Sunday, May 31, 2009

12-21-2008: 4th Advent (B)

2 Samuel 7:1-5,8-12,14,16/Psalm 89/Romans 16:23-27/Luke 1:26-38
The Christmas story, the story of Incarnation, is the heart of Christianity, how divinity came to dwell among us: first within Mary; then within the Holy Family; then within the Church; and now within each and every soul. It’s the story of seeming contradictions, the essence of paradox, the coincidence of opposites.

The Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, once remarked that many come to the church by ways the church does not allow. That’s a hopeful thought in light of the recently issued document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas personae (The Dignity of a Person) on current issues in bioethics which, at best, might be judged paradoxical--if you can get past the outright contradictions. The document wishes to augment a pro-life agenda: the sanctity of human life and our responsibility to approach new reproductive technologies from that fundamental point of view. All well and good. But once you leave the realm of broad fundamental principles and enter the intricacies of modern medical procedures (and the church’s prohibitions regarding many of them), things get a little murky. It’s important, meanwhile, to remember that those to whom these prohibitions are issued are no modern Doctors Frankenstein but, by and large, ordinary folks who are looking to become parents, and the ill and incapacitated looking for cure and healing.

Take the problem of frozen embryos and, more to the point, the problem of what to do with them. The document reiterates the prohibition against in vitro fertilization but recognizes that these human embryos must be accorded the dignity afforded to all human beings. Now, one might ask, what would the acknowledgment of that dignity call for--and up pops a contradiction. The document seemingly forbids anyone, including married couples, to prenatally adopt those embryos, by implanting them into the surrogate (adoptive) mother and gestate that embryo to term, and then raise the born-child within the already-created adoptive family. While the document praises the practice of adoption for born-children in need of parents, it seemingly prohibits prenatal adoption of frozen embryos as illicit. Why? As I read the document it does so on two counts: that surrogacy itself (the implanting of an embryo in the womb of a woman not the biological mother of that embryo) is illicit; and since the act of fertilization was not the result of conjugal relations between the couple seeking to adopt the unborn child, it would be illicit to implant an embryo not the result of their conjugal activity. Procreation, it seems, can never (never!) be separated from the conjugal act. Thus, the document implies, those embryos must remain in their cryonic limbo until they die. So, the very reason the document was issued – to promote a pro-life worldview -- seems to forbid a definitively pro-life action (prenatal adoption) and so consigns these individuals to a very cold fate indeed because, through no fault of their own, they were not conceived in the normal, “natural” way.

Between Humanae vitae (which condemned artificial contraception) and Dignitas personae, the church has settled into a neat and unfortunate tautology: the conjugal act must always be open to procreation, and procreation must always be the result of the conjugal act. All else is illicit. But here’s the catch: while artificial contraception involves only the practitioners, in vitro fertilization involves not only the practitioners, but their children as well. It seems, the gospel notwithstanding, the sins of the fathers are indeed passed down to their children.

The document’s emphasis on the absolute necessity of the conjugal act in relation to procreation is mired in irony, declaring human life to be a sacred value while permitting unborn children to die in frozen storage all because their parents did not have sex. The absurdity is more keenly felt on this particular Sunday of the year when we read of the Virginal Conception of Jesus by Mary. The very heart of Christian revelation assures us of this truth: that (a) Jesus’ conception was not the result of a conjugal act between Mary and Joseph (nor of any other sexual act), but accomplished with the express permission of only one human agent, Mary, who, having agreed to the divine request, would carry a son who was not the child of her husband; and (b) that Joseph, in obedience to the instruction of the angel, agreed to the prenatal adoption of Jesus. Good thing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wasn’t around then or the Incarnation itself might have been judged illicit. On the other hand, maybe it should be judged so; and then all those practicing illicit conception, as well as all those illicitly conceived, might come to the church by the very ways the church does not allow – and find there, a welcome home.

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