IN DECEMBER, with great fanfare, the Vatican released Dignitas Personae, its latest report on bioethics. Sad to say, the document demonstrates once more that a morality rooted in outdated, pre-scientific understanding is not appropriate to modern realities.
I refer not to the hot-button issues of abortion or stem cell research but to the Catholic church's continued opposition to a decidedly pro-life medical intervention: in vitro fertilisation. The moral basis of the Vatican's opposition seems to be twofold: that only conception achieved through the sexual union of a man and a woman is sacred, and that the fertilised cell that results from such a union has a soul and therefore the dignity of a person.
Even before IVF was attempted, the Catholic church opposed it with the suggestion, as I understand it, that a baby conceived by this method would not have a soul. This objection was dropped after the first IVF babies were born and found to be like all other babies, growing up to be normal human beings indistinguishable from their non-IVF counterparts.
But while empirical evidence is the basis of science, faith has different foundations. The pope remains opposed to IVF on the grounds that sexual union is sacred, and therefore only conception achieved through sexual union accords sufficient dignity to the end product. I have to wonder, though, whose dignity is enhanced by withholding medically viable methods that have allowed infertile couples, now numbering in the millions, to conceive and give birth to children they will love.
Several years ago I was invited to the Vatican for a meeting on the future of the universe and life within it, where scientists and theologians tried to communicate with each other, presumably to allow both sides to enhance their understanding of fundamental issues related to our place in the cosmos.
I began my lecture with the somewhat glib remark that it was important for the theologians to listen to me, but not as important for me, as a scientist, to listen to them. I am not sure the theologians were happy to hear this, but I think discussions during our meeting reinforced the notion that the science-religion interface is, at best, a one-way street. I say that because, as a human being, my understanding of moral issues may or may not be improved by such discussions, but as a scientist my efforts to use empirical data to understand the workings of nature would be largely unaffected by them. Theologians, on the other hand, seem to me to have an obligation to attempt to understand the knowledge about the world that has been gained through science, because only through such knowledge can their theology possibly be consistent.
The Catholic church has understood this in other contexts. Official Catholic doctrine, as outlined in the 2004 document Communion and Stewardship, accepts the reality of biological evolution, and that the theory of evolution is compatible with the Bible. It has had to recognise that it would be fruitless to claim that evolution is inconsistent with a belief in God, because evolution did occur and is the source of the diversity of life on Earth. A similar argument earlier led the Catholic church to accept the reality of a heliocentric solar system and the existence of other stars and galaxies.
Failure to accept modern biomedical understanding of human conception will keep the church as mired in the past as it was when it opposed Galileo's understanding of the nature of our solar system. And as long as it allows the foundations of its morality to be fixed in the past, ignoring advances based on changing knowledge, its moral authority will remain questionable.