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The Introduction to Dignitas Personae: The Church, Bioethics, and Reason

A Commentary by Stephen Napier, Ph.D., NCBC Ethicist

“The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death.” (n. 1) So opens the latest Instruction from the Congregation to the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) titled Dignitas personae (DP) which addresses bioethical issues. This opening sentence sets an appropriate tone for what follows in that the Instruction addresses several contemporary bioethical issues and relates them all to the respect we owe to each human being regardless of his or her developmental maturity. This is the second installment of commentaries by the ethicists at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. This commentary pertains to the introductory section.

The introduction spends time articulating why drafting the instruction was undertaken. Several reasons are offered. After recognizing the importance of Donum vitae (the previous instruction addressing bioethical issues), DP notes Donum vitae’s limitations. “The Instruction Donum vitae was particularly significant. And now, twenty years after its publication, it is appropriate to bring it up to date.” (n.1) The reason to bring it up to date concerns the developments of “…new biomedical technologies which have been introduced in the critical area of human life and the family…” (n.1) including embryonic stem cell research, cloning, genetic engineering and others. Additionally, DP promises to provide “additional clarification” to the issues addressed in Donum vitae.

Paragraph 2 begins by noting what sources the CDF drew upon in writing DP. The intention of this section, one may suppose, is to ground the authoritative status of the document. Though DP begins by noting that it is written in line with Veritatis spendor and Evangelium vitae it also quickly notes that the teaching articulated in the document is founded upon reason enlightened by faith.

In presenting principles and moral evaluations regarding biomedical research on human life, the Catholic Church draws upon the light both of reason and of faith and seeks to set forth an integral vision of man and his vocation, capable of incorporating everything that is good in human activity, as well as in various cultural and religious traditions which not infrequently demonstrate a great reverence for life. (n. 3)

This statement serves as a crucial hermeneutical or interpretive guide. The bioethical teachings of the Church should not be regarded as strictly “religious” teachings which only Catholics should follow but are teachings consistent with the natural moral law. DP makes an effort in this statement to say that the teaching can be universally accepted by anyone because it is rooted in reason. Of course, the teaching is not just reason per se, but reason and faith. (For more on this relationship see John Paul II Encyclical letter Fides et ratio.) But this is to indicate that the teaching outlined in DP can rationally be accepted by someone who is not Catholic.

An analogy may help explain why. If one were to discuss the existence of God with an atheist, one would want the person first to ask the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” or “what explains the intelligent design in the world?” What is desirable is to have the person stop looking at the world, and instead look along the world. What does the existence of the world say about its origins? What does the intricate design say about its origins? Once one looks along the world one is drawn to that which is beyond the world. If the atheist accepts, he or she is no longer an atheist. Likewise with the bioethical teachings of the Church. If we look at them, they are consistent with reason. If we look along them, we are drawn to the Divine vision and vocation for Man. If one asks the question “why does the Church teach that?” enough times, the answers will eventually fill out the “integral vision of man and his vocation.” The conclusions of reason and of faith are complementary in making up a complete vision for Man.

The introductory section closes by defending against a common misperception of the Church as “opposing science.” DP corrects this misperception by clarifying the appropriate ends of medicine. “The Magisterium also seeks to offer a word of 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.” (n. 3) Here the end of medicine is seen as fundamentally a healing art for every human being. In this regard, DP references the Hippocratic Oath.

In the current multifaceted philosophical and scientific context, a considerable number of scientists and philosophers, in the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath, see in medical science a service to human fragility aimed at the cure of disease, the relief of suffering and the equitable extension of necessary care to all people (n. 2).

DP drives home the point here that what follows is consistent with reason and that the traditional ends of medicine (life and health) remain the appropriate aims of this discipline. The Church encourages practitioners to seek these good ends. None of this should be taken to “oppose” science. Rather, the Church is aiming to shape science consistent with the principle outlined in the opening sentence, “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death” (n. 1). Medical activities inconsistent with this principle are not ‘science’ any more than Tuskegee and the Nazi experiments count as science.

In what follows, DP addresses first the ethical and anthropological principles needed to assess the moral character of some developments in biotechnology. Second, the document turns to analyze “developments” in engendering human beings. In the third section, DP addresses the new ways in which human beings, once engendered, are then manipulated further. Commentaries on these sections and their subsections will follow.