Right Tune, Wrong Words

the muffled wisdom of ‘dignitas personae'

Before the December release of Dignitas personae, it had been twenty years since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) came out with a bioethics document. It is no doubt a good thing that the church moves carefully and slowly on complex matters, but given the radical development of medical technology in the past two decades, a new instruction was needed, and long awaited. When it finally came, there were no big surprises or dramatic reversals, and so journalists barely took notice. In light of the Obama administration’s recent decision to lift some constraints on embryonic stem-cell research, it may be worth taking another look at the document.

Dignitas personae has its flaws: it gets some of the science wrong; it could have been far more persuasive in making its argument about the moral status of the embryo; and its tone perpetuates the destructive divide between “moral-status conservatives” and “social-justice liberals.” But it is nevertheless a valuable document that, despite imperfections, reinforces an important, timely, and countercultural message.

The document is primarily concerned with reproductive technologies and medical interventions related to embryos. Some people may roll their eyes at this and dismiss it as another example of the Vatican’s obsession...

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About the Author

Charles Camosy is professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University.