Three Things I Admire About Catholic Reproductive Ethics

As a lifelong Protestant, I’m always surprised to find myself defending Catholic positions on reproductive ethics when others criticize them.

Often, people’s criticisms of Catholic teachings about reproduction and sex are based on laughably inaccurate assumptions. These are some of the most egregious criticisms I’ve heard:

– Catholic leaders just want people to have more Catholic babies.

– The Pope thinks that children conceived via reproductive technology are “undignified.” (This one arose from a misunderstanding of what Catholic theology means when it refers to reproductive technology as undermining human dignity.)

– Ethical guidelines crafted by a bunch of unmarried men cannot possibly say anything legitimate about having babies. (I have plenty of criticisms regarding the Catholic insistence on celibate males as the only people qualified for ordained ministry. But there are plenty of smart and married men and women who fully embrace Catholic reproductive ethics. And it just doesn’t make sense to insist that only people with firsthand experience with something can say something valuable about it.)

These are a few of the more outrageous criticisms of Catholic teaching about procreation, but even more moderate objections are frequently based on inaccurate ideas of what the Roman Catholic Church actually teaches about procreation, sex, marriage, and babies. For a very basic summary of Catholic reproductive ethics, click here to read a piece I wrote several years ago for the Episcopal Cafe.

There is plenty about Catholic reproductive ethics with which I just don’t agree. I also think Catholic leaders have sometimes done a poor job of communicating their position; the language they use (describing use of IVF as “illicit” for example) is off-putting to many faithful people.

Nevertheless, there is much to admire in Catholic teaching concerning sexuality, marriage, and children. Here are three things I admire about Catholic reproductive ethics:

1. Catholic reproductive ethics are thorough. The most admirable aspect of Catholic reproductive ethics is its mere existence; Catholic theologians have tackled questions around contraception, sexuality, procreation, and reproductive technology continually and thoroughly. Church leaders, from the Vatican on down, have penned hundreds of pages laying out reasons for the church’s positions on specific situations and technologies.

Protestant denominations, on the other hand, have said very little about reproductive ethics, particularly about reproductive technologies. And when they do say something, it is often vague and not terribly helpful. Consider my own Episcopal Church, which approved this resolution in 1982: “That this 67th General Convention of the Episcopal Church gives approval to usage of so-called ‘in vitro’ fertilization for the purpose of providing children in a marriage.” In 1991, the church managed to say just as little but with slightly more words: “That the 70th General Convention reaffirm the recommendation that married couples who are members of this Church and who are considering the use of external fertilization and embryo transfer, seek the advice and assistance of a qualified professional counselor and the pastoral counsel and care of this church and consider adoption as one of the options open to them.”

Now, I am all for a “wishy-washy” approach to reproductive ethics that provides information and support without telling people what to do. But those resolutions strike me as so general as to be essentially useless. Whether you agree with the Catholic Church or not, at least they are saying plenty about reproductive ethics, with substance and clarity.

2. Catholic reproductive ethics are based on some beautiful theology. The foundation for Roman Catholic assessment of ethical questions related to procreation is their vision for Christian marriage. In Catholic theology, marriage has two complementary and necessary purposes: the unitive (two becoming one) and the procreative (children arising from their parents’ loving union). Catholic objection to reproductive technologies, from contraception and artificial insemination to in vitro fertilization (IVF) and surrogacy, is due primarily to their perception that these technologies separate the unitive and procreative in some way, or elevate one purpose over the other.

Catholic theology makes clear the difference between “procreation” (a new human life arising from the love between a man and a woman) and “reproduction” (the technical process of egg and sperm joining to create a baby). Although he is Protestant, Christian ethicist Gilbert Meilaender eloquently explains this difference: “That the sexual union of a man and a woman is naturally ordered toward the birth of children is, in itself, simple biological fact, but we may see in that fact a lesson to be learned…A child who is thus begotten, not made, embodies the union of his father and mother. They have not simply reproduced themselves…Rather, the power of their mutual love has given rise to another….Their love-giving has been life-giving; it is truly procreation.” Of assisted reproduction, Meilaender asserts, “In our world there are countless ways to ‘have’ a child, but the fact that the end ‘product’ is the same does not mean that we have done the same thing.”

I find the notion that all of this—marriage and sex and unity and babies—was designed by God to go together for a reason to be beautiful and important. Like many Protestants, I don’t come to the same conclusions as the Catholic leadership has about what this theology means for specific types of reproductive technology. But I think we would do well to pay attention to the theology itself, and allow it to inform our ethical decision-making.

3. Catholic reproductive ethics have integrity. Because all Catholic positions on matters related to reproduction stem from this theology of marriage, sexuality, and procreation, they have an integrity—a wholeness, a consistency—lacking in other traditions. When I read the anemic statements of my own Episcopal Church and other Protestant bodies, I get the sense that we are trying to come up with meaningful critiques and recommendations without any frame of reference, that we’re trying to cobble something together without any tools. I’ve often said that, when Daniel and I were going through our difficult reproductive decisions, we and those around us didn’t even know what questions to ask, much less how to answer them. I think that’s the problem for many Christians, and many Christian churches. We don’t even know what questions to ask about reproductive ethics. The Catholic Church, to their credit, knows what questions are important to them, and have set out to answer those questions thoroughly, drawing on a clear and firm theology.

I disagree with the Catholic Church on many things—what questions to ask, the implications of their vision of Christian marriage, the motivations of people who use reproductive technologies. But I admire Catholic reproductive ethics for their thoroughness, their beauty, and their integrity. If Protestant churches are ever going to contribute to cultural and theological debates about reproductive technology, we should pay attention to what our Catholic brothers and sisters have done so well.


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