Monday, March 17, 2008

Being a Faithful Catholic in America: Part VI - Stem Cell Research

[This is part VI of a series: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V.]

JB has asked me to write a post on stem cell research in his series on being a faithful Catholic in America. This is an issue that must be considered when making your election decisions.

Research involving the use of stem cells is often in the news these days, but there are different types of stem cells and therefore differing levels of moral use of them involved. This is not something that is carefully explained in the media and so all kinds of stem cell research are usually just lumped together with promises of great cures attached to them. First of all, what are stem cells? Basically, stem cells are cells that have not been differentiated; they are “generic” cells that have the potential to become differentiated into, say, liver cells or skin cells or blood cells or cardiac (heart) cells, etc. Stem cells are flexible, and when given the right kinds of growth factors and nutrients, they can become any number of differentiated cells. This is why they are so promising to researchers; if they learn how to manipulate stem cells, they can produce any number of differentiated cells, which can be used to grow various kinds of tissues and organs, which can lead to cures. Such discoveries would prove to be quite valuable.

Next, we must make some distinctions. The most critical distinction that must be made is between the sources of stem cells. There are two types: embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells come from embryos, of course. [A brief biology review: a fertilized egg is a single cell that divides repeatedly until it becomes a blastocyst, which is a hollow ball of cells. When the blastocyst implants into the side of the uterus and cell division continues, it is an embryo. It is medically called an “embryo” until it is about eight weeks old, when it becomes a “fetus” until it’s born.] To get stem cells from an embryo, these cells have to be extracted from the inner cell mass; this cannot be done without killing the embryo. Another source of “embryonic” stem cells is aborted fetuses; the stem cells are extracted immediately following an abortion. On the other hand, there are adult stem cells. These can be taken from umbilical cords, placentas, and amniotic fluid following the birth of a baby. They can also be taken from cadavers (up to twenty hours after death) and living adult tissues and organs, namely from bone marrow but also from fat extracted using liposuction and cells in the nasal cavity (nose).

Let us look at the moral issues involved with these two types of stem cells. As Catholics, we know abortion is wrong, as JB explained in his last post. Abortion includes actually going to an abortion clinic and having the fetus extracted, taking an oral “medicine” (poison) such as RU-486 or “Plan B” which causes a chemical abortion, using contraceptives that are known to cause abortions (including most versions of the Pill, IUDs, etc.), or destroying an embryo, a human life in its earliest stages, in a petri dish or any other location.

Some question whether destroying an embryo is actually wrong. Arguments on both sides say that the embryo is a “potential” human person. One side says it’s only potentially human, so it’s okay to kill it, while the other side insists that it is potentially a human person, so we must not kill it. This argument is flawed, because it is based on passive potentiality. In other words, the embryo is seen as just passive stuff, like clay in the hands of a potter waiting to be molded into something. This just isn’t true (as any good biologist can tell you). From the moment of conception, the new human life is active potential. There is a guiding purpose at work, even on the level of DNA, which guides the development and growth of the human. The embryo is a self-guiding entity; there is nothing else telling it what to do, so to speak. It is active, like the potter himself, molding clay into various things. The embryo guides its own cells to become this kind of cell or that. So, it has the capacity for self-development and it has a particular identity.(1) If you think about it, all humans have this active potential. I certainly don’t know anyone who is a perfect human; we’re all in a state of becoming something better (hopefully!) than we are now. (We won’t be perfect until we reach our final destiny – total communion with God in heaven.) So, the embryo is not potentially human. It is human. (It certainly isn’t a frog, a pig, or a mushroom, is it?)

Others bring into question when a human becomes a person; when does ensoulment occur? The short answer is that we don’t know, and I personally like to leave it at that. The Church has never pronounced an answer to the question because it is not something that has been revealed to us from God, and it cannot be discovered by science. Some say the moment of conception; others say other arbitrary points along the line of development. Are embryos persons? We don’t know. Are they humans? Yes, and they should be treated with the same respect and dignity as any other human life. [On a side note… are those in a persistent “vegetative” state (“brain dead”) persons? Have their souls left their bodies? We don’t know. Are they humans? Yes, and they should be treated with the same respect and dignity as any other human life.]

So you can see now why embryonic stem cell research is wrong. It involves the killing of a human life. Some might say that it’s okay to sacrifice a relatively few number of human embryos for the common good. (Sure, why not? The Nazis sacrificed a relatively few number of humans in their experiments in the concentration camps, and we got a lot of good knowledge out of that.) This misses the point about every human being made in the image and likeness of God; that’s what gives humans their inherent dignity. Not to mention that good ends (goals) don’t justify bad means (ways of getting to the goals). Therefore, embryonic stem cell research is wrong because it involves murder of humans, which is always intrinsically evil.

What about adult stem cell research? Like I showed earlier, adult stem cells come from tissues that don’t require a human life to be destroyed to use them. It is perfectly legitimate and good to use these. Adult stem cells are less flexible than embryonic stem cells because they have already reached a certain point of differentiation. However, they are still quite useful and have the added advantage of, if taken from your own body, not being rejected by your body’s immune system. On the other hand, embryonic stem cells are too flexible and energetic, making them hard to control. As a matter of fact, there have been absolutely no cases of any human being cured of any disease using embryonic stem cells. NONE! In animal trials, the cells multiplied out of control, causing cancer. However, with the use of adult stem cells, many people have been treated or cured of diseases, such as leukemia, sickle cell anemia, and spinal cord injuries.

I often wonder why celebrities and others continue pouring money into embryonic stem cell research and why various politicians and activists defend and promote it when it hasn’t produced anything useful. I’ve come up with two answers. First, maybe some of these people sincerely hope in the potential of the ever-flexible embryonic stem cell. They really think that if they just keep trying, they’ll find a way to make it work and cure every disease that afflicts mankind. This is a false hope, however, and a destructive one. Second, if scientists rejected the use of embryonic cells, they would have to eventually reject abortion. How can you say it’s not okay to kill a two-week old embryo but it is okay to kill a three-month old fetus? You can’t, logically.

In short, embryonic stem cell research is a life issue since it involves the murder of humans; Christians must denounce it. Adult stem cell research is a good endeavor that deserves Christian support.

[Note: There are many other issues that relate to the use of embryos, so perhaps I will post on them separately at another time; these include sperm donation/egg harvesting and gamete manipulation, in vitro fertilization (IVF) and other infertility treatments, cloning, and surrogacy.]

(1) Benedict M. Ashley and Kevin D. O’Rourke, Ethics of Health Care, 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 125.

* I must give credit to Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. for much of the information in this post, as I heard it in his lecture on bioethics in Admont, Austria in June 2004. You can find some of his articles here.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

One of our grad school professors, Dr. Brant Pitre, a biblical theologian, wrote an interesting post on this topic. He shows that there is Scriptural evidence (in the book of Numbers) that some married Jewish women took a vow of perpetual virginity. Putting aside the usual arguments about the "brothers" of Jesus (which he quickly mentions and refutes, Scripturally), his thoughts are, at the very least, quite interesting.

Please read the post here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Immigration Issue, Revisited

JB posted on the immigration issue in his series on being a faithful Catholic in America here. I was reading Radical Catholic Mom's blog and saw that she was dealing with this issue in Alaska. She contacted a Representative for her state who is known for standing up for his Catholic values to call him out on his support of a bill that requires everyone to have identification to prove their "legal status" in the country and the state. You can read the post here.

A short excerpt:

I pleaded with Dirk [Rep Lynn's staffer] to use his pro-life principles as an example of how we are to approach the immigration issue. First, don't call them "illegal aliens." I don't give a flying flip if our [government] calls them that. We are Catholics and as such we do NOT believe ANY human is an illegal one, including immigrants and unborn children. Second, WHY WHY WHY are so many millions of people coming here illegally? WHY? When you look into that answer you have to get past the black and white of immigration. Third, if you cannot change your mind because you are convinced, do it because Jesus has some really nasty warnings about what will happen to us rich people who ignore the sufferings of the poor. Do it because we fear God and because we honor the dignity of the person.


Monday, March 10, 2008

"Personal Relationship with Jesus"

If you've ever been asked the question, "Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?" and didn't know how to respond, I highly recommend this short post by Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a former evangelical, now Catholic priest. Here's an excerpt:

The problem I had was that I felt more and more that the 'personal relationship with Jesus' was more 'personal' than 'Jesus'. As I grew older and got a wider experience of Evangelical Christianity it all seemed rather sentimental and subjective. Not only were the different denominations idea of the personal relationship different, but every individual's personal relationship seemed as different as could be, and I naturally began to suspect that much of the , 'personal relationship with Jesus' consisted of sincere, but subjective emotions, and that the Jesus people had a personal relationship was often more of a reflection of their own inner desires, their own personality, their religious preferences and what they had been taught about Jesus than anything else.

I then began to meet a few Catholics who seemed to be closer to Jesus than anyone I had ever met, but they never spoke about a 'personal relationship with Jesus.'

Similar is the "Are you saved?" question. Maybe I'll come up with a post one day on how we as Catholics can respond to that one. Let me just say that it's perfectly acceptable to respond that you have hope in your salvation, or that you're working it out in fear and trembling. We dare not make presumptions on the mercy and justice of God.

Any thoughts you'd like to add?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Being a Faithful Catholic in America: Part V – Abortion

[This is part V of a series I began here. Part II is here Part III is here. Part IV is here. ]

In America, being Pro-Life means being against Abortion. I think we all know the Church’s teaching on abortion; nevertheless it is important to make sure we understand the depth of the issue. We must ask ourselves how the Catholic Consistent Ethic of Life applies to abortion so that we can understand the basis for the Church’s teaching on this. We must examine the current political and legal situation of abortion in our country. We must ask ourselves what the universal call to holiness demands of us in this situation.


Life begins at conception. Biologists who study animals assume this is the case for animals. As soon as the sperm meets the egg, there is life. Any attempt to claim otherwise is simply a “size matters” argument, claiming that just because a zygote is only a few cells it is not worth as much as you or me, by the same logic I would not be worth as much as some very large man or woman. This is obviously nonsense.

Some people claim that a fetus is not a life worth protecting because it is not a person. If it is not a person then it is no more wrong to kill a fetus than to kill a deer or being which lacks personhood. The argument arises over figuring out what determines personhood. One of the country’s most pre-eminent ethicists’, Peter Singer, associates personhood with consciousness. He therefore argues that even intelligent animals like dogs or dolphins have a greater dignity and right to life than babies (even up to 3 months old!) and those suffering from dementia or other mentally debilitating conditions!

This position is obviously utterly unacceptable and has contributed to our current culture of death. For us, as Catholics, we believe life begins at conception. Scientifically speaking, looking at DNA and genetic codes, we can clearly only say that this life is a human life. We cannot know when God creates the soul which formally makes the human life a human person, and the Church has never officially commented on this issue. However, we cannot simply abort a human life because we don’t know if it has a soul yet. For example, any hunter should be able to tell that if you see a bush rustling, but cannot tell what is behind the bush you don’t shoot into the bush because it could be a deer, but it could also be a fellow hunter. Similarly we can tell that from moment of conception there is human life. We cannot determine the moment of ensoulment therefore we do not know whether the life that is aborted is a person or not. So we must not, ever abort. Abortion is always an intrinsically evil act and is murdering the defenseless and the innocent. No person has the right to murder any other person. There are no exceptions.


Many people who claim to be against abortion often site exceptions. They believe abortions should be legal in cases of rape and incest because the mother was not at fault in the conception of the child. However, this an argument based entirely on emotion and not on reason at all.

Certainly we must minister and care to the needs to those who have been so horribly violated. However, simply because someone has wronged them does not give them the right to kill some other innocent person. The baby is not guilty of anything. It is not the baby’s fault that the mother was raped. Why should the baby have to pay for someone else’s crime? We must fight the right to life of all persons, from conception to natural death, even if they were conceived through an act of rape.


For decades now the pro-life position has been associated with the Republican Party. People believe (like I used to) they have to vote Republican because the Republicans are against abortion. They tend to not even consider other issues. Abortion is the one and only issue for them. They believe that one cannot ever vote for a pro-choice politician. However, this is not the Church’s understanding or teaching.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops affirms that a voter may in good conscience vote for a pro-choice politician provided that the person is not voting for that politician BECAUSE he or she is pro-choice. Therefore, a Catholic may, in good conscience, vote Clinton or Obama, provided that the Catholic is voting for them on other issues (immigration, war, etc.) and not because they are pro-choice. I believe this is an important distinction to make because it enables (and demands) us to consider the other issues to approach the elections more intelligently and more openly.

[In this particular Presidential election, none of the remaining primary candidates can claim to pro-life. Obama and Clinton are both strongly pro-choice. McCain supports embryonic stem cell research (which we will consider in the next post). Therefore we must look at other issues in determining for whom to vote.]

Finally, before putting all our eggs in the basket of overturning Roe v. Wade, we must consider the wisdom and prudence of that desire. Let me explain. As Catholics, the law should not matter to us as much as the actions, the moral decisions, of the persons in our country. Abortion has been legal for 30 years now. It is a multi-billion dollar industry. If Roe v. Wade were overturned tomorrow abortions would not stop tomorrow. Instead, woman seeking abortions and doctors performing abortions would go underground, and the government would be forced, if they wished to enforce the new law, to dedicate time, energy, money, and people to finding these underground abortion clinics and arresting those involved. It would quickly turn into a “war on abortion,” which would inevitably fail just as the wars on poverty and drugs have failed. It seems to me that, considering the current moral state of America, a prohibition on abortion now would be no more successful than the prohibition on alcohol back in 1919.

We do not need a pro-life president or change in law (although both of those things may be good) as much as we a need a renewed moral voice to change consciences of Americans. America’s problems are much deeper than that policy or this policy. We have become a morally depraved and selfish country, and if we do not want to go down the path of Roman Empire, those of us who know and understand the teaching of Christ and His Church must teach and educate those who do not about the importance of all these life issues. We do not need this or that president as much as need a resurgence of faith in the one, true God, a faith that needs to be lived out with integrity and with zeal.

Abortions must stop, but I do not believe a change in law will stop them. We must evangelize and catechize the individuals who may or may not be tempted to choose abortion.

May God forgive us the sins of our country and give us the grace to bring His Gospel to all who are lacking it.