The Office of Readings for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time contains one of my favorite and most challenging passages. Citing from the “Pastoral Guide of Pope Saint Gregory the Great,” the reading contains these words: “A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service. Otherwise he may say what he should not or be silent when he should speak. Indiscreet speech may lead men into error and an imprudent silence may leave in error those who could have been taught. Pastors who lack foresight hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men. As the voice of truth tells us, such leaders are not zealous pastors who protect their flocks, rather they are like mercenaries who flee by taking refuge in silence when the wolf appears.”
I have just returned from the annual educational conference of the Catholic Medical Association at which I again heard, from the medical and scientific community, that the teachings of the Catholic Church are fully in accord with a proper philosophical understanding of man and with the prudent practice of the healing arts. I was reminded again that bishops and priests, as shepherds, are perhaps a bit reluctant to speak to our secular and relativistic culture those truths which could perhaps be described as “inconvenient.” The theme of the conference was “Theology of the Body: The Dignity of Woman.” Starting with the series of talks by Pope John Paul II, in which he presented a rather comprehensive theology of the body, the conference presenters pointed out how this teaching interfaces with the practice of medicine.
As you can imagine, the Theology of the Body is fully consistent with the moral teachings of the Church. For example, there was a presentation on the use of the contraceptive pill as the medicine of choice for the impairment of fertility and the treatment of a variety of ailments which women might experience. In keeping with the theme of the dignity of women it was pointed out that many studies confirm the significant increase in the risk of breast cancer for women who use the contraceptive pill. The conclusion: The pill is not good for women. Furthermore, another presenter pointed out that the contraceptive pill, because it is a type of hormonal therapy, is used to treat the symptoms of a whole series of other underlying problems. Some of these, because they go undiagnosed, cause even more serious problems in the future. The pill may be convenient but it is not good morality when it is used contraceptively and it is not good medicine when used therapeutically.
Contraceptive tubal ligations are morally illicit and it is hard to imagine a tubal ligation which is not contraceptive. Such surgeries are a violation of the integral dignity of women, they further promote the objectification of women and there are sometimes serious adverse health consequences.
In vitro fertilization, also known as IVF, is frequently used as a means for a couple to achieve a desired pregnancy. This process diminishes the dignity of both the man and the woman, it objectifies both of them, and it even objectifies the child to be conceived. In some ways that child, who has a right to be born of natural processes in the context of the embrace of love, now becomes the manipulated product of laboratory technology. The Church, while recognizing the longing of couples to achieve a pregnancy, also recognizes that achieving such a pregnancy “at any cost” involves a diminution of the dignity of woman, of man, of the marital relationship and that such a cost is too high. IVF is immoral. Furthermore, thanks to IVF we now have the seemingly insoluble problem of approximately 400,000 frozen embryos, frozen microscopic human beings who have parents who are morally responsible for them but who have either abandoned them to their frozen fate or who do not have the ability to rescue them. This kind of situation clearly diminishes our respect for life, further objectifies the innocent child and treats him or her like a product of the freezer section of the local market. This absurd fate of the innocent child is the product of a technology detached from morality, a technology which does not give proper regard to the dignity of the human person, the dignity of the woman, the dignity of the man, the dignity of the child. There are legitimate modalities which assist, very effectively I might add, married couples desiring to achieve and sustain a pregnancy and these do not involve IVF or freezing embryos or donor gametes or selective reductions or designer babies or gender selection or genetic testing, all of which further dehumanize and objectify the child. Good morality is good medicine. Good medicine respects the nature and dignity of the human person.
Abortion harms women. This is one of the signs often held by the proponents of life when advocating a deeper respect for life. Direct abortion undoubtedly kills an innocent human being and this fact alone should be sufficient for all of us to see its absolute immorality. Unfortunately, it appears that a fuller recognition of the immeasurable harm this procedure does to women will be necessary before this crime against humanity can be seen for what it is, the destruction of an innocent human being and a great harm to women. I do not believe there is any other freely chosen action which has a greater detrimental impact on women than abortion. This medical procedure is certainly a grave moral evil. This medical procedure is an assault, not only on the individual woman, but an assault on the dignity of women in general.
It often happens that the Church is accused of disdaining and condemning the joy of sexual expression and that all these moral laws are really about sex. Pope Benedict mentioned this in his Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. “Doesn’t the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn’t she blow the whistle just when the joy, which is the Creator’s gift, offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?” In a word, no. The Church, because she sees, recognizes and seeks to defend the dignity of the human person, perhaps especially the dignity of women, is a strong shepherd in speaking out against those things which are immoral and which are contrary to the dignity of the human person. To do otherwise would be “imprudent silence.”