Catholic columnist: ‘Brave new world’ of embryo experimentation could sharpen Communion debate

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Recent developments regarding experimentation on human embryos could force a larger conflict between Catholic Democratic politicians and U.S. bishops on ethical issues, a New York Times columnist wrote on Tuesday.

In May, the influential International Society for Stem Cell Research relaxed its guidelines on human embryo experimentation. The society said it would be permissible to perform research and experiments on lab-grown embryos that are older than 14 days, provided certain conditions are met first. 

The society did not place a ceiling on when it would be inappropriate to research and experiment on embryos. 

“The issues raised by this shift could fill several bioethics journals, but for today I’m interested in a single political and religious question,” wrote columnist Ross Douthat of the New York Times on June 22. “Is there any scenario in which this kind of future would attract much opposition from Catholic politicians in the Democratic Party?”

“I think the answer is no: There is just too little daylight now between secular utilitarianism and liberal Catholicism in its political and partisan form,” he wrote. 

The International Society for Stem Cell Research set a previous limit on embryo experimentation at either 14 days or the formation of the first primitive streak, “whichever occurs first.” The new guidelines call for public conversations on not only the ethical concerns but also the “scientific significance” of the embryo experimentation. 

If local regulations and public opinion are in favor of experimentation past 14 days, “a specialized scientific and ethical oversight process could weigh whether the scientific objectives necessitate and justify the time in culture beyond 14 days,” the society said. 

Douthat’s column came several days after the U.S. bishops met virtually for their annual spring meeting. A key topic of discussion among bishops was over “Eucharistic coherence,” or worthiness to receive Communion; the bishops held the discussion as part of their vote to move ahead on a proposed teaching document on the Eucharist. 

President Joe Biden, only the second Catholic U.S. president, supports taxpayer-funded abortion. His administration has also moved to recognize sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in federal law, possibly setting up religious freedom conflicts with individuals and organizations that believe marriage to be between one man and one woman, and humans to be two sexes, male and female, from birth.

Individual bishops have recently brought up Eucharistic coherence with respect to Biden’s policies that contradict Church teaching. 

“Sadly, there are some bishops and cardinals of the Church who not only are willing to give holy Communion to pro-abortion politicians, but who seek to block the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from addressing the question of Eucharistic coherence,” said Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, in May.

The matter of “Eucharistic coherence,” he said, “has taken on heightened urgency with the election of President Biden, a Catholic who promotes the evils of abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism.”

Last week, 60 Catholic House Democrats issued a statement professing their Catholic faith, and asking not to be denied Communion because of their support for legal abortion.

Douthat, in his column, compared the shift in bioethics to the present debate over admitting pro-abortion politicians to Communion. 

“The justification for withholding communion is straightforward, however clouded by ideological disagreements,” he said. He noted that while both of America’s political parties take policy positions against Catholic teaching, “no Republican failure to spend enough on health care of education” has the same “directly lethal consequence” as legal abortion, which has resulted in “tens of millions” of deaths.

“There are many good reasons to avoid a political confrontation over communion and abortion right now, many reasons to expect that any effort will backfire or just fail,” he noted. 

However, if a future conflict over embryo experimentation on a mass scale arises, Douthat argued that the bishops’ actions now on Communion for pro-abortion politicians could possibly have an effect on such a future conflict.

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“But if, over the next few generations, we move into a world where the liberalism of Catholic politicians requires them to support not just abortion rights but a brave new world of human life manufactured, commodified, vivisected and casually snuffed out — well, then the bishops of tomorrow may look back on today and wish they’d found a way to say ‘enough,’” he wrote. 

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