Caught Sleeping

Frank Pavone
Reproduced with Permission

"I don't want the Church to be caught sleeping again..." This is the heartfelt desire which the man who was a key player in bringing us legal abortion, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, has expressed to me regarding the bioethical challenges of the 21st century. Dr. Nathanson maintains that in the '60's, he and his colleagues at NARAL (at that time, the "National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws") literally "stole the issue" from the Church. In speaking to clergy, he says, "We would never have gotten away with what we did if you had been united, purposeful, and strong."

The new bioethical challenges have shaped the news and everyday discourse: embryonic stem cell research, genetic manipulation, and human cloning. Those who want to advance science- fiction agendas will still not get away with what they are doing if the Church is united, purposeful, and strong.

One of the many key insights which Evangelium vitae provides about these issues is a play on words. The English word "matter" and the Latin word "mater" ("mother") express two ways of looking at creation, including human life. The Holy Father writes, "[O]nce all reference to God has been removed, it is not surprising that the meaning of everything else becomes profoundly distorted. Nature itself, from being "mater" (mother), is now reduced to being "matter", and is subjected to every kind of manipulation" (n.22).

To put this another way, we can look at creation and consider how useful it is, or we can look at creation and reverently marvel at it. These two visions are not mutually exclusive. To marvel at the beauty of a tree doesn't mean we can't use it for lumber. But the danger lies in reducing our vision entirely to "matter." This is particularly dangerous when it comes to human life, because a person is not a thing, and is never to be treated as a thing. The drive to "use" embryos and their cells, and to "manipulate" the genetic code, necessarily puts the person in the category of a thing, despite any "good intentions."

The new bioethical challenges do not replace abortion as a central focus, because the assertion in Roe vs. Wade that "the word person...does not include the unborn" provides the foundation for the type of thinking behind these new challenges. As our bishops have pointed out, "Nations are not machines or equations. They are like ecosystems. A people's habits, beliefs, values and institutions intertwine like a root system. Poisoning one part will eventually poison it all... So it is with the legacy of Roe vs. Wade" (Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n.9).

The way out of this mess is not going to be easy. Sleeping is easy; vigilance has a price. Fundamentally, if the Church is not to be caught asleep again, we have to prioritize our activities, and devote more resources to both education and activism in the defense of life. This work cannot be a hobby; it will require us to give everything. But that should sound familiar to Christians.