November 13, 2009


Next week’s bishops’ meeting

On the day this is being written, NBC’s “Today” show included a segment with a couple who had a baby through in vitro fertilization. Unfortunately, doctors inserted the wrong embryo in the woman and she became pregnant with another couple’s embryo. After the baby was born, the newborn child was given to the other couple.

This is just one example of what can go wrong when humans avail themselves of any method of having a child without regard to its morality. Now the woman who had that child is unable to have more children because of complications during delivery. She is now planning to have a child through a surrogate—also considered immoral by the Catholic Church.

There is considerable confusion among Catholics about what is morally permissible when it comes to reproductive technologies. That’s why the U.S. bishops will undoubtedly approve a document on that subject next week.

As reported in last week’s issue of The Criterion, the bishops have a full agenda for their Nov. 16-19 meeting in Baltimore. That document, “Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology,” is just one of the things they will discuss and vote on.

That document is not all negative, by the way. Many techniques for becoming pregnant are moral, and it seems probable that the document will keep this sentence, which is in the draft: “Procedures that assist the marital act in being procreative are morally acceptable, while those that substitute for it are not.”

The bishops will discuss topics from the beginning of life to its end. They will debate a proposed revision to the directives that guide Catholic health care facilities when it comes to treating patients with chronic conditions, but who are not imminently dying.

The revision the bishops will debate says: “As a general rule, there is an obligation to provide patients with food and water, including medically assisted nutrition and hydration for those who cannot take food orally. This obligation extends to patients in chronic conditions [e.g., the ‘persistent vegetative state’] who can reasonably be expected to live indefinitely if given such care.”

This would settle an issue that has been debated for some time, i.e., the morality of withdrawing hydration and nutrition from someone in a persistent vegetative state.

It’s not just the opposite ends of life that the bishops will be discussing though. In the middle, for most of us, there is marriage. The bishops now have a draft of a proposed 57-page pastoral letter called “Marriage: Life and Love in the Divine Plan.”

The bishops would like to propose an alternative to our society’s idea that marriage is just a private matter between two people with personal satisfaction as its only goal. Rather, the draft now says, “It is the foundation for the family, where children learn the values and virtues that will make good Christians as well as good citizens.”

The letter will address what it calls four “fundamental challenges to the nature and purpose of marriage.” Those challenges are contraception, same-sex unions, easy divorce and cohabitation.

The draft of the letter is particularly clear when it comes to cohabitation. It says, “To have sexual intercourse outside the covenant of marriage is gravely immoral because it communicates physically the gift of oneself to another when, at the same time, one is not willing or able to make a total and permanent commitment.”

Separate from the letter, but related, is a report from the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage. The group is trying to defend marriage as the exclusive and permanent union between a man and a woman against efforts to recognize same-sex marriages. During their meeting next week, the bishops will learn more about some videos, pamphlets and a related Web site that will be launched as part of this campaign in 2010.

We suspect that another item on the bishops’ agenda will be met with great joy—perhaps even applause—when it is completed. That is the approval of the English translation of the Roman Missal and U.S. adaptations to it. The bishops have been debating that for the past six years, sometimes contentiously, and still have five sections of the missal to be voted on next week. Each section has to garner two-thirds of the votes before it can be sent to the Vatican for its confirmation.

Please pray for our bishops as they take up this important work at their fall meeting.

—John F. Fink

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