How to characterize doctrine

vials2There’s an interesting story coming out of Wisconsin about a woman who was fired from her job as a Roman Catholic school teacher because she conceived her children using in vitro fertilization.

The method of conception involves removing eggs from the woman’s ovaries and fertilizing them with sperm. The main complication of the method is the frequency of multiple births. This is because of the practice of creating many embryos and passing several of the “best” of them into the uterus to improve the chances of implantation. Leftover embryos are frozen for future use or discarded. Millions of embryos have been discarded or frozen by couples who use in vitro fertilization.

Let’s look at the way Susan Squires, a reporter for the Appleton Post-Crescent, handled explaining Roman Catholic opposition to the practice after a generous explanation of the woman’s position:

The church’s position is spelled out in “Donum Vitae,” a 1987 church instruction on “respect for human life in its origin and the dignity of procreation.” The document — Latin for “Gift of Life” — was written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

It teaches that in-vitro fertilization is immoral. By employing medical technology to commingle her eggs with her husband’s sperm, Romenesko had violated two clauses in her teaching contract: to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church, and to act and teach in accordance with Catholic doctrine and the church’s moral and social teachings. . . .

Simply put, in-vitro fertilization is the process of extracting eggs from a woman’s ovaries, fertilizing them with a man’s sperm, choosing the most promising cell clusters and injecting several into the mother’s uterus. Clinics typically freeze “extra” embryos, which the parents may use later, discard or donate.

The church, which teaches that life begins at conception, objects to the procedure on several grounds. First, destroying leftover embryos is tantamount to abortion in the eyes of the church, as is “selective reduction” — the elimination of some implanted embryos to avert multiple pregnancies.

Secondly, it usually requires male masturbation to harvest sperm, which the church holds immoral.

Finally, according to the Donum Vitae, “The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person.”

Not bad, eh? The explanation is placed midway through the story and is a rather fair explanation of the church’s position on human life issues. Now let’s look at the way the Associated Press handled it:

In vitro fertilization involves extracting eggs from a woman’s ovaries and fertilizing them with sperm in a laboratory dish or test tube. The fertilized eggs are implanted into the woman’s uterus.

Catholic teaching holds that the procedure is morally wrong because it replaces the “natural” conjugal union between husband and wife and often results in destruction of embryos.

Even though [attorney James C.] Jones said the couple used their own eggs and sperm and none of the embryos were destroyed in the process, the church forbids such donations and condemns all forms of experimentation on human embryos.

The AP characterization just seems lacking on so many levels. It’s not that anything it says is wrong, just that it gives short shrift to a complex theological issue. You can almost see the wave of the hand as the reporter skirts from the news hook about the woman’s firing onto descriptions of the cute twins she gave birth to last year.

test tube babyI noticed another difference between the two reports. While Squires speaks with two Catholic theologians who wonder whether the school overreacted, she shares their concerns with the principal and includes his response. Compare that approach with how the AP handled it:

The in vitro fertilization issue was first highlighted for Catholics in “Donum Vitae,” a 1987 church instruction written by the cabinet of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, on “respect for human life in its origin and the dignity of procreation.”

Mark Johnson, who teaches moral theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said the 1987 document was the first serious official church writing on the subject, and modifications could be possible.

“This is brand spanking new stuff in the life of a church that is 2,000 years old,” Johnson said, noting that the Vatican now is considering allowing the use of condoms to help battle AIDS in Africa despite its longtime opposition to contraceptive devices.

The reporter then went back to more details about the woman who had been fired. We frequently think that national reporters are better at handling nuance and difficult situations, but I think the local reporter does better in this case. Squires looked at an explosive and controversial issue with a deft hand, treating all of her subjects fairly.

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  • Horus

    Mollie, I’m confused are you writing about the diligence of these journalists or posting this article, that includes these issues, for religious discussion?

    If you’re talking about the diligence of certain journalists, I don’t think people coming to a website called expect or want that.

    You academics make everything so convoluted and wacky. Simply not simple.

    Who are you?

  • tmatt

    Mollie is comparing the quality of information in two different news stories. She is, of course, a working journalist — not an academic. You can tell that by reading this site — especially the about Mollie link.

    Please explore our site a bit and I think you will see what we do here is precisely what Mollie did in this post.

  • Ryan Richard Overbey

    Mollie is dead on: the Squires article is far better at explaining the situation than the AP piece.

    Just for kicks, I did a word-count: the Squires article is 1277 words long, while the AP piece is 631 words long.

    I can’t stress this point enough. For journalists to get better at getting religion, they need to stop pretending they can adequately cover any issue in less than 750 words.

  • tmatt


    As a columnist who writes 700 words, let me stress: One cannot cover everything in that length. But mistakes are mistakes. Inaccurate wordings are inaccurate wordings.

    Look at the work of Richard Ostling of the AP as an example. You can do accurate work in short lengths. But you have to know what you know and know what you do not know. Training helps.

  • Bob Smietana


    IVF is a complicated moral/scientific question, and doesn’t lend itself well to the kind of paraphrasing reporters are forced to do because of space limitations. It’s also an issue where inacurate numbers are tossed around all the time. For example, your statement, “Millions of embryos have been discarded or frozen by couples who use in vitro fertilization.” The last comprehensive count of frozen embryos showed 300,000 in storage. In 2003, the last year stats are available for the ART (assisted reproductive technology) cycles—of which IVF is one method—there were 122,872 attempts made at conception. It’s not likely that “millions” of embryos have been frozen or discarded. The total maybe a million or more but not “millions.”

    The other complicating factor is that “millions” of embryos which are naturally concieved fail to implant and are discarded. Which makes the discussion about when life begins more complicated.

  • Mollie


    1) I specifically avoided giving a number of how many embryos have been frozen, although my research indicates it’s around 400,000 in America alone. I specifically said frozen or discarded.

    2) You are using the CDC figures for the number of AMERICAN couples who used IVF IN ONE YEAR. The procedure is popular in other countries as well, sometimes much more popular and has been around since the late 1970s, although I’m not certain when embryos began to be frozen. There’s no reason to think of this issue solely in geopolitical terms.

    3) Doctors aim to place an average of four embryos in the woman’s uterus but they create many more. The reason for this is because the success rate for each IVF cycle is 20-30 percent (although some clinics now say their success rate is as high as 50 percent). If all the embryos survive, many parents decide which ones to “terminate” to increase the chances of the others’ survival. Rather than take the ova repeatedly, doctors take a bunch and make a bunch of embryos all at once — so that they’re ready to go if the first cycle fails.

    So I realize my number is vague but I don’t think there is any question that millions of embryos are frozen or discarded.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.


    Great work! I likewise prefer the local reporter’s story, which gives a more balanced explanation and explains the throny issues involved to a greater degree.

    Yes, journalism has weaknesses because theology is a complex issue to begin with. But if people don’t even go to church and learn what their own faith professes, they aren’t likely to understand the theological quagmires in news stories either.

    Was any mention made that the teacher knew specifically that IVF was wrong? I do know that in Appleton (my hometown, BTW) Catholic schools do not always hire Catholic teachers. My cousin is Methodist but an early teaching job was at a Catholic school in Appleton (and she was once berated for improper decorum at chapel). I attended classes at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee and the professor went on about the precepts of the Catholic order that runs the university and I finally had to raise my hand and ask her to enumerate those precepts because, frankly, I’m Lutheran and even though I attended a seminary we didn’t learn in great detail all precepts. So, did the teacher know this was against the policy of the church and its attendant schools? I think this is similar to the question about the gay student at the fundamentalist college who was expelled (I think tmatt covered that on this blog).

    BTW, The “Appleton Post-Crescent” was the first place I ever worked. I worked in the mailroom. In those days it was owned by Post Corp., but is now part of the Gannett empire.

  • dk

    It could be worse! At least it was not a crypto- or overtly polemical piece, like the kind of journalism and commentary the Times often produces. NPR is probably the worst offender. Yesterday I learned from one of Terri “Middlemind” Gross’s guests about the all-powerful yet incredibly dumb, undifferentiated, monolithic religious right nationalists/dominionists/reconstructionists/evangelicals. They control the GOP and are taking over the country–by pursuing their own interests by democratic means! How sneaky! Tmatt will be pleased to know that Robertson and (I think) Falwell were cited as key leaders of the cabal. In an interesting move, the Protestant Right was noted for its rather unimpeachable views of women, ethnic minorities, Jews, and Catholics–but their rampant and uniform anti-gay agenda was unmasked as the necessary release from all this “new” love and tolerance.

  • tmatt


    URL please. Share.

  • Steve


    One problem that the righteous right has is that they confuse the Kingdom of God (the Church catholic) with the Kingdom of this World (Two Kingdom Theology from the Reformation). They assume that they can create a “Christian” nation by the use of the Law and not the Gospel. There never has been nor will there ever be a “Christian” nation, just a nations with Christians as citizens.

    The problem is the many of the doctrines of historic Christianity runs against our post-modern culture and certain parts of the media part of this conflict. This is no different than what the early Church faced in the Roman Empire.

  • Horus


    Comparing the struggles of the early Christians to the conflict between the doctrines of historic Christianity and the media is absurd.

    First, how can you say that doctrines are in anyway similar to people in the early Church? How is the media like the Roman Empire? Does the media have a countering religion that is pervasive throughout the world? Does the media hold absolute power over “doctrines of Historic Christianity” based upon these religious understanding?

    The struggle in is you, not in the world.

    You are not belief, you are not doctrine. You are much, much more than that.


  • Steve


    The Gospel was counter cultural is the Roman world as it should be our our time. The media is not the Roman Empire. The media is reflective of our culture. The power of the Gospel is greater than the media or the culture. We have forgotten that and try to relay on politics.

    Post-modern culture is anti-truth in that they reject the existance of abolute truth. Christian is based on the abolute truth found in Christ.

    As for doctrine, which is very important. We must have the same doctrine as the Church found in the New Testement. This is the teaching of the Apostles that is referred to in Acts what we see in the New Testement. Unlike most American Christians, I believe that what one believes is critical to how ones deals with our culture.

    The struggle is both internal and external. Christ prayed that we would be in the world, but not of the world.

  • Kevin Jones

    “Catholic teaching holds that the procedure is morally wrong because it replaces the “natural” conjugal union between husband and wife and often results in destruction of embryos.”

    Is it just me, or are those sneer quotes around “natural”? Is this part of an AP style guide?

  • Bob Smietana


    Thanks for the clarification. The figures I quoted were for American couples, because America is where the vast majority of IVF is done. Other countries, especially in Europe, have strict guidelines on the number of attempts and some forbid freezing embryos. I’d question whether “millions” is an appropriate descriptor of the number of embryos frozen or discarded. Being vague when dealing with this kind of controversial topic, I’d argue, is less than prudent.

    You may be right, though. I may be overly cautious about such things.

  • Sean Gallagher

    I think that the A.P. explanation of the Church’s views on IVF would have been much more acceptable had the reporter dropped the scare quotes around “natural” and either used the same phrasing or just used a few more words in a different phrasing that communicated the same message.

    For me, the “wave of the hand” came through in those scare quotes.

  • Horus


    The Gospel has as much power as you want it to have in your life. If you do not believe in the Gospel or have not found God through reading the Gospel then it won’t have the power that it has for a believer.

    That said, the Gospel is not the counter-culture as it may have been during the Roman Empire. The Gospel helps dictate the President’s foreign policy, the Gospel influences mosts people lives in North America. It is not counter-culture, you can keep believing that it is, but it definitely is not.

    Although Christ knew himself as God and many people wrote about the wonders and teachings of Christ, those writings are not absolute Truth. He is absolute Truth, but most likely not as you see him. I get the sense that you believe in a super-natural God-man named Christ that died because people are sinful. I see Christ completely differently than this and while I agree with your statement about the absolute Truth found in Christ, I suspect we get to the understanding in profoundly different ways.

    In regards to your comments about belief. Belief is not at all absolute, it is not the Truth no matter how eloquently or historic it may be. There is room for belief in Truth, but The Truth itself transcends and encompasses belief, it is immediate, accepting and all-inclusive. Know your Self and you will know the Truth, you will know what Christ knew and from there you will be able to change the culture in much more effective and profound way.

    In fact, struggle can cease to exist in yourself and in the world by realizing a deep Truth about external and internal reality. The Truth is – there is no external and internal realities, there is only one reality. Physical, mental and spiritual realities are all intimately connected, each affects the other, as they are one. There is no inside and outside in reality. Christ was attempting to explain this Truth when he prayed that we would be in the world, but not of it.

    Steve, I hope we can discuss these issues further together, I am certain that some things I have said may have offended or not-agreed with you.

    There is only one.


  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Here’s the link for the edition of Fresh Air that dk mentioned.