Written by Fr.Edward Xuereb

Defending Human Life, Marriage and Sexuality

It is true that our society is showing ever more signs of secularisation that sever all ties with the values taught by Christ in the Gospel and by the Catholic Church. These values are ultimately nothing else except the same authentic human values that are common to all mankind, rooted in human nature and purified and enlightened by Christian faith. Such a secularist mentality is based on a subjectivistic and relativistic view of morality, which has done away with objective norms, inherent in human nature understood not in a biological but in an ethical and metaphysical sense, which hold good independently from their possible approval or otherwise by the individual or by the general consensus of the public.

The Right and Duty of the Church to Pronounce Herself

At the same time, the great value of respect toward other opinions is surely a positive aspect of our pluralistic society – an aspect brought about in our European culture not without the influence of the Christian roots of our continent. It surely forbids us from pretending to impose tout court our moral tenets on everybody, let alone to do this in a militant or triumphal fashion.

However, if everybody has the right to pronounce one’s opinion, it would be highly discriminatory to shut up the voice of the Church. At least, she has a natural and civil right to engage in the public discussion regarding matters like the current IVF issue. This issue exactly concerns ‘substitutive’ and not ‘assisted’ procreation, since it always substitutes for the conjugal act, unlike the praiseworthy NaProTechnology (Natural Procreative Technology), which aims at restoring fertility naturally, by identifying and then correcting the underlying causes of the couples’ infertility.

However, if everybody has the right to pronounce one’s opinion, it would be highly discriminatory to shut up the voice of the Church. At least, she has a natural and civil right to engage in the public discussion regarding matters like the current IVF issue. This issue exactly concerns ‘substitutive’ and not ‘assisted’ procreation, since it always substitutes for the conjugal act, unlike the praiseworthy NaProTechnology (Natural Procreative Technology), which aims at restoring fertility naturally, by identifying and then correcting the underlying causes of the couples’ infertility.

The Bishops’ Contribution

Actually, the Catholic Church in Malta has indeed given a very valid contribution to the current debate about the introduction of IVF legislation in Malta, through the recent Bishops’ Pastoral Letter. It is a credit to our bishops that they fulfilled their duty to enlighten the faithful about such a crucial issue, thus also lending a helping hand to all men of good will who sincerely, without any inappropriate interests whatsoever, search the truth regarding man and his nature.

It seems that the criticism against the Bishops’ teaching, which after all is nothing else except the teaching of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church – an entity whose pluri-secular and wide multicultural experience should impress even the unprejudiced outsider – is being levelled not regarding its proper content, but the methodology employed, by labelling the latter as militant, pastorally insensible and reminiscent of some nostalgic bygone days. It is a pity and to make such insinuations, because as regards the style they adopted, the Bishops treated this extremely delicate problem with a very pastoral and empathetic tone, which should be palpable to every attentive listener. Above all, then, let’s respect the intelligence of everybody by not deflecting the attention from the real contents of the Letter, namely the three essential moral principles expounded by the Bishops on which the Church’s position – not just in Malta but everywhere – is firmly and logically undergirded: the integrity of human life, the unity of marriage and the personal dignity of the exercise of human sexuality.

We should respect the different opinion of those who see matters differently, while earnestly inviting them to look into the issue more thoroughly and join us in our search for the objective truth regarding this moral topic. In this context are to be collocated our respectful invitations and caveats to avoid misleading terminology that might subtly mitigate the moral harm involved, such as calling an “Embryo Protection Bill”, a bill which then betrays or contradicts in its contents its very name.

Faith and Reason

Furthermore, the Church’s voice in the public arena, when touching moral issues concerning human nature, is not only addressed to her members, but to the public at large, particularly because her positions are firmly grounded on human nature and human reason. Obviously, the civil legislator has to cater for all citizens, in the spirit of the common good, not just for any particular faction or factions. And what are the principles upon which this common good is founded? They are those principles that are moral in character and derive from human nature and human reason. That is why the Church’s position about the IVF issue is to be taken very seriously. And for this very reason, her position is valid for the society at large, not just for her own loyal members. To argue that the faithful should not impose their beliefs on others in the sense that the legislator is free to discard the requisites of natural law in the interest of the wider society, is to fall prey to our typical post-modern fallacy of separating morality from positive civil law, with all its disastrous past and present effects.

When it comes to the members of the Church, the issue should be clearer and more easily understood, due our connatural sort of knowledge insofar as we partake in her sense of faith. Supernatural faith perfects our knowledge of natural law. At the same time, it is an ongoing journey of faith continually alimented by catechesis, the living echo of the ever actual Word of God, which is not limited to children preparing themselves for first communion and for confirmation or to the few pre-baptism encounters with the parish priest but encompasses all stages in life, particularly adult age, when the most mature form of catechesis takes place. It is a challenge for all priests and religious and others involved in lay ministry, especially in the field of catechesis, to convey the Church’s genuine and unadulterated teaching about human life, the ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ sacrament of marriage, and the ethical meaning of the exercise of human sexuality, patiently but clearly, to all the faithful. The Bishops’ Letter, based on the Instructions Donum Vitae of 1987 and Dignitas Personae of 2008, provides a sound, safe and clear synthesis and point of reference for this purpose. A step in the right direction has surely been the greater attention to the preparation for marriage and the fundamental and systematic restructuring of the pre-marriage parish encounters in our Diocese of Gozo, with the long-term aim of involving the couples, once they get married, in an experience of continual formation in Eucharistic communities and Lectio Divina meetings.

Unfortunately, contrary opinions to the Church’s teaching are more vociferous and less reserved than those who are unassumingly doing a lot of good and are sincerely seeking the truth by following the steps of their master Jesus. In this scenario, various voices that dominate the means of communication seem to want to make us believe that the situation is so desperate and without control that we cannot but accept it and all we can do is to propose a legislation that is the least possibly harmful. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI warned a few years ago that "it seems ever more important that Europe be on guard against the pragmatic attitude, widespread today, which systematically justifies compromise on essential human values, as if it were the inevitable acceptance of a lesser evil" (Benedict XVI, 24 March 2007). In this situation, the Church should not succumb to such pressures and refrain from clearly stating her position, resting upon sound and ever valid moral principles and not just on utilitaristic consequences or equivocal statistical considerations, dependent upon the changing whims of dominant individuals and social groups.

A prophetic Action

It is indeed a matter of regret that a certain section of the media is playing upon the emotions of its audience to justify the I.V.F.’s substitutive type of human procreation in those humanly painful cases of sterility. In a way it is understandable that they have recourse to such argumentation because it is a logical consequence of holding a view of ethics determined by the situation and not drawn from objective principles. To return to that ‘emotional’ argument, the discourse will not be complete by just playing upon the heartfelt sentiments and legitimate aspirations of certain people by somehow assuming that they possess a right to have a baby, which actually is not a right but always a gratuitous gift from God. Keeping the discussion on the same emotional plane, we should also logically consider with equal empathy and compassion the fate of those vulnerable fertilized eggs who are indeed human persons who are discarded, and thus ‘killed’, during the process of substitutive human procreation. Isn’t this horrible? “The right to life does not depend, and must not be declared to be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent or a sovereign”, said Blessed Mother Theresa (“Notable and Quotable”, Wall Street Journal, 2/25/94, p. A14), whose acclaim transcends the religion she embraced.

At least, when voicing her position amid a seemingly widespread secularist mentality, the Church shows that she believes in herself: in the inner energy her Founder continually gives her to adhere to the truth and defend it, thus render a sterling service to all the human society at large. It was indeed a prophetic action, in the biblical sense of witnessing to the truth in interpreting the signs of the times amid a hostile audience. By illustrating the moral impermissibility of IVF, the Bishops were expectedly inviting a sure criticism, given today’s secularism and the fallacy that pastoral charity does not necessarily go hand in hand with the real truth about man.

A pro-active Stance

No matter what, the Church continuously and earnestly invites for a dialogue with the professional people who practise IVF, such as scientists, researchers, medics and surgeons, a significant section of whom at least in our country are members of hers. She incessantly encourages science to advance in its research with an eye to a better service to man as a whole, but regrettably, this invitation is not always accepted, most likely due to economic interests. The Church’s attention, with a view to addressing their respective spiritual needs, also extends to parents who already used IVF and particularly to our dear brothers and sisters who are the result of this reproductive technology.

The Christian faithful should read the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter with a faith vision and I am sure that many of us are grateful for the providential guidelines included therein, which we rightly expect from our pastors at this point in time. Our non-Catholic fellow citizens would do good at least to weigh up what the Church is saying, particularly because this is firmly grounded on the natural law. And if they go so far as to deny any such law – which is when we start using the same ethical terms but with completely different meanings – at least I hope that we all concur in striving for a civil legislation that prizes the inviolability of human life, the good of the unity of marriage and the person’s dignity in the exercise of sexuality.