New Document: Dignitas Personae

In a recently released document, Dignitas personae, Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has summed up much of the Church's official stance on contemporary matters of bioethics and end-of-life issues. I think it goes without saying that such a document has been a long time coming, and will receive a great deal of attention (both positive and negative) from media outlets and academic institutions alike.

The Vatican-crafted synopsis of the document reads as follows:

In recent years, biomedical research has made great strides, opening new possibilities for the treatment of disease, but also giving rise to serious questions which had not been directly treated in the Instruction Donum vitae (22 February 1987). A new Instruction, which is dated 8 September 2008, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, seeks to provide some responses to these new bioethical questions, as these have been the focus of expectations and concerns in large sectors of society. In this way, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seeks both to contribute "to the formation of conscience" (n. 10) and to encourage biomedical research respectful of the dignity of every human being and of procreation.

To be specific, some of the main thrusts of Dignitas personae are the anthropological and theological foundations of human procreation, the presentation of new questions and concerns in these areas (i.e. in-vitro fertilization, stem cell research, frozen embryos, gene therapy, human cloning, etc.), and an official synopsis of the Church's stance on all these individual matters. Quite concisely, it's a nice little handbook of what flies and what won't according to Catholic moral teaching and the deposit of faith.

Certainly, I think most Catholics are quite aware of the Church's doctrinal stance on most of these issues. But, I also think it goes without saying that those same Catholics would be hard-pressed to explain much more than a simple, axiomatic statement of the doctrine itself. For example, I can imagine many practicing Catholics saying something like: 'Catholics believe abortion is wrong,'s unjust, and it's against the Church's teaching,' or 'The Church does not support embryonic stem-cell research because,'s unethical.' Perhaps that's a little overstated. But ultimately, I think, it is true that most Catholics don't understand much of the reasoning behind what the Church has been saying for years. And there's something to this—it's complicated stuff! If not well informed by their pastors, who are the faithful to turn toward for a coherent explanation of Catholic doctrine? Certainly the media does not portray this accurately, and unfortunately neither do a great majority of theologians or ethicists at Catholic colleges.

On this note, one of the most helpful aspects of the recent release—which deals not just with this document, but with all documents of such a caliber—is a Q&A section published alongside the actual instruction. The members of the Congregation wished to inform Catholics of the actual force of such a publication, in doctrinal term:
[Dignitas personae] is an “instruction” from the Catholic Church’s highest doctrinal agency, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), applying timeless moral principles to some new issues and situations arising from biotechnology. It does not declare a new infallibly defined dogma, but is approved by Pope Benedict XVI and has his authority. Like most Church teachings, its moral judgments are part of the “universal ordinary magisterium.” Catholics are called to inform their consciences with such teaching, adhering to it with “religious assent” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 892).

In my mind, the Holy Office has addressed two popular topics with one fell swoop: bioethical dilemmas as well as the importance of the depositum fidei in the life of the Church. Tanti auguri, Cardinal Levada!