The Introduction to "The Vatican Instruction"

Janet E. Smith
Reproduced with Permission

Most people do not pay much attention to the introduction to a book or an article. They give it the kind of attention that concert-goers give to a warm-up band - they may allow that it sets a kind of tone to the proceedings but will treat it as something meant to entertain the audience before the real focus of interest appears. They tend to think that there is little of substance in the introductory portion, that the real meat is in the body of the document. And certainly there is some justice in this response to introductions. But not all introductions should receive this treatment. Some do much more than attempt to engage the attention of the reader; some establish the points upon which readers must agree if they are going to follow the reasoning of the document. Thus, the introductory portion can become all important for those who intend to understand the document. Unless they understand the kinds of assumptions, principles, and values upon which the argument is based they will neither follow the reasoning of the document nor be in a position to accept the arguments.

The introductory portion to the Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation most certainly has this status. Yet, I think many will tend to neglect the introductory portion of the Instruction. The media concentrate largely on the conclusions of the document which they discuss separately from any consideration of the foundational principles that justify the conclusions. The interest of most moralists and critics is also narrowly focused; it is usually concentrated on the precise teaching about in vitro fertilization, particularly for married couples. They may also find the comments about the morality of freezing embryos and the references to the rights of children vis-a-vis their manner of begetting to be of considerable ethical interest. But it is my view that we would be making a mistake if we approached the document on bioethics in this piecemeal fashion; we need to take a broader view.

All argumentation, and in this case, moral argumentation, requires that the discussants understand what are the basic principles that they are presumed to share before they are able to discern the proper application of these principles. This document is primarily about the application of the principles of Catholic moral reasoning to specific medical procedures. Throughout, the authors are careful to articulate what principles they are using to judge the morality of the procedures under consideration. The introduction, while formulating some of the relevant moral principles, has an even broader purpose. It draws readers' attention to some of the understandings about God, man, and the Church that are basic to this document. Certainly, all Church documents assume a long history of Church teaching on the principles informing the document and on other related matters. The Instruction assumes, for instance, a whole ecclesiology and a whole Christian and Catholic outlook developed over the centuries. If readers do not share these views, they will most likely not accept the principles that derive from these views, and they will most likely not accept the Instruction's application of these principles. That is, if readers do not understand and accept the claims of the introduction of the Instruction, there is no reason to believe that they will fully understand, appreciate or accept the claims of the remainder of the Instruction.

Many responding to such a document do not make the proper preparations for being truly instructed.[1] They do not read and reread the Instruction; they do not reflect upon it and pray to understand and accept it. They immediately bring a very critical attitude to it and fail to grasp many of the principles informing the teaching, both fundamental principles about human dignity and more specific principles of moral analysis. It is a great difficulty and handicap for those wishing to promote the teachings of the Instruction that they must deal with such an audience, an audience that has simply read a few press reports, perhaps a few articles in Catholic journals, and perhaps, at best, have given the Instruction one careful reading. Even worse are those professionals who seem to start with the presupposition that whatever emanates from Rome must be erroneous. Nonetheless, in spite of the initial resistance to "Roman" pronouncements, the issuance by Rome of documents of such urgent contemporary interest gives educators of the Church a marvelous opportunity for instructing both the public and the professional establishment. To use the phrase of Richard Neuhaus, today we enjoy a "Catholic moment."

Thus, I believe that those who attempt to promote and teach the Instruction must make an effort to promote and teach some of the fundamentals upon which the Instruction is based, which are the fundamentals of Christian belief and Catholic commitment. We must not assume that most readers, even fellow Catholics, will be attentive to or share the fundamentals that are articulated in the Instruction. We must be as concerned to do some Christian evangelizing and some Catholic apologetics as we are to explain the finer points of ethical analysis. Let me state that I do not think that one need necessarily be a Christian or a Catholic to see the reasonableness and rightness of the teachings of the Instruction. Indeed, it seems to me that reasonable individuals who have some sense of the innate dignity of man and of the appropriateness of respecting the operations of nature will be receptive to the teaching of the Instruction. But such individuals are perhaps rare in our culture. Nor am I suggesting that Christians will invariably be easier to persuade, for too often Christians are not aware of the meaning and implications of their beliefs. Nonetheless, it seems right to note that the introduction invokes Christian and Catholic perspectives. I do so in the hope that calling these to the attention of Christians and those who share Christian values will help them find the teachings of the Instruction more accessible.


One of the attitudes most conducive to appreciating and accepting the teachings of the Instruction is the attitude of respect for the Church as a teacher. This should be accompanied by an attitude that laws and authoritative Instruction are great gifts - not terrible impositions. This may seem a far-fetched recommendation for addressing those in our "freedom-loving" society but few will be able to grasp the more detailed distinctions and appreciate the attempt to make fine distinctions unless they understand the whole context out of which the Instruction comes. It is my view that fostering respect for the Church as teacher for the Church as the delegated transmitter of the truths advanced by Christ, is as important to promoting this Instruction as is finding tight argumentation for the claims of the Instruction.

We must remind those we seek to teach that Christ Himself, of course, was a teacher and a lawgiver. One of the earliest stories we have of Christ is of Him as a young boy teaching learned men in the temple. Indeed, an essential part of Christ's saving mission was to teach men what they needed to know about God and His loving ways so that they might be saved. And Christ made much use of law and directives as part of His teaching; the beatitudes are demanding and strict as are the passages following the beatitudes. How rigorous would we remain about such matters as divorce were it not for His unequivocal teaching? What we must remember, though, is that the proper Judeo-Christian response to revealed law is not to find it restrictive or burdensome but to find it liberating and illuminating. After all, a central concern for a Christian ought to be: How may I show my love for my God? What ought I to do? What are God's commandments? How best might I follow them?

It would not be a waste of time for those attempting to teach the Instruction to suggest to one's audience that it is a marvelous gift that Christ was a teacher and that He delegated His Church to be a teacher. It is worthwhile to point out how difficult it is to find the correct response to many questions; it is worthwhile to note that we are sensible if, in our confusion, we realize how marvelous it is to have an authoritative guide. This is not, as many will accuse, an abdication of adult responsibility. In nearly every aspect of our lives, in medical care, in government, in purchasing products, we rely upon experts and authorities to guide us. Many Americans treat Consumer's Report with the respect due to the scriptures. Why should we not seek guides in the moral sphere as well? To be sure, it is humbling to admit that we are not all-knowing, but it is also simple common sense to make such an admission.

How do we foster this respect for teachers, for laws, for the Church? Pope John Paul II, by his constant example, recommends that when possible we begin ethical teaching with reference to scripture. Perhaps one place to start would be to try to revive interest in the psalms, particularly the Psalms praising God as a lawgiver. The response to Psalm 19 is "The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart." Portions of the Psalm read:

I draw our attention to this Psalm since I think it expresses an attitude natural to believers, but an attitude which is rarely cultivated in believers. Lovers of Christ hang on His every word; they desire ardently to learn the wisdom He has to impart. For a Catholic, the response to official Church teaching ought to be very simliar. We must bring an attitude of grateful receptivity to our reading of documents imparting Church teaching. Not only do we need to be able to follow sound, logical, and clear arguments but we must also have the proper frame of mind; we must be properly disposed; we must be respectful and grateful that the Church assists us in determining how to respond to the challenges of the day. Those attempting to teach the Instruction should not neglect to point out that the document does presuppose readers disposed in a certain fashion. It certainly presupposes that those reading it should understand that the Church, as it states in the document, undertakes to give Instruction in these matters "out of goodness" and "inspired by love" for it is out of goodness that a loving God has given men commandinents and it is out of goodness that the Church continues to provide loving guidance.

Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that neither the Church nor God are imposing laws on man designed to trouble and restrict him. Rather, the Introduction repeatedly makes the point that the "laws" governing the teaching of this document are laws inscribed in the very person of man and woman. This means that the laws that are being invoked are integral to human nature and conducive to human well-being. They are laws which men and women, by reflecting upon their nature, can come to recognize and appreciate. Obedience to these laws is not an obedience, again, that will restrict human freedom or thwart human happiness. Rather, it is by living in accord with these laws that men and women will be truly free and achieve authentic human happiness. Thus, by teaching the laws of God, the Church is teaching the laws of human nature, laws which are essential to human well-being. Even when these laws and the teachings based on these laws may prohibit individuals from achieving all the goods they seek - in this case, a baby, - when people understand the basis of the laws and teachings they will find them deeply compatible with truths of human nature and of human experience. Those who approach the Instruction with this understanding will be free of one of the chief obstacles to understanding such a document, the obstacle of believing that all laws restrict human freedom and endanger human happiness.

The Instruction further informs us that the Vatican issued this document in response to requests for guidance in regard to new medical technologies. Why do the faithful turn to the Church for such assistance? As the Instruction states, the Church has "no particular competence in the area of experimental sciences." But, as the Instruction also states, the Church is an "expert in humanity," that is, it has an understanding of human dignity and of the human vocation that are absolutely essential for determining how it is proper to treat man, how it is proper for man to behave. Without Christian revelation, without the teaching of the Church, man does not truly know "who he is," does not know what sort of creature he is and therefore does not know what is the proper treatment of human persons.

The Instruction makes reference to several key terms and concepts which help convey the principles and attitudes which a receptive reader of the Instruction ought to possess. Let us here focus on three of these key terms, the "vocation" of man, the "dignity" of man, and life as a "gift from God."

The Vocation of Man

The introduction says very little about the vocation of man but what it says is of essential importance. The most important claim is that "all are called to a beatific communion with God." It may seem strange to say that unless we understand this truth, we will have difficulties grasping the meaning of the Instruction - what does the beatific vision have to do with in vitro fertilization? The fact is that once we realize we are ordained to a supernatural end we become less frantic and desperate about turning this world into a paradise. We become less desperate to make certain we drink every drop of happiness that this life offers; we are more willing to embrace the crosses that may come our way; we become more eager to act in accord with the highest truths; we become less concerned to satisfy our wills and more concerned to do God's will. In short, we become better Christians. When we concentrate on the happiness we wish to attain in this world, we tend to multiply what we consider to be our rights - we insist that we have a right to privacy, or abortion, or to babies. But our true rights are not based on our wants. Rather they are based on our true calling and must be pursued in accord with the dignity that is ours.

The Instruction not only reiterates truths about the Christian calling or vocation, it also speaks of the calling or vocation of parenthood. Again, we will be more receptive to the Church's teachings on these matters when we realize that marriage and the related function of parenthood are not simply human ways of relating and managing the affairs of this world. Rather they are institutions established by God for the welfare of man. If spouses were to realize that they were called by God to the union of marriage and that marriage is a vocation, they may be less desperate, again, to see that their complete dreams of marriage are fulfilled. Certainly, it is natural and right for spouses to want children  indeed that is a good that God wants for them. Even more, it is a mission or task that He has entrusted to them.[2] But in this fallen world, many of us are not able to enjoy all the goods it would be right and proper for us to have. We must learn to put our lives in service of God and do whatever it is He has in mind for us to do. What we must not think is that we have a "right" to all the goods and responsibilities of our vocations. Priests, for instance, learn early in their priesthood that they are not to dictate what will be their priestly duties or how they are to fulfill their vocation to be priests. They place their lives in service of God, and if He wishes them to be parish priests, they are parish priests. If He wishes them to be accountants, so they are; if He wishes them to be bishops, they will be called. Just as there are many ways that God is to be served by priests, so too there are many ways that God is to be served by spouses. Granted, the having of children will be the usual way, but having children is not a "right" of spouses (vis-a-vis God) anymore than a priest has a "right" to a parish. One may seek these goods but they must be sought in accord with God's laws and they must be sought in a way consonant with human dignity and human moral responsibility.

Human Dignity

What does the Instruction mean when it speaks of human dignity? First and foremost it means that man was created by God in God's image and likeness. Thus, whatever man does, especially whatever he does to other persons and to his own person, must be in accord with this dignity. The question - what does it mean to be made in God's image and likeness - is a question that admits of no easy answers and a question which will occupy the attention of theologians for evermore. But it may be sufficient here to assert that it means that it is appropriate for those made in God's image always to seek the highest good, always to be loving and sacrificing, always to be willing to endure hardship to preserve true goods both for oneself and for others.

One time-honored way of suggesting the meaning of the dignity of man - and a way employed by the Instruction - is to compare the treatment appropriate to humans with the treatment appropriate to animals. Since human life is so phenomenally special it is not to be subject to the same treatment accorded to other animal life. It is appropriate and just for us to cage animals, to use some animals as organ farms for the well-being of others, to breed and cross-breed animals in accord with our needs. None of this is permissible treatment for man. It is not permissible because man is not simply a physical and temporal creature. If he were, it would be permissible to treat him as any other animal. We could bring into being a human just to use this human as a source of parts for others humans; we could dictate which humans are to marry other humans so that we could get the breed that we want; we could perform experiments now forbidden because we are not limited by what we believe is the inherent diginity of many. But man is a spiritual creature with an immortal destiny; for this reason, humans are not to be treated like creatures who do not have this dimension to their character.

Let us briefly consider a likely consequence of in vitro fertilization which may demonstrate how it is likely to lead to treating humans like we treat other animals. Surely it won't be long before embryos are created simply to provide parts for other ailing human beings.[3] Many will feel better, of course, if these embryos have little chance of survival - for instance if they have virtually nonexistent brains. Many will think the value of their brief lives has been enhanced by the contribution they can make to the lives of other human beings. But to treat embryos or Infants or anyone simply as a source of parts for another treats these individuals as though their lives have no value apart from how their bodily parts might serve others. We will not be concerned to ask what is best for them, but how they might be used to help others. They will become a set of reusable parts; they will be treated as material objects, not as creatures with eternal value. They will not be considered to have an inherent value; they will not be accorded the respect due to those made in the image and likeness of God.

The special respect for man held by Christians is rooted not only in a respect for the unique spiritual status of man, but is also rooted In an understanding of the nature of the human body. Man is not simply a spiritual creature who inhabits a body, a body that is simply instrumental to the needs of the soul. Rather, the body is a part of the human person and thus shares fully In the dignity of the human person. The Instruction cites John Paul II saying: "Each human person, in his absolutely unique singularity, is constituted not only by his spirit, but by his body as well." This view of the human body, that fact that it is not just a mechanical instrument in service of the person, but an integral part of the human person, puts the problems which this document addresses in a distinct light. For Christians, physical ailments such as infertility are not just physiological problems to be solved by any available technological means. Rather, they are spiritual challenges that must be met in a way in accord with the dignity of the human person. This does not mean, of course, that all physical ailments are to be embraced as unavoidable crosses and that no efforts are to be made to remedy these ailments. Christ was a healer and so too must we be. Thus, the Instruction is careful to assert that the Church does not forbid all artificial interventions designed to correct physical infertility - for such is the task of the art of medicine. But as the Instruction also states: "[these artificial interventionsj must be given a moral evaluation in reference to the dignity of the human person, who is called to realize his vocation from God to the gift of love and the gift of life."

The Gift of Life

The connection between love and life and both of these as God's gifts are defining themes of the Instruction. The first sentence of the Instruction asserts that we must have at the center of our reflection an appreciation of the "inestimable value" of the gift of life which God the Creator and Father has entrusted to man. Certainly all of creation is the product of a loving, creative act of God the Father, but, again, human life is special and deserves to be treated in a fashion befitting its nature. We are not much concerned about the manner of "begetting" of animal life, for animal life is mortal and of transient value, but human life is immortal and thus of "inestimable value" and thus deserving of a certain kind of begetting.

The Instruction teaches that it is appropriate for each and every human life to be the result of a loving act between spouses who through this act are wishing to express their love for each other. Now we all know that human life can be brought into existence under other conditions; those who are not married can conceive children; those who do not love each other can conceive children; rape can be the source of human life. But Christians and others hold that these are not the proper conditions for the beginning of human life. Indeed there is little dispute about this principle that human life should be the result of a loving act. Certainly, those who justify in vitro fertilization are generally adamant that it can be a loving act.

Why is it appropriate that human life be the result of a loving act? Again, this is surely not so with animal life. The beginning of animal life is simply the result of the meeting of male and female gametes, whether the meeting is planned by breeders or a product of a chance meeting of members of the same species at the right time. There is no role for love in this meeting and, of even greater importance, there is no special intervention of God in this process. Human life, on the other hand, is not a result of chance or just the mechanical workings of physical processes. The Instruction teaches that "the spiritual soul of each man is 'immediately created' by God," and a footnote cites the statement of John Paul II that "At the origin of each human person there is a creative act of God: no man comes into existence by chance; he is always the result of the creative love of God." God's creative act is a loving act and since spouses are God's co-creators in the transmission of human life, it is appropriate for their life-begetting acts to be loving as well.

So one of the crucial tasks of the Instruction and of those who wish to promote the Instruction is to explain why in vitro fertilization is not a properly loving act. In one respect this is not difficult: certainly those techniques which involve fertilizing several eggs and destroying or allowing those which are not implanted to die cannot in any sense be considered loving acts to the "excess" new life created. And, evidently, the current techniques regularly involve the destruction of "excess" new life. But the Instruction anticipates the day when techniques may be perfected and only one egg will be fertilized at a time. If loving spouses were to make use of such procedures, how can such use be deemed "unloving" and "inappropriate" for human beings?

Certainly most, if not all, of those seeking to avail themselves of the procedures of in vitro fertilization love each other and wish to share their love with children. What needs to be stressed is that this love which is real and genuine is not in itself sufficient to render all the acts of the couple truly loving. What is important is to insure that the external acts of the spouses correspond with their loving feelings for each other. Many lovers act in ways which are not truly representative of the love that they proclaim. Consider many of those who are unmarried and who engage in sexual intercourse and in the begetting of children. Many claim that they love each other and that their children are begotten out of love. We must allow that the strength of feeling that they have for each other and perhaps even the strength of commitment that they feel for each other can properly be called love. But the fact is that their refusal to formalize their relationship, their refusal to make formal the kind of commitment that is appropriate to authentic love and to raising children shows a lack of correspondence between what they wish their behavior to signify and what in fact their behavior does signify. That is, they wish their behavior to be expressive of their love for each other, but in fact their behavior is not truly loving. Their living together outside of marriage is an act that does not properly demonstrate love to one's partner, to one's children, or to one's God. Those living together outside of marriage do not demonstrate the kind of commitment needed, have not created the atmosphere of trust needed for human love to flourish. They have not provided the proper conditions for the responsible raising of children, a likely result of their sexual intimacy. God has made it known to man, through the power of man's reason, through revelation, and through Church teaching, that marriage is the proper way for men and women to show their love for each other and that children deserve to be raised by loving parents totally committed to each other and to the family they are to raise. Thus, although couples may claim to be living together because of love, their acts are not truly loving.

Similarly, in spite of loving motivations, to use in vitro fertilization is to be loving, on the objective plane, neither to God, nor to the child begotten, neither to one's self nor to one's spouse. To explain each of these claims would require more space than is available here. But undoubtedly many different explanations can be and must be given to explain why it is not a loving act, why it is not in accord with the dignity and nature of man for human life to be made in test tubes or petri dishes, no matter how loving the motivations of the parents.

Here, I would like to offer a fairly unusual analogy - an analogy with sacramental theology - to explain the Instruction's claim that certain ways of begetting human life are not appropriate to this sphere. I choose this approach since I know many others will give arguments, arguments I accept, that are rooted in the respect due to the processes of nature, to the respect due to the rights of children in their manner of begetting. But I wish to focus upon and expand the claim made earlier that human life comes to be through a creative act of God and to compare this act with the actions that take place through the sacraments. I wish to show how the principles mentioned in the Introduction justify a reverence for life and for marital union that is closely akin to the reverence due to sacraments. Those approaching the Instruction with a wholly secular outlook may miss entirely this dimension of the document.

And, indeed, occasionally I think the most important principle of the Instruction is the principle that God is the creator of each and every human life; the spouses are "co-creators" with him. In his reflections on Humanae Vitae, Pope John Paul II observed: "Respect for the twofold meaning of the conjugal act in marriage, which results from the gift of respect for God's creation, is manifested also as a salvific fear: fear of violating or degrading what bears in itself the sign of the divine mystery of creation and redemption."[4] Here the Pope is observing that contraception violates the sign of the divine mystery of creation. The Instruction indicates that in vitro fertilization is an equal violation. We must always be concerned that God's interests in the action of creating human life be respected. When "transmitting human life," spouses must be concerned to preserve the atmosphere and values suitable for an action by God.

What is the source of the claim that God is the immediate source of all human life? One reason that it is said that God is the immediate source of each and every human life is that the human soul is not a composite of pre-existing materials. The human soul is a new and unique entity; God does for each human what He did for all of creation: He makes something out of nothing. There is no greater change than the change of passing from non-existence to existence. The changes effected by the sacraments share In the magnitude of the greatness of the change of creation. Through baptism, a sinner is made pure of original sin, through penance a sinner is healed, through marriage two become one, through the Eucharist bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. All of these changes are radical, to say the least, and all of them require a special intervention by God to be effected. In all of these instances, God has chosen proper vehicles, appropriate vehicles for effecting these changes, vehicles that man is not free to alter. The closest analogy, perhaps, can be made with the Eucharist. The vessels used for consecration must themselves be purified and must be of a certain kind to be the appropriate vessels for consecration. And the consecration must be performed by a consecrated human being.

The analogy which I wish to suggest is that it is appropriate for human life to be the result of an act of individuals consecrated for that action, for spouses,[5] and it must be the result of the act designated for that purpose, spousal intercourse. Just as only priests can consecrate the host, only spouses can bring forth life in a fashion appropriate to the dignity of the life which they bring forth. To bring forth human life in a test tube or in a petri dish is simply not appropriate to the dignity of a human person; it is not an appropriate arena for the creating of new life in a loving way. Sexual intercourse is the kind of act which is only appropriate as an expression of love between loving spouses. Working with test tubes and petri dishes, on the other hand, are acts that are appropriate to all sorts of activities. This mode of begetting does not match the dignity of what is begotten, whereas spousal sexual intercourse does.

Certainly, one need not share this sacramental view of life to understand that human life is of such a special value that great care must be taken to see that the manner of its coming in to the world is respectful of this value. One does not need any special revelation to understand that children need and deserve loving parents, to understand that they need and deserve to be treated in accord with their inherent dignity. Arguments along many lines can be offered to demonstrate that bringing babies into existence in a test tube or a petri dish treats them as the objects of technological expertise, not as the objects of a loving act. It can be argued that the lab technicians, not the spouses, play the parental role of bringing together male and female gametes. But I shall leave it to others to show that such procedures do not meet the requirements of the document that science and technology be at the "service of the human person, of his inalienable rights and his true and integral good according to the design and will of God."

Let me return here to a note sounded at the beginning of this talk. Let us labor hard to assist others to see that the prohibitions of the Instruction are not put forth to deny infertile spouses the pleasure of having children. Rather the are put forth to protect goods that are essential to human beings, to protect the tenuous hold which humans have on what kind of treatment and behavior is suitable for a creature of their dignity. Our century is perhaps distinguished in the history of mankind for violations of human rights and human dignity. Many of these violations, such as nuclear bombing of civilian sites, have been greatly aided by the use of technological advances. The Instruction rightly warns that "science without a conscience can only lead to man's ruin." And the Instruction exhorts us to recognize that "... the future of the world stands in peril unless wiser people are forthcoming." If we are to be wise, we must be faithful to the wisdom of our tradition. We must be eager to sing with the Psalmist:

"In the written scroll it is prescribed for me. To do your will, O my God, is my delight, and your law is within my heart!" (Psalm 40)


My thanks go to Lisa Everett, Laura Garcia, and Ron Tacelli, S. J., for their helpful comments on this paper.