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The Vatican and Bioethics

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Vatican Documents Relating to Bioethical Issues

Conciliar Documents

Papal Teaching:

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF):

International Theological Commission:

The National Catholic Bioethics Center

NCBC is a think tank whose purpose is "to promote and safeguard the dignity of the human person… through research, education, consultation and publication in the health and life sciences."

Fr. Tad Pacholczyk, the NCBC Director of Education, maintains a log of articles from "Making Sense Out of Bioethics," which appears in diocesan newspapers around the country. This series treats timely questions with a combination of Church teaching, logic, analogy and anecdotes, many from personal history. It is a useful secondary resource for people who want to learn how to think with the mind of the Church.

Major Issues in Bioethics

Questions relating to human fertility and embryonic or fetal human life.

  • Artificial Contraception
  • Surgical Abortion
  • Pharmacological or Prophylactic Abortion
  • In-Vitro Fertilization and Embryo Transfer and Artificial Insemination [both Heterologous and Homologous]
  • Surrogate Motherhood
  • Gamete "Donation" Disposition and Use
  • Embryonic Stem-Cell Research
  • Human Cloning and Human/Animal Hybrids
  • Preservation and Disposition of Human Embryos in a Frozen State

Questions relating to the end of human life.

  • Euthanasia
  • Extraordinary Life Maintenance — Means, Burden and Prognosis
  • Nutrition and Hydration
  • Brain Death vs. Persistent Vegetative State
  • Palliative Care and Unintended Effects

Conscientious Objection, Affirmative Obligation and Material Cooperation

Unresolved theological questions, tradition vs. doctrine and ethical issues.

  • Ensoulment vs. the Sanctity of Human Life
  • Principle of Double Effect (CCC ¶ 2263) [self-defense, ectopic pregnancy, palliative care]
  • Remote vs. Proximate Material Cooperation
  • Principle of Totality [Humanae Vitae, ¶ 17 reference to Pope Pius XII: Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS) 45, 48]

Extraordinary Cases or Circumstances

  • Terri Schiavo
  • Billy the Whizz
  • Triage in Violence or Natural Disaster
  • Rape and After Measures
  • Rape, VD and Artificial Contraception
  • Epidemic HIV and Artificial Contraception

Basic Principles

Principle of Objective Morality
If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain "irremediably" evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. [Veritatis Splendor, ¶ 81; Pope John Paul II, Aug 6, 1993] The moral aspects of any procedure do not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives, but must be determined by objective standards. [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes, ¶ 51, Dec. 7, 1965]
Principle of Totality and Integrity (or the Therapeutic Principle)
[Cited by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae — citation ref. "Address to Association of Urology", Pope Pius XII, 1953.] The human person develops, cares for, and preserves all his physical and mental functions in such a way that (1) lower functions are never sacrificed except for the better functioning of the total person, and even then with an effort to compensate for what is being sacrificed; and (2) the fundamental faculties which essentially belong to being human are never sacrificed, except when necessary to save life. ["Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God", ¶ 83; International Theological Commission, July 24, 2004] For the application of the principle of totality and integrity, the following conditions must be met [ibid., ¶ 85]:
  1. there must be a question of an intervention in the part of the body that is either affected or is the direct cause of the life-threatening situation;
  2. there can be no other alternatives for preserving life;
  3. there is a proportionate chance of success in comparison with drawbacks; and
  4. the patient must give assent to the intervention.
The unintended drawbacks and side-effects of the intervention can be justified on the basis of the principle of double effect.
Principle of Self-Defense
The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. "The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life; and the killing of the aggressor… The one is intended, the other is not. [CCC ¶ 2263. St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II,64,7, corp. art.]
Principle of Double Effect
Consequentially similar acts having different intentional structures make for ethically different acts. When a proposed act can be foreseen to have both good and bad effects, it may yet be ethically chosen if the following conditions are satisfied: [Not officially sanctioned by the Vatican]
  1. The action contemplated must, in itself, be either morally good or morally indifferent.
  2. The bad effect must not be directly intended, either as an end in itself or as a means to the good end.
  3. The good effect must not be a direct causal result of the bad effect.
  4. The good effect must be "proportionate" to (if not clearly greater than) the bad effect, and the agent must exercise due diligence to minimize the bad effect.
Principle of Human Anthropology or Natural Moral Law
A human being is a unified totality of body and spirit, possessing intellect and free will and willed to exist by God, according to an objectively given nature, as an end in himself or herself. God's design for the human person includes a readily discernible hierarchy of values, beginning with life and moral dignity, and encompassing sexuality in all its aspects. [Summary based on "Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day" - Donum Vitae, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Feb. 22, 1987]
  1. The person can never be considered a means to an end; above all never a means of "pleasure". The person is and must be nothing other than the end of every act. Only then does the action correspond to the true dignity of the person. ["Letter to Families", ¶ 12; Pope John Paul II, Feb. 2, 1994]
  2. The Church's teaching on marriage and human procreation affirms the "inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning. Indeed, by its intimate structure, the conjugal act, while most closely uniting husband and wife, capacitates them for the generation of new lives, according to laws inscribed in the very being of man and of woman". [Humanae Vitae ¶ 12; Pope Paul VI, July 25, 1968 - cited in Donum Vitae, ¶ 4]
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