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Avoiding a rush to judgment on ’embryo adoption’

January 30, 2009

In outlining the responsibilities of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus (1988) states “Fulfilling its duty of promoting doctrine, the Congregation fosters studies so that the understanding of the faith may grow and a response in the light of the faith may be given to new questions arising from the progress of the sciences or human culture.” (PB 49, my emphasis).

An instruction from CDF itself, Donum veritatis (1990), in discussing the mutual enrichment that occurs between theological scholarship and the Church doctrine, affirms that “Theology and the Magisterium are of diverse natures and missions and cannot be confused. Nonetheless they fulfill two vital roles in the Church which must interpenetrate and enrich each other for the service of the People of God.” (DV 40, my emphasis).

Finally, the statutes of the International Theological Commission (m.p. Tredecim anni, 1982) affirm the responsibility of that august body “to study doctrinal problems of great importance, especially those presenting a new issue, and in this way [help] the Magisterium of the Church, particularly the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to which it is attached.” (TA, norm 1, my translation and emphasis).

These sources highlight the deliberation with which the Church in general, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in particular, approach new and complex questions. One can only imagine, then, the study that preceded CDF’s recent instruction Dignitas personae (2008). Within that important instruction one finds, I think, several points of ‘first impression’, that is, official responses that are just beginning to participate in the Magisterium of the Church.

But it is very important to recall not only that some of the points made in DP are new and therefore enjoy level of doctrinal authority quite below that accorded settled teaching, but also that some of them are, upon closer reading, offered with a nuance that admits the need for further study by scientific and theological communities in service to the Magisterium. One obvious invitation to such further study is, I think, found within the Congregation’s circumspect remarks on “embryo adoption” (DP 19). Consider:

“The proposal that [frozen] embryos could be put at the disposal of infertile couples as a treatment for infertility is not ethically acceptable for the same reasons which make artificial heterologous procreation illicit as well as any form of surrogate motherhood; this practice would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature.

It has also been proposed, solely in order to allow human beings to be born who are otherwise condemned to destruction, that there could be a form of ‘prenatal adoption’. This proposal, praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life, presents however various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above.”

I understand why some responsible scholars oppose “embryo adoption” and why they make the argument that the CDF has rejected, or has all but rejected, the process. Nevertheless, I think a fair reading of DP leaves open the possibility that the adoption of embryonic humans, properly understood and rightly motivated, could pass moral muster and, if this is so, why it might actually be an exercise in heroic charity on the part of adopting parents, however disordered was the process by which these tiny human beings first came into existence.

In short, I hope that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith resists calls for a rush to judgment on this novel and complex question, and I encourage scholars, particularly scientists, theologians, and others with expertise in this area, to help the Magisterium, and the couples directly facing this question in their lives, to reach a correct decision.

The rest of us should support them with our prayers.

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