Another fine homily, given by our friend Fr. Anselm Ramelow, O.P. Fr. Anselm is a Dominican Priest and Professor of Philosophy at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology here in the Bay Area.
Advent Monday III
While in today’s Gospel we hear a debate about Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s authority, the first reading does sound already somewhat more like Christmas: we hear Balaam announcing the star, i.e., the Messiah: I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel.
Of course, as he said: it is not here yet, it is still a time of expectancy. Expecting is anticipation, and in some sense something that is already there, and yet not quite. We also use the word “expecting” for pregnant mothers, and that is indeed the road that our Lord chose to come into this world. Balaam says that this star shall rise from Jacob, i.e. be an offspring of the house of Jacob. It was, as it turned out, Mary who conceived from the Holy Spirit, and fittingly two Marian feasts fall into the time of Advent, the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Maybe that is also one of the reasons why the Church a few days ago chose these Marian feast days to clarify some bioethical questions in a document called Dignitas Personae, the dignity of the human person, addressed not just to Catholics but to all doctors and researchers, because this is not a matter of faith only, but of human dignity and rights. It treats of the various ethical parameters that are to be taken into account, when doing research on human embryos. It is another way of highlighting the time of expectancy, a time of Advent, in which we are attentive of something to come, and yet is already there.
This special attentiveness and attention the new document gives to the question of IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) and all forms of artificial reproduction of human life, and it might be good to say a few words about this, since many people do not know about the Church’s teaching or have a hard time understanding it.
The document spells out the ways in which a human being must not be the product of someone else’s designs. We have a right not to be forced into being or even designed by someone else.
It is part of the dignity of the human person to be begotten, not made. Allowing God to arrange our genetics in the marital act of our parents is a way of giving God what is God’s. Our soul is created directly by God in the moment of conception. That is what makes that moment so special and sexual acts sacred. It is the place where the dignity of the human person emerges.
We might also want to think that although the way Mary conceived from the Holy Spirit is unusual and supernatural, there is still is an element of special divine intervention in the conception of each of us. For all of us it is true what the Gospel of John says that we are conceived not by human choice nor by a man's decision but of God (Jn 1, 13), and that we are all children of God, made in the image and likeness of our heavenly Father. We, too, are (to use the words of today’s Gospel) not just of human origins, but of “heavenly” origin.
Certainly, there are some couples who cannot conceive in the normal way. But more recently many ways have been developed in which they can be helped with legitimate medical procedures and their number is therefore actually fairly low. If nothing helps, there will certainly be a painful cross; but we also should not forget about the possibilities of adoption, especially in a time where there are so many unwanted babies.
This might be a little more plausible, if we consider the opposite possibility: in vitro fertilization. This is not only against the dignity of the human person that is to be conceived, but also against the dignity of the marriage.
Even if the sperm and egg is taken from the couple themselves (because you should not make yourself pregnant with a child unrelated to yourself), the one who is getting the wife pregnant would not be the husband, but a technician or medical engineer, while the husband is just standing by, uninvolved. The sacred act of conception would not happen in the sanctuary of marriage, but among the machines of a medical laboratory. Surrender to God’s creative act is taken over by the technological control of man – something that modern technology has been designed to do from its very beginnings in the 17th century, making us into masters and owners of nature, including human nature and life, making human beings in our image and likeness, which therefore become our property, made and discarded at will (infanticide is the next step, which is already in the discussion). It is, in so many ways, an attitude of wanting and making rather than of allowing and letting; there is, accordingly, a lot of anxiety about life, and no “let go and let God.” Someone involved in these procedures recently said in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Jesus was not conceived in the normal way either. I don't lose any sleep over what we are doing.” That is missing precisely the point that the Blessed Virgin Mary conceived by saying “let it be done to me according to your will.” Children can be received only as a gift, not a right; we are living in a time where, paradoxically, this gift is rejected by many, while others want to receive it not as a gift, but as a right and as something of their own making.
Both aspects are intrinsically related: As you are aware, the Church is against contraception, because it separates the unitive aspect of marriage from the procreative. The Church thinks holistic for a number of reasons; what God has put together, man must not divide. Contraception separates the union of the spouses from procreation, but IVF does the same in the reverse: it separates procreation from the union of the spouses. And with equally damaging results: It is not surprising that a growing number of studies find that marriage suffers from these procedures.
Without going into details of these studies, we would already expect that, naturally, husbands tend to feel disconnected from a child conceived in this way, especially if it is not even related to them genetically. Women feel humiliated by the procedure, estranged from their bodies and struggling with psychological difficulties. Both will feel alienated from the child: interestingly, they are less likely to tell the child about its origin than in the case of adoption. The relationship of the couple itself also suffers from this intrusion in their relationship. All of this confirms that what is truly life-giving does not come from technological control and production, but from the self-forgetful giving of two persons in marriage.
Of course, one important aspect has yet to be mentioned, and that is the fact that IVF implies abortion on a large scale: one cannot achieve the desired result without multiple pregnancies and subsequent eugenic selection (including sex selection), i.e. abortion of the superfluous ones. Alternatively, the rest can be frozen, but is rarely be used, and discarded, i.e. aborted later. Pope Benedict spoke of the “absurd fate” of the frozen embryos, absurd, because ethically nothing can be really done with them, even though they human beings with personal dignity. Women especially, more than their husbands, will be painfully aware that they have other children out there somewhere, frozen in an absurd fate.
It will not have escaped you that these are the emerging features of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; there even are experiments with pregnancy in an artificial uterus, in which the child would spend the first months of his life, deprived of the psychologically necessary prenatal relationship and bonding with his mother. (Other parts of that new world are already here: surrogate motherhood, human cloning; even human-animal hybrids are already legalized in England.)
It is also a lucrative market. Statistics show that infertile couples are likely to be: older, better educated, better off financially and desperate. Many of these procedures are expensive and complicated (involving the use of many drugs over a long time), yet they are often unsuccessful: the success rate is only 1/3, of which 9% (vs. 4.2% normal) are born with defects; and at a prize of about $10,000 per cycle (while other already living children are starving elsewhere in the world, which is not an insignificant ethical issue). Because of the low success rate, there is a pressure to get better ratings through procedures that imply more “wastage” of human embryos. Ironically, all of this trumps available medical procedures (called NaPro) that are ethically responsible, procedures that work with nature as God has designed it, and are therefore much more effective.
In Texas there is already a place where one can already order designer babies. The embryos are made from eggs and sperm from two donors who have never even met. The moment of conception occurs in the laboratory and is determined by the genetic combination the clinic thinks will best meet the needs of the paying couples on its books. For about $9,500 you can buy ready-made embryos matching your expectations, including eye and hair color; the advertisement boasts that its sperm donors have doctorates and the egg donors at least college degrees (and there are waiting lists for Aryan children). We will soon see human persons being sold in batches as “quality products”, a frozen and shipped commodity, to be ordered online. All of this is certainly not the testimony to the human dignity that the new Vatican document wants to uphold.
So, if the Church produced this document in this time of Advent, there is good reason for it. All of this is just the flipside of something positive that we are to remember. It is so that the true star will be rising in our hearts, the light of God, reflected in the dignity of his image and likeness, human nature elevated to participation in God’s very own nature in the Incarnation. It is in this time especially that we remember that God not only created natural marriage and fertility with all its dignity. We also remember that he gave conception a new title of dignity, by choosing this as his very own way of entering his creation. He graced it and elevated this way of conceiving to become the royal road to our salvation.