Late last month, I engaged in a public conversation with Princeton Professor Robert George and former Vatican Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon on exploring common ground on life issues with the Obama administration. During our discussion, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., I suggested that pro-life Catholics might find a level of agreement with the White House by, among other things:
Honestly recognizing that science does not give an answer to the legal personhood question of the un-implanted embryo created in a laboratory for non-reproductive research purpose. President Obama has decided to forego this therapeutic embryonic stem cell research for now, I suspect out of respect for our faith claims, but the pursuit of common ground asks us to be cautious about overstating the science. While I fully accept the Catholic teaching, and the desire by our bishops for others as well to come to share the belief that we should treat even an embryo created in a petri dish never intended for implantation as a person, we need to acknowledge that reason here may not—yet—be on the same path as faith.
Following our conversation, it was my pleasure to receive a thoughtful note from Professor George who wrote to confirm that he shared my understanding that “science does not give an answer to the legal personhood question.” Writes Professor George: “Science cannot tell us whether unborn human beings are persons or whether it is right or wrong to kill them. By the same token, of course, science cannot tell us whether any human being is a person and whether killing of any type is right or wrong…. Science cannot answer these questions, and scientists as such (whatever their personal philosophical and ethical opinions) do not propose answers to them.”
I agree, but I still wonder whether our understanding of the matter is in line with the public statements of the church. To be sure, the Catechism makes no claim from science whatsoever, but rather relies upon revelation. Reference is made to the Didache’s explicit instruction that “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish." The church proclaims that "human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception" by relying upon the statement in Jeremiah that “before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you."
Matters become a bit more tangled, however, in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) document, Donum Vitae, where science is given a confirmatory role:
This teaching remains valid and is further confirmed, if confirmation were needed, by recent findings of human biological science which recognize that in the zygote resulting from fertilization the biological identity of a new human individual is already constituted. Certainly no experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul; nevertheless, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person? The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. The teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable. (DV, I, 1).
The scientific suggestion reappeared this past summer in response to comments made by now-Vice President Joe Biden on the question of when life begins. In “A Statement in Response to Senator Biden” (Sept. 11, 2008), the pro-life office statement seems to rely on a claimed support from science to a far greater extent than the revelation-based Catechism:
The Church recognizes that the obligation to protect unborn human life rests on the answer to two questions, neither of which is private or specifically religious.
The first is a biological question: When does a new human life begin? ….While ancient thinkers had little verifiable knowledge to help them answer this question, today embryology textbooks confirm that a new human life begins at conception. (citation omitted). The Catholic Church does not teach this as a matter of faith; it acknowledges it as a matter of objective fact.
The second is a moral question, with legal and political consequences: Which living members of the human species should be seen as having fundamental human rights, such as a right not to be killed? The Catholic Church’s answer is: Everybody. . . .Those who hold a narrower and more exclusionary view have the burden of explaining why we should divide humanity into those who have moral value and those who do not, and why their particular choice of where to draw that line can be sustained in a pluralistic society. . . .
While in past centuries biological knowledge was often inaccurate, modern science leaves no excuse for anyone to deny the humanity of the unborn child. Protection of innocent human life is not an imposition of personal religious conviction but a demand of justice.
Read in conjunction with the Catechism, the statement of the pro-life office is apt to leave those seeking to understand church instruction understandably confused. And the confusion has real consequence for stem cell research, especially as the pro-life office statement asserts that the burden of proof for any differing positions rests on others.
Scientists and ethicists challenge the pro-life office’s proposition that the personhood line cannot be drawn better elsewhere. Many non-Catholics propose the point at which an embryo is implanted in the womb as one that can be easily demarcated scientifically. From a Catholic perspective, the proffered line might be argued to better coincide with Jeremiah’s reference to God’s knowledge of us “in the womb,” and even the statement of the pro-life office itself. After all, the pro-life office recognizes that the capacity of the embryo to mature depends upon being placed in a nurturing environment—i.e., the womb. In the end, however, the significance of the womb inexplicably falls away, with Donum Vitae simply announcing: “it is immoral to produce human embryos intended for exploitation as disposable biological material.” (DV, I, 5; also cited in the Catechism 2275).
The separation of Catholic teaching from modern science has consequences for both science and the church. For science, it may mean that it is wrongly ordered. As the CDF observes, “science and technology require, for their own intrinsic meaning, an unconditional respect for the fundamental criteria of the moral law: that is to say, they must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights and his true and integral good according to the design and will of God.” (DV, I, 2) For the church, the absence of a scientific grounding for its instruction on human personhood means that its teaching will be seen by non-believers as particularistic, rather than universal.
In this context, is it fitting for the church to impose upon the scientist the burden of justifying any practice of which the church alone disapproves? Will the larger community accept such an imposition without the confirmatory or auxiliary support of reason? After all, it should not be assumed that the non-believer who puts these questions in this context is a moral renegade like the late Dr. George Tiller. No, the consequences of sin in the world present more moral ambiguity than that—that which is sinful often appears good, but the devil should not be thought incapable of also making good appear evil.
The Womb and Respect for Life
For this reason, a non-Catholic, be he president or the man on the street, who with respect and civility expresses skepticism over the church’s position of protecting embryos regardless of an intended and actual relationship with a nurturing environment ought not be too readily demonized. Many scientists and non-Catholics generally see the embryo outside the womb as different. Do they have a point? In both theological and practical terms, might there not be an essential difference between the blessedness of the womb and the disinterested calculations of the laboratory with its neutral protocols and scientific methods?
When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Our Lady, the request was for admission to the womb, with Mary’s answer a model for us all: “let it be done unto me.” The magnificence of the Annunciation is echoed by the poor, single woman in modern time agreeing to carry a child to term even as she may be without insurance or even sufficient shelter. The love—and faith—of Mary and her successor mothers far outdistance anything comparable in the research lab where the embryo results from the admixture of materials in a petri dish.
Yes, of course, the church also condemns mixing the ingredients of life in petri dishes, but pointing out to those beyond the fold an earlier arc in the circle of an argument is an ineffective tool of persuasion. No, at least as a matter of tolerance of religious and philosophical difference, Catholics ought to concede more generously that non-Catholic scientists anxious to identify a cure for illnesses such as juvenile diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s Disease are likely doing so out of the belief that they are honoring life by caring for the well-being of their neighbor. Indeed, if a researcher had non-embryonic human cell material thought capable of reviving a patient from a comatose state, it would not take the unraveling of the lessons of the Terri Schaivo case to know what was required as ethical duty. It is highly conceivable that a non-Catholic researcher would understand the potential and duty represented by the embryo outside the womb in the same way.
Faith and Reason
Recognizing that the pro-life office is still likely to argue that scientists have not met the burden of justification assigned to them, should we deduce that the search for common ground on stem cell research is useless? Of course not, as the pro-life office has stressed, it is possible to utilize adult stem cells without the ethical conundrums associated with the status of embryos. While I get taken to task by a few of my bishop friends whenever I say nice things about the president, at a minimum it is fair to say President Obama understands our different Catholic view in favor of protecting as persons what others would see as research material, and to my mind at least, he has articulated NIH regulations that mitigate the clash.
The president is ever hopeful of building bridges. The clarification from Professor George, an Obama opponent, that the Catholic view of personhood does not claim that it has the support of modern science aligns his understanding with mine, an Obama supporter. An agreement between a couple of erstwhile Catholic academics who may disagree on political matters is not the common ground necessary to move forward in this area, but it is a start. And if these discussions undertaken with good will permit the right hand to newly discover what the left hand is doing, perhaps we will also find a way to apply John Donne’s aphorism that “reason is our soul's left hand. Faith is the right.”