Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Christmas: the Gift of Life and the Dignity of the Person

Saturday, December 20, 2008

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14) In the mystery of the Incarnation, all the dimensions of our human nature, including our bodies, are now joined to God’s Eternal Word in Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and Son of Mary, savior of the world.

The Catholic Church is an enigma to many because she sees the human body as a gift from God, not as an object to be manipulated by a man or woman’s individual desires or purposes. In 1987, the church published a document called “The Gift of Life,” because new moral questions had been raised by modern technology’s ability to manipulate bodies. In 2008, the church published a companion document, “The Dignity of the Person,” because further technological advances have raised more questions about the relationship between technology and the transmission of human life.

These are Christmas documents, rooted in our belief in the Word made flesh. “The Dignity of the Person” was published on Dec. 12, 2008, the feast of our Lady of Guadalupe, and two days after Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day. In appearing to St. Juan Diego in a conquered Mexico City in 1531, the Blessed Virgin Mary claimed the peoples of the Americas as her own, long before there was a United States of America. She is our mother, the one who pre-eminently protects our life in Christ, her divine son. Because we are created by God, we have rights. Our life is not to be manipulated by anyone, including ourselves. Human rights are embedded in human nature, now assumed by the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. A civilized country and world respects those rights, preeminently the right to life and to religious freedom. Civil rights, political rights, should protect human rights, not destroy them.

This latest document from the Holy See on life and technology starts with the two principles that flow from our human nature: each human being has a dignity that demands respect; and the Church encourages human beings to develop scientific techniques that respect human beings and do not manipulate them. These principles are the framework for morally evaluating techniques that affect human reproduction. What are some of the conclusions reached in the document?

What is human and alive cannot be killed, no matter its state of development. Human embryos are very young human beings, not “biological material” to be used in laboratory experiments. It is immoral to clone a human being or to create “designer babies” or to alter a person’s genetic identity (germ line genetic engineering) or to create hybrids from human and animal genetic components. It is wrong to prevent the implantation of an embryo in the womb after conception, to conceive a child outside of the marital embrace of husband and wife (IVF) and to create large numbers of embryos that will be frozen and, eventually, destroyed.

It is good, on the other hand, to study and work to cure disease and to strengthen the bonds of marriage and family. Stem cell research that does not destroy embryos is encouraged for therapeutic purposes; fertility treatments that overcome or correct pathologies and succeed in re-establishing the normal functioning of human procreation are good in themselves; therapeutic gene therapy, provided the risks are clearly understood, is licit and could be beneficial.

Bioethics based on principles rooted in human nature confronts ethical visions that are based on results alone. We are a pragmatic people, and the end justifies the means for many. The Church teaches the truth about who we are because she believes we have an eternal destiny as human persons, not because she wants to make life difficult. The Church wants every human being to be true to human nature. Then we have a chance not only to be saved in eternity but also to live in peace now.

The world, or much of it, welcomes its savior at Christmas. It should welcome, as well, the truth about who we are in ourselves and in Christ. We are not to be manipulated biologically; nor are we to be manipulated politically and economically and legally. Many of our present political and economic difficulties stem from forgetting that principle. For our part, we are to reach out to help those who share our human dignity. The poor, especially this year and at this season, have a special claim on us, as do our families and those whom God has given us to cherish and support in this life.

“The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” As we come together around the Christmas crib this year, let us thank God for having made us so wonderfully and for having given us a savior to deliver us from the trap of our sinfulness. A Christmas celebration built on these convictions will be merry and blessed for all.