Vatican Updates Catholic Teaching on the Dignity of Human Life

John Kleinsman and Michael McCabe
Issue 27, April 2009

A long-awaited new Instruction, titled Dignitas Personae - The Dignity of a Person, was released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in December 2008. The specific aim of the new Instruction is to update Catholic teaching on human procreation and research involving embryos and human gametes in light of new developments in biomedical technologies. Its stated purpose is twofold: to contribute to the formation of conscience, and to encourage ethical research that is respectful of the dignity of every human being from the first moment of existence. After a first part in which fundamental principles and assumptions of an anthropological, ethical and theological nature are recalled, Parts II and III deal systematically with specific applications relating to assisted human reproduction and research involving stem cells and human genetics.

Dignitas Personae builds on principles and teachings laid out in an earlier and often quoted 1987 Instruction, Donum Vitae - The Gift of Life, and offers "support and encouragement for the perspective on culture which considers science an invaluable service to the integral good of the life and dignity of every human being." Dignitas Personae is thus fundamentally positive about the place of medical science and technology and its importance in the "equitable extension of necessary medical care to all people."

The opening paragraphs of the Instruction are instructive for understanding the document and set the scene for its approach to, and understanding of the role of, biomedical science. In particular, the document affirms the Church's desire to "draw near to every human being who is suffering, whether in body or in spirit, in order to bring not only comfort, but also light and hope." In affirming that moments of sickness and the experience of death are part of human life and "present in the story of every person" readers are reminded that the fragility and finality of life is part and parcel of the human condition. While human fragility provides the impetus for medical science to cure disease and relieve suffering, it must also be seen as providing opportunities which open each of us to "the mystery of the Resurrection" in which we can place our sure hope that "life will triumph."

The message is clear. For Christians, the "mystery of the Resurrection" forms the backdrop against which we are to assess the contributions of science and technology to human well-being. In particular it helps us define the parameters for the use of biotechnologies – suffering and death are part of our destiny rather than being the 'enemy to be avoided at any cost'. In this way faith informs and goes hand in hand with reason. On the other hand, an absence of hope in the Resurrection could lead to a very different stance towards technology. Rather than seeing medical science as a "service to human fragility", it could become a means for eliminating that fragility. In that light, Dignitas Personae warns, it is all too easy for "advances in biomedical technology [to be viewed] from an essentially eugenic perspective."

Dignitas Personae is also realistic in the way it recognises that developments in biomedical research at the beginning of life often generate competing desires. The possible medical advances which might result from destructive research on embryos are a case in point. How might such tensions be resolved? The tension between conflicting desires can, ultimately, only be resolved by a clear understanding of the dignity of the person – hence the title of the new document – informed by an integral vision of humankind that draws upon "the light both of reason and of faith" and which takes proper account of the eternal vocation we are all called to.

It is particularly enlightening that Dignitas Personae compares the technological advances of our own time with the 19th century age of industrial development: "If initially human and social progress was characterized primarily by industrial development and the production of consumer goods, today it is distinguished by developments in information technologies, research in genetics, medicine and biotechnologies for human benefit." Moreover, just as a century ago it was the working classes that were oppressed in their fundamental rights so now there are "evident and unacceptable abuses" and the Church must come to the aid of another category of persons," specifically "those in the initial stages of their existence."

Through the use of this language, and by explicit reference to the conditions that led to the great social encyclical Rerum Novarum that heralded the birth of modern Catholic social teaching, the writers of Dignitas Personae place the issues associated with bioethics firmly and overtly within the Church's rich tradition of social justice. We have a duty to stand with those who are most vulnerable. In a time where we find ourselves facing sometimes competing desires of curing illnesses or infertility and protecting life from its first moments, commitment to the dignity of the human person provides us with a way of recognising the authentic moral good." "Behind every 'no' in the difficult task of discerning between good and evil, there shines a great 'yes' to the dignity and inalienable value of every single and unique human being called into existence."

Dignitas Personae also offers a further measure for determining the ethical acceptability of the progress of biomedicine: "The Church ... hopes ... that the results of such research may also be made available in areas of the world that are poor and afflicted by disease, so that those who are most in need will receive humanitarian assistance." In this way criticism is indirectly levelled at first-world biomedical applications that benefit only a privileged few or that take precious resources away from those deprived of more basic health needs. In other words, Dignitas Personae encourages a "big-picture" perspective on the progress of biomedicine, one which moves beyond a focus on the morality of this or that particular intervention and beyond a focus on individual choice and freedom, and places it into a global context. This perspective is particularly challenging for those of us in the so called developed or Western world, given the way in which our bioethical debates are dominated by an emphasis on individual autonomy and freedom of choice, with little or no consideration of the common good. Therefore, while in many respects the new Instruction reiterates previously articulated teaching; in this regard Dignitas Personae adopts a much needed prophetic stance.

From a New Zealand perspective, the new Instruction is particularly relevant in terms of the continuing debate about the use of embryos for destructive research as well as other debates about the use of assisted reproductive technologies. Dignitas Personae brings a voice of 'reason informed by faith' that offers insights into the spiritual as well as the ethical dimensions of biomedical research. It also expresses a voice of caution by its reminder that we humans have in the past regularly abused our powers and capabilities. Finally, Dignitas Personae challenges us to enrich our debates by placing them in a global social justice context that takes proper account of the common good and the right all people have to access basic health care.

John Kleinsman and Michael McCabe