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Dignitas Personae


God's Plan for Marriage and Family:  Commentary On Dignitas Personae,
Part One, nn 6-10

Dr. John M. Haas, NCBC President

The National Catholic Bioethics Center continues to provide commentary on the Vatican document, Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of the Person) issued in December 2009. This commentary will cover sections 6 through 9 which deal with the marital relationship, and the means of bringing children into the world.

One would think there was no need for a Vatican document to explain what marriage is and how babies come to be. However, we live in a world which no longer can see reality for what it is. Once I listened to a week of lectures on human sexuality by an Anglican theologian from Cambridge. Never once did he mention children in relation to sex. When I asked him at the end of his fifth lecture why he had never mentioned children in relation to human sexuality, he declared, “My good man, you can’t expect me to cover everything in a week!” No. Not everything. But how about the reason why God created sex in the first place?!

Another time I was having lunch with a homosexual activist who wanted to legalize “gay marriage”. He was a Catholic. He expressed the desire to have children and a family. Finally I said, “Look, don’t you think God has a plan for the way children should be brought into the world and a family established.” “Well, I used to,” he replied, “but no longer.” This man may have called himself a Catholic but he was in fact a non-believer. If God does not even have a plan for the way in which He wants the crown of His creation to be brought into the world, it’s hard to imagine His having a plan for anything.

Dignitas Personae deals fundamentally with bioethical issues at the beginning of life. It reminds us that God does indeed have a plan for human procreation and the establishment of families. The Church has felt compelled to provide this teaching in our day when single women are artificially inseminated by sperm they buy from fertility clinics; when a married woman will carry in her womb a child engendered by her husband’s sperm and her sister’s (or a stranger’s) egg; when parents will engender their children in a glass dish, perform genetic test on those embryonic children, and then destroy the ones who are the wrong sex; when military wives whose husband’s are off to war will allow themselves to be artificially inseminated by another woman’s husband and carry that child to term in order to make some extra money; when human beings will be brought into being in glass dishes for the sole purpose of being experimented upon and then destroyed; when over 500,000 embryonic human beings are frozen in tanks of liquid nitrogen. We have encountered the brave new world of science fiction and moved beyond it into an absurd reality.

In the face of these countless assaults on the dignity of husbands and wives, and the institution of marriage, and helpless embryonic human beings, and children, the Church in this solemn document tries to pull us back to reality for the good of all of us!

When Dignitas Personae speaks of the dignity of human persons, it does so squarely in the context of marriage. “Respect . . . is owed to every human being because each one carries in an indelible way his own dignity and value. The origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and the family, where it is generated in an act which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman.” (No. 6) There is a profound truth to the saying that a husband and wife make love, they do not make babies. The marital act is not a manufacturing process and children are not the product.

A husband and wife give expression of their love to one another physically, emotionally and spiritually in the marital act, and that act may or may not be blessed with the gift of life. In Latin, the gift of life is Donum Vitae, the name of the Vatican document issued in 1987 which analyzed the ethics of various means of overcoming infertility. In fact, Donum Vitae taught that any attempt to overcome infertility which replaced the personal loving act of a husband and wife was in and of itself immoral.

Such attempts at engendering children by eliminating the personal loving embrace between a husband and wife have invariably led to children being treated as manufactured products, subject to quality control and liable to destruction if they do not meet sufficiently high standards.

In vitro fertilization takes place in a glass dish using the sex cells of a man and woman. The healthiest ones are chosen for implantation, the others discarded. If all the ones planted in a uterus take hold and they are too many to be carried safely, the weakest ones are killed with potassium chloride injected into their little chests. If it is learned that a surrogate mother who has been artificially inseminated by a “contracting” couple is carrying a defective baby, the “contracting” couple can order her to abort it. If she does not, the contract is voided, and she is left with the financial responsibility of raising the child. The father of the child who has artificially inseminated the “surrogate” mother, would subsequently have no legal or financial obligations vis-à-vis the child or the mother. When one departs from God’s plan for marriage and family, there is suffering and injustice.

Dignitas Personae is also very careful about how it refers to the act of bringing a new human being into the world. Human beings do not reproduce. Lower animals do that. Human beings “procreate”, i.e., they co-create with God. They do not act alone! “Procreation which is truly responsible vis-à-vis the child to be born ‘must be the fruit of marriage.’”

Such a cooperation with God in the bringing into existence of new human beings bestows on the actions of our souls and bodies in the marital bed a supernatural quality. This is not a mere human activity but one which is divine and which bestows on the fruit of this activity an ineffable dignity. “By taking the interrelationship of these two dimensions, the human and the divine, as the starting point, one understands better why it is that man has unassailable value: he possesses an eternal vocation and is called to share in the Trinitarian love of the living God.” God has a plan. Follow it.