VATICAN CITY – The Catholic Church supports scientific research aimed at helping people, but the destruction of human embryos or their use as “biological material” demonstrates that a desire to help does not always coincide with respect for every human being, Pope Benedict XVI said.
Pope Benedict met Jan. 31 with more than 60 members and consultants of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which held its plenary meeting at the Vatican.
U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, congregation prefect, told the pope that much of their four-day meeting was devoted to studying several questions related to morality in the field of bioethics.
The cardinal said the study might lead to a new document applying the principles outlined in the 1987 congregation instruction “Donum Vitae” (“The Gift of Life”) and Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”).
Since those documents were published, the cardinal said, “the biomedical sciences have made notable progress that, on the one hand, opens up therapeutic possibilities unknown until now, but on the other hand raises ethical problems that were not explicitly considered” in the earlier documents.
“For example,” the cardinal said, there are “the questions of cloning, of embryonic stem cells (and) the unresolved situation of thousands of frozen embryos,” preserved for implantation but never used.
Pope Benedict told congregation members, “The two fundamental criteria for moral discernment in this field are unconditional respect for the human being as a person from the moment of conception to natural death, (and) respect for the originality of the transmission of human life through the acts proper to spouses.”
The pope, who was head of the doctrinal congregation when the two documents were published, said the church was criticized at the time by those who saw the documents as “an obstacle to science and the true progress of humanity.”
However, he said, “the new problems connected, for example, to the freezing of human embryos, the reduction of embryos, pre-implant diagnosis, research on embryonic stem cells and attempts at human cloning demonstrate clearly how, with extracorporeal artificial fertilization, a barrier put in place to safeguard human dignity has been breached.”
“When human beings in the weakest and most defenseless stage of their existence are selected, abandoned, killed or used as purely ‘biological material,’ how can one deny that they are not being treated as ‘someone,’ but as ‘something,’ putting in question the very concept of human dignity,” Pope Benedict said.
The Catholic Church “appreciates and encourages” scientific research aimed at improving human lives, including research using adult stem cells, fertility treatments and research aimed at curing genetic illnesses, he said.
But, the pope said, the church also “feels an obligation to enlighten the consciences of all so that scientific progress truly respects every human being.”
Pope Benedict also thanked members of the congregation for the two documents they published in 2007, one clarifying the Catholic Church’s teaching that it is the one true church of Christ and another insisting that the Christian obligation to evangelize does not violate its commitment to interreligious dialogue.
The pope said the two documents offered clarifications “necessary for correctly undertaking ecumenical dialogue and dialogue with the religions and cultures of the world.”
The document on the church, he said, “confirmed that the one and unique church of Christ has its substance, permanence and stability in the Catholic Church and, therefore, the unity, indivisibility and indestructibility of the church of Christ are not annulled by the separation and division of Christians.”
Pope Benedict said the affirmation should not create difficulty for ecumenical dialogue, but rather should help clarify the serious beliefs separating Christians, beliefs that theologians involved in dialogue still must tackle.
The pope said an idea that the one church of Christ is something that lies hidden and only will be revealed at the end of time “can do nothing but generate a slowing of and, ultimately, the paralysis of ecumenism itself.”
He said the document on evangelization was needed because of a “persistent religious and cultural relativism” that treats all religions as equally valid paths of salvation.
“The recognition of elements of the truth and goodness in the religions of the world,” their openness to dialogue and to collaboration in serving humanity, he said, “cannot be understood as limiting the missionary task of the church, which obliges it to unceasingly proclaim Christ as the way, the truth and the life.”