The Church and bioethics: saying ‘yes’ to life and love


The Church’s moral teaching made headlines last week with the release of a new document on bioethics.

Approved by Pope Benedict XVI and released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae—“The Dignity of a Person”—treats such hot-button issues as embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, and in vitro fertilization.

You may not read it in the newspaper, but the Church is not so much against moral wrongs as she is radically in favor of human life and love. Presenting the Church’s teachings this way (as the document does)—not as prohibitions of evils, but as affirmations of goods—may help to deepen our love for these teachings and their place in our lives.

Not surprisingly, this latest intervention from the Church’s teaching office encourages a deep respect for all human life. The youngest and most vulnerable members of the human family ought to be protected. No possible goods, even medical research, can justify the intentional taking of innocent human life.

Similarly, respect for human life requires a respect for the relationship from which it springs. Marriage must be honored and its unique dignity respected.

These teachings must be seen for what they are: a positive proposal, a real option for how to live. They are not a negative reaction to a culture gone astray, but reflect the reality of a joy-filled life in Christ, whatever that entails.

As Pope Benedict insists, the Church’s moral teaching must not be seen as a series of prohibitions or “Nos” but instead as a great “Yes” to human freedom and fulfillment. The Church is not so much against various moral ills, as much as she is for a human life lived to the full.

As this recent document says, “Behind every “no” in the difficult task of discerning between good and evil, there shines a great “yes” to the recognition of the dignity and inalienable value of every single and unique human being.”

This is similarly true for the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics. The Church offers the beautiful proposal that love-making and life-making go together. Just as sexual acts closed to the gift of life do not reflect the proper dignity of conjugal love, the creation of human beings outside an act of marital love does not adequately reflect the dignity each human life deserves.

This of course is not to say that one conceived in this way is somehow inferior or in any way less loved into being by God Himself. The equal dignity of all is instead the first principle underlying this entire teaching. Still, the Church’s teaching does ask that we step back and reexamine whether our beliefs and practices are really a proper reflection of human dignity.

Here too, the Church’s teaching is more than a simple “No.” It is instead a “Yes” to the gift of human love. Human life is so precious and human love so exalted that they must go together. More so, it honors our dignity to say that technology, while a blessing, does not have all the answers.

Sometimes, living a moral life may not be easy and require sacrifice and even suffering. Still, for the Christian, sharing in the Cross is not simply a “No” to immediate human happiness. It is a “Yes” to drawing near to Christ the redeemer and true healer.

The teaching of this document should have an important place in the lives of Catholics. Particular mention should be made of doctors, researchers, legislators and others will have to use the virtue of prudence to apply this moral teaching to their particular field. The Church depends upon those in these fields to propose these teachings—based not in sectarian dogma but in the natural law—to their respective disciplines.

Many of the headlines this week stressed the Church’s opposition to destructive trends in bioethics. While certainly that is true, in a way it is only the beginning of the story. More than anywhere else in our world, the Church offers a positive proposal affirming the sanctity of each human life and the dignity of human love.

Ryan Connors is a First Theologian studying at the North American College in Rome. He is a Riverside native and a member of St. Brendan parish.