Freedom, Babies, John Paul II and Human Dignity
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Freedom, Babies, John Paul II and Human Dignity

Freedom, Babies, John Paul II and Human Dignity

Joanna Bogle FAITH MAGAZINE January-February 2014

Joanna Bogle is author of several historical biographies. Her latest is Courage and Conviction about Brigettine nuns who hid Jewish refugees in Rome during the Second World War. She is active in the Association of Catholic Women, is chairman of an ecumenical Christian group running the nationwide Schools Bible Project, and was appointed a Dame of St Gregory by Pope Benedict XVI. In this fascinating article she explores the Church’s teaching in relation to new developments in reproductive technology.

You created my inmost self; knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps 139)

The advertisement on the Tube showed an enchanting baby, glowing with health, tugging on his sun-hat, wide blue eyes bright with hope. And the words alongside invited us to buy such a baby for ourselves: donor sperm was on offer, just contact this website. Nothing shady, nothing backstreet about this: I’m sitting on the Jubilee Line, staring at it, all jostling with advertisements for holidays, or meeting your true love, or getting the best insurance deal. All offering whatever you think you want or need.

Medicine has always raised ethical issues. The Church has remained consistent in her defence of human life – from the very earliest days of Christianity two millennia ago when abortion, contraception and infanticide were condemned in the Didache.1

Buying someone’s sperm with which to inseminate yourself is not a new thing: advertising it on the London Underground probably is – but there’ll probably be more, and worse, things fairly soon.

A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift…a child may not be considered a piece of property” (CCC 2378).

We got legalised abortion and widespread contraception in the 1960s and ’70s. By the 1980s and ’90s, it had become possible to fertilise a woman’s ovum in a test tube, using sperm from any man, and thus to have human embryos which were not created in a maternal womb, and were not the result of sexual communion. These embryos could also be created in larger numbers than would have been the norm had conception taken place in the usual way. And of course they could be the result of the union of material from two people who were not married and who did not even know each other’s names. The embryos could be stored or destroyed, they could be used for experiments, they could be bought and sold, they could be put on display, they could – at least in theory if not yet in practical possibility –be inserted into any woman’s womb, with or without her full knowledge or consent. The moral issues raised by all of this were grave, and the risks to the common good of the human community enormous.

Donum Vitae and Dignitas Personae

The Church speaks on this, both with the authoritative voice of Peter, and with the work and worth of Catholics uniting with all men and women of goodwill who seek to defend human values. But it is uphill work.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the Instruction Donum Vitae (DV) in 1987 and this was followed by Dignitas Personae (DP) in 2008. Essentially, the second of these adds detail, force, and further analysis and instruction to the first. The two documents flow together and create a united message. The first was issued under Pope John Paul and was signed by Joseph Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation, and the second was issued when Joseph Ratzinger had become Pope and was signed by William Levada as Prefect.

The more detailed and analytical approach of DP reflects the further developments in medical technology which had taken place since the publication of DV in 1987.

John Paul II: “A World of Values”

DV opens with an overview of developments in the technology which now make it possible “to intervene not only in order to assist but also to dominate the processes of procreation” (DV 1). It emphasises that science and technology must be “at the service of the human person” (DV 2) and the language is quite strong: “Science without conscience can only lead to man’s ruin” (DV 2); and “No biologist or doctor can reasonably claim, by virtue of his scientific competence, to be able to decide on people’s rights and destiny” (DV 3).

The document devotes its first main section to the importance of respect for human embryos, and makes it clear that any deliberate destruction of an embryo is abortion, firmly condemned by the Church in the Declaration on Procured Abortion, which it quotes.2 It then tackles, in detail, the question of prenatal diagnosis, therapeutic procedures, experimentation, in-vitro fertilisation, and other issues.

The message is clear and is spelled out: the human embryo must be treated as having full human rights. Thus prenatal diagnosis is never acceptable if the intention is to abort the pregnancy; therapeutic procedures are acceptable only if there is a direct benefit to the embryo, such as the healing of an illness stemming from a chromosomal defect; and all experimentation is wrong that is not directly related to the good of the particular embryo and carried out with the parents’ knowledge and consent.

DV affirms categorically that “the human being must be respected – as a person – from the very first instant of his existence” (DV I.1). It goes on to analyse this, discussing the whole question of a “personal presence” and asking : “how could a human individual not be a human person?” It states:

The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and is unchangeable. (DV I.1)

The clear message here – especially as it denounces in detail the various possible ways in which an embryo’s dignity as a human being could be violated – is that not only the death of an embryo, but also any tampering with the well-being of this individual that might harm his integrity or well-being, is condemned. Even after death, there must be respect and the corpse may not be subject to autopsy without the consent of the parents, nor must any commercial trafficking be allowed.

DV goes on to insist that civil legislation must give legal protection to human embryos: “The inalienable rights of the person must be recognised and respected by civil society and the political authority,” and these include “every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until natural death”.

We can see here an emphasis on the dignity and value of the human person that was at the heart of Pope John Paul’s philosophical studies and is echoed both in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council – to which he made noted contributions as a bishop – and in subsequent teachings of the Magisterium. Inevitably, opponents of the Church’s message sought, after the publication of DV, to attempt to denigrate it, by seizing on the question of whether or not an embryo is a full human person in every sense of that term. This would in due course be further addressed in DP; but in any ordinary reading of DV it is clear already.

John Paul’s biographer notes that “in insisting that the state not declare entire classes of human beings outside the protection of laws, the Church was appealing to moral truths that could be known by any thinking person willing to work through an argument – moral truths that were part of the cultural foundations of democracy.”3 John Paul himself put it bluntly when speaking to young people at Denver, Colorado, in 1993: “The slaughter of the innocents is no less sinful or devastating simply because it is done in a legal and scientific way. In the modern metropolis, life – God’s first gift and the fundamental right of every individual on which all other rights are based – is often treated as just one more commodity to be organised, commercialised, and manipulated accordingto convenience.”4

A colleague of Karol Woytila who worked with him in the 1940s and ’50s recalls him studying the philosophy of Max Scheler on the centrality of the value of the human person. The young Fr Woytila found it hard going at first, and decided to translate the whole book into Polish from German, to get closer to the subject and tackle it with the depth required. “It opens up a new world, a world of values, and a fresh view of mankind,” he told his friend.5

A New Century

As a new century opened, the Church could rely on the clear teachings about human life established in the encyclicals Veritatis Splendor (1993) and Evangelium Vitae (1995), both of which emphasised the centrality of respecting human life. The increasing use of in-vitro-fertilisation techniques, and the emergence of new possibilities involving human cloning, mixing of human and animal genetic elements, and the use of embryonic stem cells for research, among other things, brought the need for further teaching.

The essential message of DP is the same as that of DV. In some parts, the words used are stronger: “gravely immoral” (30) “morally and ethically unacceptable” (33) “co-operation in evil” (34) “gravely unjust legal situation” (35), “grave moral disorder” (55).

DP emphasises the fundamental human rights of the human embryo: “If Donum Vitae, in order to avoid a statement of an explicitly philosophical nature, did not define the embryo as a person, it nonetheless did indicate that there is an intrinsic connection between the ontological dimension and the specific value of every human life” (DP 5). One detects here a slight tone of irritation with those who sought to find a tiny “escape clause” in DV through which destruction of embryos or their use in experiments might be permitted. DP asserts that no such escape hatch exists – note the “if” in the sentence above – and in any case seals and padlocks the door which DV has already effectively closed:

Indeed, the reality of the human being for the entire span of life, both before and after birth,does not allow us to posit either a change in nature or a gradation in moral value, since it possesses full anthropological and ethical status

The human embryo has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person” (DP 5).

Are Human Beings “Things”, or are They People?

As Fr George Woodall notes, this is essentially about whether human beings can be treated as things, or whether they must be treated as people, with a spiritual value:

This has major implications over the whole area of morality, since someone’s body shares in the dignity of his or her person, and is not a sub-personal reality or “thing” at the disposal of the person… . Put more simply, the body is part of who the person is, not some-thing which the person has. This way of understanding the human person, which stems from the unique dignity of the person created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27) and called to eternal redemption in Christ, is rooted in revelation, but it can be appreciated or grasped as true even by those who do not share our faith, on the basis of natural moral law.6

The rejection of the idea that a human being is a “thing” also extends to the idea that anyone has a “right” to have a child: The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes emphatically:

A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift…a child may not be considered a piece of property” (CCC 2378).

DP spells out what is absolutely wrong with regard to experiments on embryos, and it tackles at length the question of how those involved in medicine and scientific research should act. Either direct or indirect involvement with the killing of unborn life is gravely wrong: enabling others to do the killing is not an acceptable way of dealing with this. Foetal material obtained illicitly – ie from unborn life deliberately destroyed – cannot licitly be used for research. People have a duty to refuse to use such material: it may be necessary “to remove oneself, within the area of one’s own research, from a gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life” (DP 35).

This is an issue which conscientious Christian healthcare workers in many related fields now face. Germain Grisez notes: “Some fields of activity are closed to them, and others will be. They are being pressurised to help manufacture babies, prevent them, and kill them … . Some committed people will not be able to keep their jobs, maintain their practices, continue to operate their facilities unless they betray their commitment by doing wicked things.” It will be necessary to stand firm and hold to what is right: arranging for a third party to do something wicked, while still intending that it should be done, is not acceptable either.7

In DP, as in DV, the central issue is that human beings have an intrinsic value which gives them a status beyond and above everything else in the created order. Human rights are centred on this reality. It is a reality which has a spiritual root, but which can be grasped by all men of goodwill, whether religious believers or not.

Christopher West writes: “…our incarnate humanity as male and female reveals the divine mystery more than anything else in the created order. For we are made ‘male and female’ in the divine image. Indeed, to say ‘theology of the body’ is just another way of saying we’re ‘made in the image of God.’”8

New Challenges

DP examines the plight of embryos frozen in a state of cryopreservation: most are orphans whose parents have abandoned them, and in many cases the records of their parentage have been lost. In what must surely be a first for a Church document discussing grave moral issues, DP states that the unjust situation of these embryos “cannot be resolved”. It is not ethical to place them in the wombs of women who are not their mothers,9 and it is not ethical to destroy them. There are, according to DP, “thousands and upon thousands” of them. The Church pleads that the production of embryos be halted, especially as there is “no morally licit solution”10 regarding their destiny.

Another major issue involves the use of vaccines which may have their origins in material produced from embryos. The position of parents who use such vaccines is not the same as that of the manufacturers: there are differing areas of responsibility. But “everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask the healthcare system to make other types of vaccines available” (DP 35).

The future may hold hope for good things, if the right courses of action are pursued. Stem cells can be obtained licitly, without loss of human life – for example, from an adult organism or from the blood of the umbilical cord at the time of birth. Both DV and DP are confident that good things can be achieved in medical research if immoral practices are abandoned. Prohibitions on slavery, and on the unjust discrimination or marginalisation of women are “a sign of genuine progress in human history” (DP 36). Prohibitions can certainly contribute to human progress and the common good.

Human Rights and Human Dignity

Pope John Paul once mused that his pontificate was unlikely to be remembered, but that if it was he hoped to be remembered as “the pope of the family”.11

In addition to grappling with the status of the human embryos, both DV and DP deal at length with questions relating to aspects of in-vitro fertilisation and the integrity of marriage. It is a measure of how far things have moved since the 1980s that in DV, published in that decade, it was not necessary to spell out, after the word “marriage”, the fact that by this word is meant the union of a man and a woman, and not two people of the same sex. Similarly, the status of the human embryo, and the value placed upon it, have come under increasing scrutiny over the past decades, and even since DP in 2008 it has become increasingly normal to assume that it is morally acceptable to destroy embryos or to experiment upon them.12

The increasing sense of a loss of respect for human life in its earliest stages is linked to the abandonment of male-female lifelong marriage as the normal structure in which human life begins and is cherished.13 DP emphasises that “human procreation is a personal act of a husband and wife, which is not capable of substitution” (DP 16). In 1979 Pope John Paul followed the request made by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae a decade earlier to take up “the truly great work of education, of development and of charity”14 in teaching the truth about human love and conjugal life. He did so in a series of 129 catechetical lectures which drew together in a new way the Church’s message on the integrity of the human person and the virtue of chastity. The vision they presented came to be called “thetheology of the body”.

Dealing with the grave issues of human life that are raised in DV and DP, it is necessary to see the Church’s teaching not as a set of “club rules” for Catholics, to be read with a mentality that says “How far can I go?”, but as searching for God’s loving desires for the whole human race. John Paul’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993) takes precisely this approach. In its message, we can recognise the teaching in both DV and DP; an immense value is placed on the human person, his value and worth. Civilisation cannot survive if we believe that we are simply adrift in a supermarket of various ideas and personal whims. As George Weigel notes: “To those who object that the essence of the modern human condition is its plurality, John Paul says – you are right, and that is precisely why wehave to think more seriously about the possibility of moral truths and their relationship to living in freedom.”15

The Future

The status of the human embryo is essentially a matter of human rights, and thus cannot be seen in isolation: life itself is a fundamental right without which all other rights become meaningless. Today, many things are elevated to the level of “rights” without adequate discussion of what the term means. As a commentator noted in the 1990s, when Pope John Paul was visiting the United States: “How can its citizens permit abortion – which John Paul, a survivor of the Nazis, considers nothing less than the outright murder of innocents – while worrying about the ethics of wearing animal furs?”16

In DV, a strong plea is made for the rights of the human embryo; in DP this is strengthened and the language used is more forceful. DP has passionate words about the destruction of embryos, and their loss through unsuccessful attempts at in-vitro fertilisation. It suggests that, in addition to the contempt shown for human life in these practices, they are also very bad medicine: “One is struck by the fact that, in any other area of medicine, ordinary professional ethics would never allow a medical procedure which involved such a high number of failures and fatalities” (DP 15).

The Vatican II document Gaudiam et Spes notes that “man is growing conscious that the forces he has unleashed are in his own hands and that it is up to him to control them or be enslaved by them. Here lies the modern dilemma.”17 In DV and DP, the Church continues her task of helping modern man to exercise genuine control and thus to avoid slavery. Given that unethical – even horrific – things which DV warned us against were becoming more prevalent by the time DP was issued, and are with us still, it is clear that the message will continue to be taught with increasing vigour.18


The Holy Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, pocket edition. London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1990.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1992.
Special Moral Theology BA Divinity coursebook, BA Divinity Year 5. Maryvale Institute (undated, current course).
Flannery, A (ed). Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents. US: Costello Publishing, 1975; new edition 1984.
Gormally, L (ed). Issues for a Catholic Bioethics. London: Linacre Centre, 1999.
Gormally, L. Culture of Life, Culture of Death. London: Linacre Centre 2002.
Grisez, G. The Way of the Lord Jesus: Difficult Moral Questions. Illinois: Franciscan Press, 1997.
Huxley, A. Brave New World. Penguin Books, 1932.
Malinski, M. Pope John Paul II: the life of my friend Karol Woytila. London: Burns & Oates, 1979.
Moody, J. Pope John Paul II. New York: Park Lane Books, 1997.
Oder, S; Gaeta, S. Why he is a Saint: the Life and Faith of Pope John Paul II and the cause for canonisation. New York: Rizzoli Publications, 2010.
Smith, J. Why Humanae Vitae was Right: A Reader. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993.
Weigel, G. Witness to Hope. London and New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Weigel, G. The End and the Beginning. New York: Doubleday, 2010.
West, C. At the Heart of the Gospel: reclaiming the body for the New Evangelisation. New York: Image Books, 2012.
Woodall, GJ. Humanae Vitae Forty Years On: A new Commentary. Oxford: Family Publications, 2008.
Wuerl, D; Lawler, R; Lawler, TC. The Teaching of Christ: A Catholic Catechism for Adults. Huntingdon, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 1995.
Church Documents
Gaudiam et Spes, Second Vatican Council, 1965.
Humanae Vitae, Paul VI, 1968.
Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II, 1993.
Donum Vitae, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1987.
Dignitas Personae, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2008.
Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II, 1981.
Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II, 1995.


1Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2271, quoting Didache 2, 2: Sch 248, 148.
2Declaration on Procured Abortion, Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1974.
3Weigel, G. The End and the Beginning, page 355.
4Moody, J. Pope John Paul II, page 160.
5Malinski, M. Pope John Paul II: the life of my friend Karol Woytila, page 110.
6Woodall, GJ. Humanae Vitae 40 years on: a New Commentary, page 43.
7Grisez, G. “Healthcare as part of a Christian Vocation”, in Issues for a Catholic Bioethic (Luke Gormally, ed), page 158.
8West, C. At the Heart of the Gospel: reclaiming the body for the New Evangelisation, page 60.
9The ethics of doing this are discussed in detail in by Mary Geach and Helen Watts. See “Are there any circumstances in which it would be morally admirable for a woman to seek to have an embryo implanted in her womb?” in Issues for a Catholic Bioethics, London: Linacre Centre, 1999, pages 341-352.
10Pope John Paul II, address to the participants in the Symposium on Evangelium Vitae and Law, 24 May 1996.
11Oder, S; Gaeta, S. Why he is a Saint: the Life and Faith of Pope John Paul II and the Cause for Canonisation, page 114.
12For an analysis of how Christian politicians and lawmakers could and should tackle these issues in these difficult times, see Fr (now Bishop) Anthony Fisher: “Some problems of conscience in lawmaking” in Culture of Life, Culture of Death, 2002.
13For the Church’s teaching on marriage, see Gaudiam et Spes, 50, Catechism of the Catholic Church 1601-1658, The Teaching of Christ: A Catholic Catechism for Adults, pages 281-284.
14Humanae Vitae, section 31.
15Weigel, G. Witness to Hope, page 689.
16Mood, J. Pope John Paul II, page 102.
17Gaudium et Spes 9.
18Gaudium et Spes 52; see also John Paul II: Familiaris Consortio.

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