catholic teachings and the ethos of modern culture. Unless our young people (and we hope some older people) embrace the self-understanding I have described, the Church's teaching will continue to fall on deaf ears.

As a postscript, I want to acknowledge that many difficult issues remain, especially in relation to homosexuality and infertility. Since the Church understands marriage as the natural fulfilment of our being male and female, it regards same-sex attraction and infertility as forms of disability and suffering which must, nonetheless, never be the basis of discrimination, or any lessening of respect for the people concerned. In this regard, people are indeed more important than their bodies. Moreover, the Church is also committed to respect for people's conscientious endeavours to live the Christian life, even when they err, and our spiritual tradition recognises how slowly each one of us grows in moral maturity. Perhaps it is also time for the Church to re-emphasise the ancient tradition that sins of the mind and will – sins proper to persons, are much more serious than 'sins of flesh'. In this respect also, people are more significant than their bodies. [8]


[1] See G. E. M. Anscombe, "Contraception and Chastity" in Faith in a Hard Ground, Edited by Mary Geach & Luke Gormally (Imprint Academic: Exeter, 2008), 170-191; Joseph Boyle, "Contraception and Anesthesia: A Reply to James DuBois, Christian Bioethics 14/2 (2008): 217-225.

[2] We also believe, rightly, that respect for human being as persons should take priority over judgments about what is natural or unnatural; even if - relative to the norm of marriage - homosexuality is a kind of disability, it does not licence discrimination against homosexual persons. Even if IVF is an unnatural way to conceive children, any child so conceived is to be respected as a person no less than any other child.

[3] The Dominion Post (Wellington, New Zealand), Saturday Jan 31st, 2009.

[4] It is often objected that in IVF, also, scientists cannot ensure a successful outcome. However, the immediate goal of IVF is to achieve fertilization; this goal defines what the act of IVF is. By contrast, the immediate and defining goal of sexual union is not fertilization, simply personal, mutual, bodily self-giving.

[5] Anscombe, "Contraception and Chastity", 186-9.

[6] " In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love." John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, # 78.

[7] "After all, several decades of empirical research — which also did not exist before — have demonstrated that the sexual revolution, too, has had consequences, and that many of them have redounded to the detriment of a sexually liberationist ethic. Married, monogamous people are more likely to be happy. They live longer....". See Mary Eberstadt, "Is Food the New Sex?", Policy Review (Feb-March, 2009) available at

[8] This lecture was based on a more extensive essay, "Are People More Important than their Bodies", forthcoming in The Australasian Catholic Record (2009), where full references are to be found.

I thank the Nathaniel Centre for the opportunity of joining in the celebration of the Centre's 10th Anniversary, and for suggesting the topic of this lecture.