A PARISH WITHOUT WALLS? Friday's Chicago Tribune ran an article by Darlene Stevens about Catholic Blogging (full disclosure: Darlene interviewed me for the story and Sursum Corda is mentioned in the article). It's a nice piece, but I think it may create the somewhat misleading impression that we Catholic Bloggers consciously think of ourselves as a 'cyberspace parish' or that our Blogging is somehow a substitute for involvement in parish life. It's not. The 'Saint Blog's' bit is just a little bit of ironic humor, something that was clearly lost on Catholic sociologist Christopher Shannon who grouses about how a "virtual parish...will increase the fragmentation of community in the Church." It's a joke, Chris, lighten up!
JOHN ALLEN FOLLOWS THE POPE:John Allen, the National Catholic Reporter's Vatican correspondent, has been following John Paul II around on this recent trip and has some interesting observations. One of Allen's most compelling experiences was in Guatemala, where the Pope canonized Brother Pedro de San José de Betancurt. Allen visited a hospital in Guatemala and encountered a ward full of children who had been terribly misshapen by malnutrition. The experience had a profound effect on him:
Afterwards we visited the cathedral in Antigua where Pedro’s tomb is located, which was overflowing this muggy July evening with long lines of people waiting to implore the saint-to-be’s intervention. I stood next to a mother with a small child with a speech impediment. The mother repeatedly touched the tomb, then the child’s tongue, then back again, begging Pedro for help.
At one stage, I might have been slightly skeptical, even bemused, by such popular piety. After what I had witnessed earlier that night, however, I found myself joining this young mother’s prayer. If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are few demythologizers in hospital wards.
Passion alone is not enough. Neither is truth. The occupational pitfall for us, conservatives, is this: Not infrequently we end up like the older brother of the prodigal son, doing all the right things, not straying, but standing outside the circles of the celebration, unable to dance because we are angry that someone else has strayed. Too often our passion for truth has us bracket Jesus' call for patience, wide tolerance and a mellow heart.
In these last two columns, Rolheiser cements his reputation as one of the most fair-minded and even-handed commentators on Christian life today. Check 'em out.
VESTED: Father Jim over at Dappled Things has been running a wonderful series of descriptions/reflections on the vestments worn by the priest at mass. He supplies the prayers said while donning the vestments, which are quite beautiful.
Today I wanted to offer some of my own thoughts on the report, which are going to focus on the issue of cloning-for-biomedical research. This was the issue on which the Council members, like the general public, were most strongly divided. The majority of the Council members took a position in favor of a four-year moratorium on such research, but there was a large minority who disagreed.
The Council members had to weigh two key issues in coming to their conclusions about the morality of cloning-for-biomedical research. They had to decide whether the early human embryo had the same moral status as a full human person. They also had to make an assessment of the potential benefits of this kind of research.
The position that Council members took on the first question was heavily dependent on their views of the second. Those members who were most positive about the potential of this kind of research were those who concluded that the early embryo was not inviolable. By contrast, those who defended the humanity of the early embryo tended to believe the promise of this research had been exaggerated.
Although I am an opponent of cloning-for-research (click here and here for some earlier posts on this subject), I tried hard while reading the report to separate these two questions. I think the report makes a compelling case that research using cloned embryos may be extremely helpful in developing treatments for certain diseases, particularly neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
I also think the report highlights some of the difficulties involved in making a firm judgment about the moral status of the early human embryo. The Council members who defend the humanity of the early embryo argue that it is an “integrated, self-developing whole, capable (if all goes well) of the continued, organic development characteristic of human beings.” There is no definable point, they argue, where the developing embryo crosses a line and becomes human; rather it is a genetically unique human being from the moment of fertilization.
I am in sympathy with this view, but the report offers some objections to it that I find compelling. It can be argued that prior to implantation in a womb, the embryo does not truly possess the ability to continue to develop on its own. In this light, the fusion between the zygote and the uterus can be seen to be as morally significant as the fusion between sperm and egg. Both are part of a dynamic process of conception by which a new human life obtains the capacity for “the continued, organic development characteristic of human beings.”
Does this mean that I agree with those Council members who hold that the pre-implantation embryo can be exploited for research? I do not. Let me offer five reasons why:
First of all, I think what an understanding of the biology of conception leads to is that we can never be completely certain of the moral status of the early human embryo. Those who favor cloning-for-research seem to believe that if we lack certainty it is morally acceptable to conduct such research. I would argue the contrary position: if there is at least a reasonable chance that to use embryos for research would, in fact, be homicide, we should not proceed.
Second, I find I must reject the position of those Council members who hold that it is possible to have a “special respect” for the early human embryo and still exploit it for research. As the Council members opposed to cloning-for-research noted, “things we exploit even occasionally tend to lose their special value.” Once the destruction of embryos becomes widespread, it will quickly become routine and gradually come to seem of less ethical import. As Dostoevsky once observed, “man gets used to everything—the beast!”
Third, even if one accepted that there was a narrow set of circumstances under which the destruction of early human embryos would be licit, those circumstances would have to bear a strong resemblance to the traditional criteria for a “just war.” But one of the key criteria for a just war is that it is a last resort. But there is no way that the advocates of cloning-for-research can claim that we are currently in anything like a “last resort” situation.
Fourth, even if one remains agnostic on the questions of whether the early embryo is a “person,” and whether its destruction would be “homicide,” there is no question that it is a form of human life. To create a human life for no other purpose than to serve our needs is deeply wrong. As I have noted elsewhere, this seems like such a fragile reason, but almost everything we believe about human rights and human dignity depends on it.
Finally, I think it legitimate to question whether the 14-day limit on the use of the early embryo--proposed by the pro-research Council members--can be sustained. What if it turns out that research using more developed embryos could lead to life-saving treatments for various diseases? Many of the arguments offered in favor of using early embryos (e.g. immature nervous system, limited organ development, etc.) could be just as easily deployed in favor of using an older embryo or a fetus. Are we willing to consider harvesting a kidney from an eight-week old fetus if it would keep someone in renal failure alive? What are the moral limits on what we can do to preserve life?
This final point illuminates the central tension of the entire report. Our judgment about whether early human life is inviolable is heavily influenced by the benefits we might obtain if we decide that it is not. If nothing else gives us pause, this should. Given such a clear conflict of interest, can we really trust ourselves to make the call?