New Vatican instruction called valuable ‘reference point’ on bioethics

New Vatican instruction called valuable ‘reference point’ on bioethics


Dignitas Personae, the new Vatican instruction on ethical issues in biotechnology was further explained by the U.S. bishops in a new “Question and Answer” document. Catholic bioethicist Father Tad Pacholczyk has also commented on the instruction, calling it a valuable “reference point” for bioethical controversies.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Friday released Dignitas Personae, which is subtitled “On Certain Bioethical Questions.” The result of six years of study and deliberation on the most recent developments in the field of bio-technology, it discusses the implications of technologies related to procreation.

It especially examines such issues in relation to the dignity of human life and the integrity of marriage.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Question and Answer document on Dignitas Personae explains that the document’s title means “the dignity of a person.”

“All the conclusions of the document are based on the inherent dignity of each and every human person, from conception to natural death, and the need for all technology and other human activity to respect that dignity,” the bishops’ Q and A states.

The bishops note that some topics discussed in the document are new, such as human cloning and embryo adoption.

The Question and Answer document especially reiterates Church teaching against in-vitro fertilization (IVF), stating:

“The child conceived in human procreation is a human person, equal in dignity with the parents. Therefore he or she deserves to be brought into being through an act of total and committed marital love between husband and wife.”

Replacing such an act with a procedure by a laboratory technician does not respect this “special dignity” of the human person, nor does using gametes from people outside the marriage, using another woman to bear a surrogate pregnancy, treating the child as an object of “quality control,” or otherwise mistreating the human being in embryo.

Addressing these issues is important, the bishops write, because technological power “carries with it great responsibility that we must never misuse technology to demean human dignity, but always to serve the value and dignity of every person without exception.”

The bishops also explain that, though the document does not declare an infallibly defined dogma, its moral judgments are part of the “universal ordinary Magisterium.” Catholics are to inform their consciences with its teachings and adhere to them with “religious assent.”

Father Tad Pacholczyk, Ph.D., neuroscientist and staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, spoke about the Vatican instruction in a Monday phone interview with CNA.

Calling the instruction a “valuable document,” Father Pacholczyk said it accomplishes two things.

First, the instruction provides a restatement of many of the “basic principles” first outlined in the 1987 instruction Donum Vitae, helping to navigate the “sometimes complicated waters” of modern biotechnology.

Second, it provides help in addressing new issues that have developed since 1987, providing “helpful guidance” in areas not previously discussed in detail.

In Father Pacholczyk ‘s view, Dignitas Personae will “become another ‘reference point’ for those within the Church who are discussing and trying to properly apply the timeless principles of the Church to new developments.”

It will be relevant “especially among believers,” he continued, also noting that the document was written and addressed to “all men of good will.” This recognizes that many of principles and aspects of the discussion in the document should be “truths that even somebody without religion would be able to appreciate.”

“These are aspects of what we call the natural law, and they don’t depend strictly on Revelation,” Father Pacholczyk told CNA.

“In theory, this document should also be of interest to those who are seeking to know what is moral, what is ethical, and what is not in the realm of new developments in biotechnology,” he added.

“Whether it will actually have that effect is always hard to say, because it will depend on variables such as a person’s views with regard to the Catholic Church speaking authoritatively.

“My hope is that it will find a receptive audience, especially among those who are actually involved in doing some of these techniques, and pioneering some of these new technologies.”

Father Tad Pacholczyk said Dignitas Personae could be of “great assistance to those who are trying to enter more fully into where the Church is coming from.

“This document provides these basic principles and a good discussion of them, and really provides a kind of consistent view that covers the entire gamut of new developments.”

When CNA asked what he found particularly striking about Dignitas Personae, Father Pacholczyk singled out its discussion of embryo adoption.

“The treatment of embryo adoption was an aspect of this document that many people were hoping would be addressed, but nobody was really sure. So it was good to see that that subject area, which has been an area of much discussion over the past years, is being addressed.

“It appears that this document did not speak the ‘final word,’ perhaps, on embryo adoption. There appears to be still a little bit of ambiguity or openness, at least, in the way that it was phrased.

“But clearly, this document is moving in the direction of indicating that embryo adoption will not be likely to be acceptable as a means of trying to save frozen embryos.”

The U.S. bishops’ Q &A document is located at

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