Sunday, January 04, 2009


Spirit & LifeĀ®
"The words I spoke to you are spirit and life." (Jn 6:63)

Human Life International e-Newsletter
Volume 04, Number 01 | Friday, January 02, 2009



Dignitas Personae and the Right to Life
Brian Clowes, PhD

NOTE: this is the first of a two-part series on the new instruction from the Vatican on bioethics. Dr. Brian Clowes has been an HLI missionary for twelve years and offers this first reflection of 2009 for the Spirit and LifeĀ® audience.

There are two causes of most of the human misery that afflicts the world today. The first is lack of respect for the transmission of life within the marital union, which leads to destructive practices such as contraception, sterilization, abortion, homosexual adoption and "gay marriage." The second is a lack of respect for the born human person, which has given us murder, genocide, racism, slavery, rape and many other evils.

On December 12 of last year, the highest doctrinal agency in the Catholic Church, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), released its first comprehensive instruction on bioethics since Donum Vitae in 1987. This document, Dignitas Personae ["The Dignity of a Person"], is an "instruction," and therefore does not proclaim an infallibly defined dogma. However, it was carefully reviewed and approved by Pope Benedict XVI and thus carries his full authority. It is therefore an integral part of the universal ordinary Magisterium, with which Catholics must inform their consciences and adhere to with religious assent.

In Dignitas Personae, the Church applies timeless moral principles to new issues and situations that have arisen from biotechnology over the past two decades. This document is based on a foundation of consistency of respect for the human person at all stages of life. We have seen that, when we begin to make exceptions to the universal dignity of the human person for whatever reason, even if it is to promote the welfare of other human beings, we inevitably veer away from the natural law and flounder in the swamp of moral relativism.

Those who read Dignitas Personae in a cursory or superficial manner might believe it to be a mere laundry list of prohibitions. However, from the very first paragraph, the document affirms the fundamental dignity of every human person, from conception to natural death, regardless of race, sex or disability. To be created in the image and likeness of Almighty God is the highest calling, and Dignitas Personae vigorously defends this status.

Far from being a negative document, Dignitas Personae is very positive in tone, showing us how to live a life free of the oppressive worries and guilt suffered by those who even partially embrace the Culture of Death. It frequently refers to the dignity of marriage and the human person, in addition to the positive results of scientific research and therapy used to overcome infertility and disease.

The document does not shout "STOP!" at the progress of science, but instead guides it towards being truly at the service of life and not of death or the manipulation of human persons. As it so eloquently says, "Behind every 'no' in the difficult task of discerning between good and evil, there shines a great 'yes' to the recognition of the dignity and inalienable value of every single and unique human being called into existence" [37].

Dignitas Personae favors the weak. If we lose sight of the weak or exploit them, we also lose sight of our very humanity. In such a world, the strong rule without regard to the small and helpless, not only in the laboratory but also over entire continents.

Just because the Church renders negative judgments about some biotechnologies, or cautions about possible pitfalls, does not mean that it is anti-technological. Dignitas Personae says that, in using these new technologies, man "participates in the creative power of God" and is "the steward of the value and intrinsic beauty of creation" [36]. History has shown us that any new major technology can be used to enhance human dignity or to oppress, destroy and exploit entire populations. Science needs a firm and clear ethical framework precisely because it has such great potential for doing either good or evil.

The potential of the new biosciences seems to be limited only by man's imagination. Since it is sometimes difficult to find our way in a confusing and complex world, Dignitas Personae offers welcome guidance. It draws a straight and clear line between activities that treat human beings as a commodity to be produced -- or as God's greatest gift.

NEXT WEEK: Specific guidance from Dignitas Personae.

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