Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI

 Issue 30, April 2010

Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life about the issues that revolve around the theme of bioethics.

"Dear Brothers in the Episcopate and in the Priesthood,

Illustrious members of the Pontifical Academy For Life

Kind Ladies and Gentlemen!

I am glad to cordially welcome and greet you on the occasion of the general assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, called to reflect on themes pertaining to the relationship between bioethics and the natural moral law, which appear evermore relevant in the present context because of the continual development in the scientific sphere. I address a special greeting to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of this academy, thanking him for the courteous words that he wanted to address to me in the name of those present. I would also like to extend my personal thanks to each of you for the precious and irreplaceable work that you do on behalf of life in various contexts.

The issues that revolve around the theme of bioethics allow us to confirm how much these underlying questions in the first place pose the "anthropological question." As I state in my last encyclical letter, "Caritas in Veritate:" "A particularly crucial battleground in today's cultural struggle between the absolutism of technology and human moral responsibility is the field of bioethics, where the very possibility of integral human development is radically called into question. In this most delicate and critical area, the fundamental question asserts itself force-fully: is man the product of his own labors or does he depend on God? Scientific discoveries in this field and the possibilities of technological intervention seem so advanced as to force a choice between two types of reasoning: reason open to transcendence or reason closed within immanence" (no. 74).

Before such questions, which touch in such a decisive manner human life in its perennial tension between immanence and transcendence, and which have great relevance for the culture of future generations, it is necessary to create a holistic pedagogical project that permits us to confront these issues in a positive, balanced and constructive vision, above all in the relationship between faith and reason. The questions of bioethics often place the reminder of the dignity of the person in the foreground. This dignity is a fundamental principle that the faith in Jesus Christ crucified and risen has always defended, above all when it is ignored in regard to the humblest and most vulnerable persons: God loves every human being in a unique and profound way. Bioethics, like every discipline, needs a reminder able to guarantee a consistent understanding of ethical questions that, inevitably, emerge before possible interpretive conflicts. In such a space a normative recall to the natural moral law presents itself. The recognition of human dignity, in fact, as an inalienable right first finds its basis in that law not written by human hand but inscribed by God the Creator in the heart of man. Every juridical order is called to recognize this right as inviolable and every single person must respect and promote it (cf. "Catechism of the Catholic Church," nos. 1954-1960).

Without the foundational principle of human dignity it would be difficult to find a source for the rights of the person and the impossible to arrive at an ethical judgment if the face of the conquests of science that intervene directly in human life. It is thus necessary to repeat with firmness that an understanding of human dignity does not depend on scientific progress, the gradual formation of human life or facile pietism before exceptional situations. When respect for the dignity of the person is invoked it is fundamental that it be complete, total and with no strings attached, except for those of understanding oneself to be before a human life. Of course, there is development in human life and the horizon of the investigation of science and bioethics is open, but it must be reaffirmed that when it is a matter of areas relating to the human being, scientists can never think that what they have is only inanimate matter capable of manipulation in their hands. Indeed, from the very first moment, the life of man is characterized as "human life" and therefore always a bearer -- everywhere and despite everything -- of its own dignity (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Instruction 'Dignitas Personae' on Certain Bioethical Questions," no. 5). Without this understanding, we would always be in danger of an instrumental use of science with the inevitable consequence of easily ceding to the arbitrary, to discrimination and to the strongest economic interest.

Joining bioethics and natural moral law permits the best confirmation of the necessary and unavoidable reminder of the dignity that human life intrinsically possesses from its first instant to its natural end. But in the contemporary context, while a just reminder about the rights that guarantee dignity to the person is emerging with ever greater insistence, one notes that such rights are not always recognized in the natural development of human life and in the stages of its greatest fragility. A similar contradiction makes evident the task to be assumed in different spheres of society and culture to ensure that human life always be seen as the inalienable subject of rights and never as an object subjugated to the will of the strongest.

History has shown us how dangerous and deleterious a state can be that proceeds to legislate on questions that touch the person and society while pretending itself to be the source and principle of ethics. Without universal principles that permit a common denominator for the whole of humanity the danger of a relativistic drift at the legislative level is not at all something should be underestimated (cf. "Catechism of the Catholic Church," no. 1959). The natural moral law, strong in its universal character, allows us to avert such a danger and above all offers to the legislator the guarantee for an authentic respect of both the person and the entire created order. It is the catalyzing source of consensus among persons of different cultures and religions and allows them to transcend their differences since it affirms the existence of an order impressed in nature by the Creator and recognized as an instance of true rational ethical judgment to pursue good and avoid evil. The natural moral law "belongs to the great heritage of human wisdom. Revelation, with its light, has contributed to further purifying and developing it" (John Paul II, Address to the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, February 6, 2004).

Illustrious members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, in the present context your task appears more and more delicate and difficult, but the growing sensitivity in regard to human life is an encouragement to continue, with ever greater spirit and courage, in this important service to life and the education of future generations in the evangelical values. I hope that all of you will continue to study and research so that the work of promoting and defending life be ever more effective and fruitful. I accompany you with the apostolic blessing, which I gladly extend to those who share this daily task with you."

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]


The Nathaniel Centre reprints this address courtesy of His Excellency Archbishop Charles Balvo, Apostolic Nuncio to New Zealand