Are You Smarter than a Notre Dame Theologian? Episode 2, IVF Edition

Are You Smarter than a Notre Dame Theologian? Episode 2, IVF Edition December 9, 2014

Tom McDonald pointed me to this article, co-authored by Joel Baden and Candida Moss — the latter being a professor in the Theology Department at Notre Dame University.  Who doesn’t know Catholic moral theology.  Let’s walk through the article and compare Notre Dame vs. The Catholic Church.

In 2011, Emily Herx was teaching English at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She was also having trouble getting pregnant, so she began in vitro fertilization treatments. When she informed her supervisors, they were initially supportive, permitting her to begin treatments. But when she requested more time off for her second round of treatment, she was referred to the school’s priest and, later, the local bishop. Eleven days later, she was fired.

Moss and Baden are dead on accurate here, this is a travesty. Terrible handling of the situation.  There should have been no doubt, long before Ms. Herx ever began her job at St. Vincent’s, that IVF was right out.  That this kind of moral teaching was sprung on a Catholic school teacher so late in the game is genuinely sinful.  You have to wonder about the school and what it’s teaching the kids.  Continuing:

There is no denying the real and pronounced clash between church teaching and IVF as it is usually practiced. That said, some of the church’s concerns could be alleviated if a couple committed to using all of the fertilized embryos resulting from treatment.

While it true that not killing one’s offspring would alleviate the situation, IVF is always gravely sinful because it separates the act of procreation from the act of marital intercourse.  The authors hint at this when they say:

As for the treatment of fertility through “means that respect the right to life,” that’s the Catholic Church saying that it’s OK for women to chart their menstrual cycles.

Sigh.  Nothing but charting your cycles? That’s it?  How about this list from the USCCB that lays out the most common options and their moral status?  It dates from 2009, and because it’s a brief summary, it doesn’t give you the full scope of your options. For example, correcting underlying hormonal imbalances such as a progesterone deficiency are part of the follow-on treatment to that short list of starting points for morally-acceptable options.  Not every fertility treatment is moral, but many are, and they are effective treatments that address the underlying health problem.

But at times, the rush to safeguard established positions can lead the church down some rather tortuous roads. This appears to be one of those times, as the bright line between acceptable and unacceptable has become blurry with the constant advent of new technological advances in fertility treatments. It is unclear whether the priests involved in Herx’s case, for instance, and the Catholic Church in general, understand the specifics of modern infertility.

The fact that the USCCB published a concise guide on the matter in 2009 suggest that it is Moss and Baden, not the Church, who are unable to keep abreast of the facts.

According to her suit, Herx was told by Bishop Kevin Rhodes that IVF was “an intrinsic evil, which means no circumstances can justify it,” because it frequently involves the destruction of embryos. This is typically true—but not in Herx’s case. Herx has stated that she and her husband used every embryo they created and that she informed church officials of this from the beginning. Here the church’s tendency toward a black-or-white position runs afoul of complex reality. From what Herx has said, the clerical response to her fertility treatments seems to have been blanket condemnation. Herx’s claim states that the priest she consulted “relied on uninformed assumptions about fertility treatment in general” and that he “did not understand the medical treatments actually administered.” The clergy involved in Herx’s firing seemed to have been responding more to the very idea of infertility treatment than they were to the medical processes involved.

Well, what the lawsuit attests is certainly fascinating.  But IVF is unconditionally condemned, regardless of whether any embryos are killed, and regardless of whether the sperm and egg involved come from the husband and wife, because it is immoral to separate procreation from the marital act.  This is the clear, consistent, longstanding Catholic moral teaching.

And let’s look back at that USCCB quick-guide again: The Church does not oppose treatment for infertility.  There is absolutely no way someone who is informed about Catholic moral theology could come to this conclusion.

Now let’s pause and note where Moss and Baden uncover genuine scandal:

According to Herx’s complaint, her employers had no objection to her fertility treatments before they began to be more widely known. The priest who called Herx a “grave, immoral sinner” evidently also suggested, according to Herx, that she should have kept quiet so as to avoid bringing scandal on the school and the church, saying that some things are “better left between the individual and God.” And that was before she filed the lawsuit or went to the press.

These accusations, if true, are a very serious matter indeed.  This perhaps explains how a Catholic school teacher could have been so utterly ignorant of the Catholic faith.

But could she have kept quiet? Sweeping personal struggle and sadness under the carpet is not so easy in a culture that celebrates families and fertility. 

Agreed.  No one expects Catholics struggling with infertility to put up and shut up.  Those trying to conceive are encouraged to seek out moral means to treat their infertility. For the many would-be parents who are unable to conceive despite treatment, the Church recognizes that this is a source of pain and sorrow for the couple, whose grief deserves to be recognized.

Though not often expressed, the default position of the church is that childlessness is an intentionally chosen state, and a sinful one at that.

Pardon me?  Where, ever, has the Church indicated that infertility is chosen?  Let alone that it’s a sin??  This is nonsense.  Utter nonsense.

The most prominent recent expression of this came from the usually sensitive Pope Francis. In June, Francis delivered a sermon in which he castigated married couples “who don’t want children, who want to be without fruitfulness,” saying that they have been blinded by a “culture of well-being” into thinking that “it’s better not to have children. … That way you can see the world, be on vacation, you can have a fancy home in the country, you’ll be carefree.” 

Wait a minute.  Pope Francis is speaking about couples who don’t want children, not couples facing infertility.  Ms. Herx wants children very much.  Couples in her situation were not whom the holy father was describing at all.  Listening skills, students. You can tell whom the Pope was describing because he used the words “don’t want” followed by the word “children.” That speech was not about infertility, was it?

Leaving aside the socio-economic assumptions about childless couples made by His Holiness here, the practical problem is that the statement implicates everyone who is without children and tars all childless couples with the label of “selfish.”

The practical problem is that reading skills are missing.  For example, if I were to write, “Theology professors who don’t understand basic Catholic moral teaching shouldn’t teach at Catholic universities,” this wouldn’t mean, “All theology professors should be fired.”  It means the ones who don’t understand the basic tenets of their chosen profession.  Just those. Not the others.

Infertility is an invisible disability. However, the social context of the Catholic community almost demands that it be made visible, if only so as to avoid the papally authorized stigma of having chosen a childless lifestyle. Francis’ softly worded caveat about those for whom “children do not arrive” makes no difference unless infertile couples out themselves to everyone they encounter.

Simcha Fisher has a whole book out about this.  You should read it.  It’s excellent.

Is there a problem with Catholics assuming the worst about each other?  Yeah.  Sure there is.  Weirdly, IVF is not an approved treatment for this condition.

In practical terms, then, the Catholic attitude toward infertility most closely resembles that of Christian Scientists: In both cases there is no medical remedy available to the true believer, only faith in prayer and in God’s healing power.

Actually that’s not the Catholic teaching nor the Catholic attitude.  Um, Catholic faith much?

What does this say about a person’s worth within a community that explicitly describes childbearing as a duty?

I seem to recall the Church is quite firm that we have intrinsic worth as human beings without having to do anything at all.  Just because you are you, God loves you and died on the Cross so that you could spend eternity with Him.

If the Church actually did teach, as Bader and Moss assert, that married women were somehow expected to both produce babies and not seek treatment for the inability to produce babies, we’d have a problem.  But in fact:

  • The Church requires no women to get married at all, and no that doesn’t mean you need to be nun instead.
  • The Church recognizes that couples may have serious reasons to abstain from childbearing, and that it’s morally licit to do so in those circumstances.
  • The Church does not require couples to seek treatment for infertility.  The situation is complex.
  • The Church actively supports scientific efforts to find morally-acceptable treatments for infertility, for those who do wish to seek to treatment.
  • The Church lauds those couples who, unable to have children of their own, heroically seek out other ways to embody their marital love in the service of human life.

Don’t believe me?  Here’s a lovely story from a Catholic newspaper lauding the service of a childless Catholic married couple.  Here’s another article that mentions the loving contributions of a different childless Catholic couple.

That’s the Catholic faith.  If you teach religion in a Catholic parish, school, or university, it is imperative that you learn the Catholic faith.

File:Pope Francis at Varginha (2).jpg
I’ve got an idea! Let’s put the Catechism on the internet so Catholic theology professors can read it, too!

Image by Tânia Rêgo/ABr (Agência Brasil) [CC BY 3.0 br], via Wikimedia Commons

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