What happened to a Catholic parish in Ireland over the Christmas holidays is a distressing example of the growing intolerance towards, and vilification of, even the mildest expressions of religious doctrine that go against the spirit of the age. Unfortunately, it also appears to be another example of the growing tendency of Church leaders to cave in the face of criticism, and even to issue counterproductive apologies merely for having done their job in publicly stating what the Church teaches.
On Christmas Eve, someone at Tullamore Parish in the diocese of Meath posted a pro-life message on the parish’s Facebook page. The post first offered prayers for couples who are struggling with infertility, and then took the opportunity to express Catholic teaching about in vitro fertilization (IVF).
“The process of IVF damages embryonic stem cells and thus life and is therefore completely, clearly and totally incompatible with our Catholic faith,” read the post. “For all believers in God, all life is sacred at all times.” The post added, “We pray for those expecting life. We pray for those who have surprise pregnancies. May we always respect the sacredness and the sanctity of life. … As Catholics, we are unapologetically pro-life and are proud and are honoured to stand up for the voiceless and for the vulnerable unborn persons whom we are called to love, cherish and bring closer to God.”
Church Teaching is Clear
The only criticism I have of this post is that it (I’m sure unintentionally) understates the gravity of the case by saying that IVF destroys “embryonic stem cells.” In fact, IVF doesn’t just damage “cells,” but destroys complete, living, intact human embryos, i.e. human beings at the earliest stages of their development. Otherwise the post amounts to a relatively straightforward, and ultimately quite gentle and charitable expression of what the Catholic Church unambiguously teaches.
The Catholic Church has consistently and strongly affirmed that the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF) is (in the words of the Catholic Catechism) “gravely immoral” (CCC 2376). In 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a document, Donum vitae, which carefully explained why recourse to IVF cannot be a legitimate means of addressing infertility. It uses what some people may view as shockingly strong language, arguing that IVF’s authors, proponents, and practitioners “usurp the place of God” and set themselves up as the “authors of life and death.” (The document was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI.)
The reasons for the Church’s opposition are myriad, and quite serious. In the first place, most instances of IVF involve creating more embryos than will actually be implanted in the womb of the woman. As mentioned, these embryos are not mere “cells,” but are genetically unique and complete living human beings. Science is clear that life begins at the moment of conception – that is, the moment the sperm and egg unite, creating a new instance of human life. “Excess” embryos created for IVF procedures are often frozen indefinitely and eventually discarded or are used in scientific experiments. Many millions of embryonic human lives have perished in this way.
In the second place, the IVF procedure is also morally problematic due to the way it inserts third parties into the sacrosanct area of human procreation. IVF involves the harvesting of egg cells from the woman and the collection of semen (typically through masturbation, also a gravely immoral practice) from the man, and then the combination of these in a laboratory. While this is troubling enough, equally troubling is the way this process inevitably introduces eugenic considerations, with technicians selecting the “best” embryos for implantation in the woman. In addition, the process often involves using eggs or sperm from someone other than the couple, meaning that children are deliberately being deprived of knowledge about or a relationship with their biological parents.
In other words, in IVF the creation of human life, which God intended to occur through the loving embrace of husband and wife, becomes (whether intentionally or not) a utilitarian economic transaction laden with eugenic undertones, and usually results in the foreseen deaths of human beings.
But before I describe what happened next to the parish (and I’m sure you’ve already guessed), I should make one thing perfectly clear. Unfortunately, sometimes when people hear that the Church opposes IVF, they leap to the conclusion that the Church thinks that children conceived through IVF are less valuable or somehow morally tainted. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Catholic teaching is unambiguous that even couples suffering (and it is a serious suffering) from incurable infertility should not make use of IVF, it is also equally unambiguous that any child conceived through IVF is absolutely as sacred and valuable as any other human being. Condemning IVF does not in the least imply condemnation of children conceived through this method.
Intolerance and Cowardice
Unfortunately, the two-fold effect of a growing militant secularism in Ireland and the silence and weakness of Church officials, who have failed to evangelize and teach their flock, meant that this simple Facebook post became the center of a national controversy. National media reported negatively on the post, and the country’s Minister of Health, Simon Harris, weighed in. In a statement, he condemned the post as an “inappropriate interference in decisions that individuals and couples make about their own lives.”
We should pay very close attention to Harris’ language here. From Harris’ standpoint, merely stating what the Catholic Church teaches amounts to “inappropriate interference” in couple’s decision. In other words, even though this Facebook post from a lowly parish said nothing about preventing couples from using IVF, Harris thinks that even to express the opinion that IVF is immoral is a kind of untoward and intolerant intrusion into people’s lives.
Unfortunately, the parish’s response to the controversy only sowed further confusion. After the story hit the media, the parish posted a follow-up statement on their Facebook page apologizing. “A post published on the Tullamore Parish Facebook page on Christmas Eve concerning IVF has caused great distress to many members of our parish community and beyond,” the statement read. “For hurt caused we apologise.”
While the apology did not explicitly retract the basic message of the original post, those reading it could be excused for thinking that the parish was apologizing for stating Church teaching. This is a scandal.
The Catholic parish was absolutely correct in its original statement. Furthermore, the original statement was worded compassionately and charitably. However, for an unknown reason, the courageous stance and opportunity for education and witness was rejected. Instead of using the controversy as an opportunity to reiterate the truth in charity, and to guide Catholic couples towards addressing infertility issues through moral means, Church officials simply kowtowed, and then went silent. To the best of my knowledge, not a single priest, bishop, or other Church official in Ireland publicly defended the parish’s right to post what they posted or used the controversy to issue a clear teaching on IVF.
This story neatly sums up the troubling direction of our culture. In the current political climate, it seems there is no room for debate over issues, but instead just scare tactics and shouting your opponent down. To state an unpopular moral truth is to be accused of “interfering” in people’s lives in some intolerable way. Truth, freedom of expression, freedom of religious belief, are increasingly irrelevant, according to progressives.
Meanwhile, on the side of those who should be standing for truth, we too often find silence, excessive deference, and even outright cowardice. As teacher and mother, the Church has a unique role to play in this age. I applaud the parish for its willingness to teach. I don’t wish to condemn it. I am not condemning the priest at this parish. I do wish he had simply reaffirmed the content of the post instead of allowing the apology to be posted; but I also have no idea what pressures were put on him by the media and Church officials. Where is his bishop? Where are the rest of the country’s bishops?
Instead, I wish to use the story as an example of the dilemma we confront today – whether we are discussing abortion, contraception, traditional marriage, euthanasia, or gender ideology. It is tribal warfare. The Church’s voice is being silenced, absorbed into the culture. Meanwhile, the deafening of our sensibilities towards God’s plan for man and woman is being exploited by the Culture of Death. When the Church fails (through omission or commission) to boldly and joyfully proclaim Truth, especially about the inherent beauty and dignity of the human person, we abandon people to the whims of secular dogma. The costs are often hidden (for a time), but they are real.
This is the point made so eloquently by Cardinal Gerhard Mueller in a speech earlier this month. “The crisis in the Church is man-made and has arisen because we have cozily adapted ourselves to the spirit of a life without God,” the cardinal said in a speech to the 2020 Student Leadership Summit, organized by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). “The poison paralyzing the Church is the opinion that we should adapt to the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, and not the spirit of God, that we should relativize God’s commandments and reinterpret the doctrine of the revealed faith.”
The Church’s teachings are not some arbitrary imposition from on high that need to be “updated” with each generation. They reflect the wisdom of God’s revelation, and the spirit-guided unpacking of that teaching through millennia of prayer and reflection about the nature of human beings, and their ultimate good. To couples suffering from infertility, the Church’s teachings on IVF may seem draconian and capricious. However, many faithful Catholic couples who have adhered to the teaching have found unexpected joy on the other side of their trials: whether it be success in conception by pursuing effective and moral medical treatments (NaPro Technology, which uses natural treatments to address the underlying causes of infertility, is one of the medical community’s best kept secrets), or in the great gift of adoption.
I fully understand that the case of IVF is complex, since the desire that leads couples to use IVF (to bring the gift of children into their marriage) is in itself deeply praiseworthy, and because the result of IVF (a newborn human being) is a great, great good! All of this is absolutely true. For this reason, let me be clear that the Church does not condemn couples who, either in ignorance, or through desperation, have sought recourse to IVF. The Church has compassion on their struggles, acknowledges the great good of desiring the gift of children, and celebrates the dignity and life of their child.
Nevertheless, in her wisdom the Church takes in the totality of the situation, and in her teaching seeks to protect the rights and dignities of all. As such, she cannot compromise with the dominant spirit of the age. The Church invites couples who are struggling with infertility to see the greater good that can be accomplished by pursuing moral solutions, including the sacrificial gift of adoption. And finally, she invites those couples who have used IVF to seek reconciliation with God and the Church by confessing to a priest in the sacrament of confession. Truth and forgiveness are always but a step away.