How does the Catholic Church resolve new bioethical questions?

A number of years ago, I participated in a debate at Harvard on embryonic stem cell research which also included a Jewish rabbi, an Episcopalian clergyman, and a Muslim imam. The debate went smoothly and cordially, although I was the only voice in the group who defended the human rights of individuals who happen still to be embryos. After the debate, the Episcopalian clergyman pulled me aside and told me how he thought Catholics should consider themselves fortunate to have such an authoritative reference point in the Church and the Vatican, particularly when it comes to resolving new bioethical questions. With surprising candor, he shared how he had sat on various committees with others from his own faith tradition where they had tried to sort through the ethics of embryonic stem cells, and he lamented, “we just ended up discussing feelings and opinions, without any good way to arrive at conclusions.”

Many people, indeed, appreciate that the Catholic Church holds firm and well-defined positions on moral questions, even if they may remain unsure about how or why the Church actually arrives at those positions, especially when it comes to unpacking new scientific developments like embryonic stem cell research.

So how does the Church arrive at its positions on bioethics? For one thing, it takes its time, and doesn’t jump to conclusions even in the face of media pressure for quick sound bites and rapid-fire news stories.

I once had a discussion with a journalist for a major newspaper about the ethics of human-animal chimeras. He mentioned that a leading researcher working on chimeras had met the pope and afterwards implied that the pope had given his blessing to the project. I reminded him that it’s quite common for the pope to offer general encouragement and blessings to those he meets, though that wouldn’t be the same thing as sanctioning new and morally controversial techniques in the biosciences. As a rule, the Catholic Church does not address important bioethical questions that way, through chance encounters with the pope as you are strolling through the hallways of the Vatican.

Instead, the Church may reflect for months, years, or even decades, to identify important considerations and guiding principles when new moral dilemmas arise in the biosciences. Even with this slow and deliberative process, I think it’s fair to say that the Church generally stays ahead of the curve. By the time of the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996, for example, the Catholic Church had already been reflecting on the question of human cloning for many years, and concluded, nine years prior to Dolly, that human cloning would be morally unacceptable in an important document called Donum Vitae (On the Gift of Life).

This same document also identified key moral problems with doing human embryonic stem cell research eleven years before it was even possible to destructively obtain those cells from human embryos. When the first test tube baby was born in 1978, the serious moral concerns raised by the procedure had already been spelled out twenty-two years earlier, by Pope Pius XII, in his 1956 Allocution to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Human Sterility wherein he concluded: “As regards experiments of human artificial fecundation ‘in vitro,’ let it be sufficient to observe that they must be rejected as immoral and absolutely unlawful.”

Whenever definitive conclusions about medical ethics are reached or otherwise clarified by the Church, they are normally promulgated through official Church documents, like papal encyclicals and addresses, or, with the approval of the pope, documents and commentaries from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF — the Vatican office responsible for preserving and interpreting Catholic doctrine), or other congregations, councils or dicasteries of the Church.

Even today, certain bioethical controversies remain under active discussion within the Church, such as the question of whether it would be allowable to “adopt” abandoned frozen embryos by implanting and gestating them in volunteer mothers. While a 2007 CDF document expressed some reservations and concerns about the proposal, debate continues inside and outside the Vatican.

New medical discoveries and technological developments challenge us to careful moral reflection and discernment. These scientific developments can either be an opportunity for genuine human advancement or can lead to activities and policies that undermine human dignity. The U.S. Bishops in a recent document summed it up this way: “In consultation with medical professionals, church leaders review these developments, judge them according to the principles of right reason and the ultimate standard of revealed truth, and offer authoritative teaching and guidance about the moral and pastoral responsibilities entailed by the Christian faith. While the Church cannot furnish a ready answer to every moral dilemma, there are many questions about which she provides normative guidance and direction.”

Featured image by Erick rumualdo bustos ortega – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

COMING UP: Thinking through the temptation of cohabitation

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Men and women clearly need each other and naturally gravitate towards arrangements of mutual support and lives of shared intimacy. Because women are frequently the immediate guardians of the next generation, they have a particular need to ascertain if there will be steady support from a man prior to giving themselves sexually to him. The bond of marriage is ordered towards securing this critical element of ongoing commitment and support. Cohabitation, where a man and woman decide to live together and engage in sexual relations without marriage, raises a host of issues and concerns. Sex, of course, has a certain power all its own, and both sides may be tempted to play with it in ways that are potentially damaging, all the more so when they decide to cohabit.

One concern is that cohabitation can often become a rehearsal for various selfish patterns of behavior. It perpetuates an arrangement of convenience, popularly phrased as, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” Even as many women try to tell themselves they are “preparing” for marriage by cohabiting with their partner, they may sense the trap of the “never ending audition” to be his wife, and become intuitively aware of how they are being used. Cohabitation also invites the woman to focus on lesser concerns like saving on rent or garnering transient emotional attention from her partner by moving in with him and becoming sexually available.

Even as a woman becomes attuned to the power of sex from an early age, she can eventually fall prey to an easy mistake. Aware that sexual intimacy is also about bonding, she may suppose that by surrendering this deeply personal part of herself through cohabitation, she now has a “hook” into a man and his heart. While such an arrangement can trigger various platitudes, (that he “cares for her,” “loves her”, etc.), experience shows it doesn’t typically help him reach the commitment reflected in those all-important words, “Will you marry me?”

Cohabitation, in fact, is a relationship that is defined by a holding back of commitment. The notion that it somehow allows both parties to “try out” a marriage beforehand is conveniently make-believe, a kind of “playing house,” mostly because it’s impossible to try out something permanent and irrevocable through something temporary and revocable. As Jennifer Roback Morse has described it, “Cohabiting couples are likely to have one foot out the door, throughout the relationship. The members of a cohabiting couple practice holding back on one another. They rehearse not trusting.” They don’t develop the elements crucial to a successful marriage, but instead keep their options open so they can always beat a hasty retreat to the exit. Or as Chuck Colson has put it: “Cohabitation — it’s training for divorce.” Many studies confirm that the divorce rate among those who cohabit prior to marriage is nearly double the rate of those who marry without prior cohabitation.

Some researchers believe that individuals who cohabit are more unconventional to begin with, being less committed to the institution of marriage overall and more open to the possibility of divorce. Others suspect something more insidious — that living together slowly erodes people’s ability to make a commitment by setting them up into patterns of behavior that work against succeeding in a long-term relationship. Both may actually be true.

Various risks correlate strongly with cohabitation. Compared with a married woman, a cohabiting woman is roughly three times as likely to experience physical abuse, and about nine times more likely to be murdered. Children also tend to fare poorly when it comes to these live-in arrangements. Rates of serious child abuse have been found to be lowest in intact families; six times higher in step families; 20 times higher in cohabiting biological-parent families; and 33 times higher when the mother is cohabiting with a boyfriend who is not the biological father. Cohabiting homes see significantly more drug and alcohol abuse, and bring in less income than their married peers. Cohabitation is clearly bad for men, worse for women, and terrible for children.

“Marriage,” as Glenn Stanton notes, “is actually a very pro-woman institution. People don’t fully realize what a raw deal for women cohabitation is. Women tend to bring more goods to the relationship—more work, more effort in tending to the relationship—but they get less satisfaction in terms of relational commitment and security.” While marriage doesn’t automatically solve every problem, it clearly offers a different and vastly better set of dynamics than cohabitation for all the parties involved.