Commentary on "Dignitas Personae"

«The Instruction Invokes the Rigid Logic of Coherence and Incoherence»

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ROME, FEB. 25, 2009 ( Here is the adapted text of an article written by Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and president of the Cardinal Van Thuân International Observatory for the Social Doctrine of the Church, on the Vatican instruction «Dignitas Personae.»

The instruction was published last December.

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The recent instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith titled «Dignitas Personae» […] is not a document regarding bioethics alone, but also contains numerous considerations of a political and social nature. After John Paul II’s «Evangelium Vitae» (1995) the theme of life has been tackled on a regular basis not only as a sectoral chapter of personal morals — a dimension it does have — but also as a fundamental dimension of public ethics.

Then again, life and the natural place of its reception, or, in other words, human sexuality, marriage and the family are at the selfsame origin of society itself. «Dignitas Personae» also follows this same line and not only assesses new technical possibilities in the field of procreation and genetic engineering, but also situates all that in a much broader context, first and foremost theological and anthropological, but likewise social and political. Readers will therefore find in the instruction words (and concepts) like equality, justice, peaceful coexistence, common good, slavery, etc., all of which have pride of place in social and political semantics.

The dignity to be acknowledged to each human being constitutes the core of the instruction. Denying that dignity in procreative procedures through in vitro fertilization and the voluntary elimination of human embryos «leads to a weakening of the respect owed to every human being. Recognition of such respect is, on the other hand, promoted by the intimacy of husband and wife nourished by married love» (No. 16). If respect fades away in such a key sector, the awareness of the dignity of the person will tend to become fainter and fainter in other sectors of human endeavor as well (the economy, the world of labor, the realm of social shortcomings). When people succumb to the sole rationale of subjective desires they end up depending on economic pressure. Placing life and the dignity of the embryo in the hands of technicians ushers in the domination of technology, which will also come to the forefront in other ambits of social life (cf. No. 17). The instruction invokes the rigid logic of coherence and incoherence: What we do or don’t do at the very beginning of life cannot help but have consequences later on.

Many techniques of embryo selection and genetic engineering are expressions of a «eugenic mentality,» which they then foster in their own turn. «This,» we read in the instruction, «would be in contrast with the fundamental truth of the equality of all human beings which is expressed in the principle of justice, the violation of which, in the long run, would harm peaceful coexistence among individuals» (No. 27). Equality, justice and peace: It is a question of three fundamental elements of the common good. The eugenic mentality undermines the common good of society at large insofar as it establishes the principle of the will of some prevailing over the liberty of others.

It is above all in the conclusion (Nos. 36-37), however, that the instruction sets the social and political contours of its argumentation. Opportunely reiterated is the well known passage from «Evangelium Vitae» recalling «Rerum Novarum» and drawing an analogy between workers — the poor back then — and the human fetuses not allowed to be born — the poor of today. The Church speaks out today as it did then to protect the most defenseless, well aware that human resources are unfortunately used all too often for evil instead of good. Among the attacks on human life, the instruction recalls poverty, underdevelopment, the destruction of the ecosystem, weapons and warfare (No. 36). Among the prohibitions widely accepted today, and which seek to protect the dignity of man, the instruction recalls those against racism, slavery, and discrimination of women, children, ill and disabled persons (No. 37). This instruction has its rightful place within the spheres of these promotions and prohibitions. It therefore tells us that the value of life and of the dignity of the person is indivisible, and hence bioethics is part of the social issue.   

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