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October 5, 2006 Edition

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• Guest commentary -- Responsible citizenship: A moral obligation for Catholics
Making Sense Out of Bioethics
A Culture of Life

Responsible citizenship:
A moral obligation for Catholics

photo of Brent King


Brent King 

It has frequently been said in recent years, "the Church should keep completely out of politics" or "isn't the Church putting its non-profit status in jeopardy with its involvement in the political sphere?"

The simple answer to this statement and this question is: NO! The Church and her members have a moral responsibility to engage the culture and political world in which we live.

Not embroiled in partisan politics

The Church does not become embroiled in partisan politics. Likewise, the Church does not support individual candidates or parties. This would put her non-profit status at risk.

This does not mean that when important issues (often very emotional issues) arise that the Church will remain quiet while the truths of Christ and the dignity of the human person are being attacked.

Dignity of human life

The Church is principally concerned with the dignity of every human being, created in the image and likeness of God. All human rights are rooted in our dignity and no state can make additions or subtractions to those rights. The duty of the state is to recognize and protect the rights of every person, and to promote a just society.

The Church does, has, and will continue to do everything in her power to protect the inherent dignity of all human beings, regardless if they are in their mother's womb, a woman, a person with disabilities, a member of a minority group, a well-to-do man, an immigrant (documented or not), a prisoner, or a person approaching the end of natural life. The Church will defend the rights of ever person, and will do so vehemently especially when the state refuses to do the same.

"As the Church carries out its central responsibility to teach clearly and help form consciences, and as Catholic legislators seek to act in accord with their own consciences, it is essential to remember that conscience must be consistent with fundamental moral principles. As members of the Church, all Catholics are obliged to shape their consciences in accord with the moral teaching of the Church." (2006 Statement from the USCCB on Responsibilities of Catholics in Public Life)

God first, then neighbor

When struggling with reconciling my own personal opinions and emotions with the truth of Christ and His Church, it is helpful for me to remember that all my responsibilities are first to my God, then to my neighbor. By trying to take a step back from my own subjectivity and emotional tendencies, I will attempt to continue to let my conscience, opinions, politics, and vote move toward the direction of the truth of Christ, protected and, sustained by His Spirit and offered to and through the Church.

To this end, I need to constantly remind myself that I am a Catholic Christian before I am a citizen of Wisconsin or the United States, and certainly before I am an affiliate of the Democratic or Republican party.

Stand up for the truth

This November, voters in Wisconsin, have the responsibility to stand up for the truth of Christ and the dignity of every human being, through our vote and through what we can do to inform the consciences of others.

Over the course of the next month, Bishop Morlino will be making the teachings of the Church, based both on our faith and on the human reason given to us all, well known through every available vehicle. Please join Bishop Morlino in doing everything in your power to help make the laws of our state and country better reflect those of the Natural Law of God.

Vote Yes on the Marriage Referendum

The Church does believe and teach that Marriage can only be defined as between one man and one woman. This truth was not defined by the Church, or by the state. And neither the Church nor the state has the right to define marriage as anything other than as between one man and one woman. Marriage is defined by our very creation and by what it means to be male and female. In supporting this referendum the Church is merely assenting to this truth, and asking the people of Wisconsin to affirm this truth, so that judges and politicians cannot redefine that to which they have no right.

Vote No on the Death Penalty Referendum

"Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself or herself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2267)

In the State of Wisconsin and in the United States, we have the means (architecturally, financially, and technologically) to protect ourselves from convicted dangerous offenders, without the possibility of parole. The Catechism states that "If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means." The death penalty is not necessary in Wisconsin!

Vote for an end to embryonic stem cell research in Wisconsin

Scientists destroy human embryos to harvest their stem cells - perhaps convincing themselves that the killing is outweighed by potential cures. These unethical efforts continue despite impressive medical successes in treating patients with adult stem cells, including those from umbilical cord blood, and despite the fact that potential cures from embryonic stem cells remain theoretical. Several states have even begun to fund unethical cloning and embryo research with taxpayer funds. Killing human beings for potential cures or for the expected monetary gains for allowing such destructive research can never be justified.

Brent King is director of communications and executive secretary to the bishop for the Diocese of Madison.

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'Ethical' embryonic cells:
Much ado about nothing

photo of Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk

Making Sense 
Out of Bioethics 

Fr. Tad 

"Much ado about nothing" could describe the recent hype and flurry of news reports about an "ethical" way to get stem cells out of a human embryo without harming that embryo.

Scientists have proposed pulling off one of the eight cells of an early embryo in order to create stem cells, while allowing the seven remaining cells to continue developing into a baby.

'Guilt-free' stem cells

On first hearing, the proposal sounds attractive to many. Scientists from a small biotech company called Advanced Cell Technology published a paper in the journal Nature in August 2006, describing the technique. They implied that they had done the procedure and that the embryos they used for biopsy had survived.

Following public scrutiny of their claims, however, it came to light that none of the 16 embryos they operated on actually ended up surviving. Importantly, even if the experiment had worked, and even if all the embryos had survived, the approach would still sputter and stall in ethical terms because young humans would end up being directly subjugated and violated in laboratory settings, in order to mine their desirable cells and parts.

The quest for "guilt-free stem cells" is certainly a good one, but the so-called "embryo biopsy" approach to generating embryonic stem cells fails to deliver. More importantly, other new techniques which rely either on de-differentiation or on the use of germ cells offer genuinely novel ways to get stem cells without any ethical objections at all.

Serious objections

The "embryo biopsy" approach fails to deliver because of at least four serious moral objections:

• A non-therapeutic intervention is performed on a human embryo. At least 10 percent of its body mass is removed for research, not for purposes of treating that specific embryo-patient for a known medical condition. The embryo is instead employed as a starting source for harvestable raw materials, in a gesture that reduces young humans to commodities or manipulable products.

• Embryonic humans should not be generated in laboratory glassware. They do not belong inside test tubes or Petri dishes. The only fitting home for human embryos is in the warmth and shelter of their mother's womb, not in the open lights of the laboratory where they can be prodded, invaded, and violated.

• In order to get the single cell that is removed out of the embryo to turn into a stem cell, scientists have to "coat" it with a layer of human embryonic stem cells (taken from another, previously destroyed, human embryo). Thus, the procedure still relies on the prior destruction of young humans.

• The extracted single cell may itself be totipotent, that is to say, it may be a new human being, now able to grow into an adult on its own. Early embryos are so flexible that occasionally when a cell breaks off from them, an identical twin can form. While this can certainly occur at the two- and four-cell stage of the embryo, it may even be possible at the eight-cell stage, though there is ongoing debate about this question.

Health concerns

A fifth problem could also be mentioned, namely that the remaining seven cells of the embryo may not necessarily grow to produce a perfectly healthy baby as is commonly assumed. Many babies have been born after a procedure called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), where a single cell is removed from the embryo for genetic testing.

When testing indicates that the embryo is not affected by a genetic disease, it can be implanted into its mother to grow. What remains unclear is whether babies born after PGD testing are really as healthy as those born without PGD testing. Long-term follow-up studies have not been carried out on these PGD children, so it is certainly premature at this time to argue that removing one of the eight cells of an embryo has no future effects on that individual.

Other sources

Can pluripotent stem cells (the most highly flexible variety), be obtained from sources other than human embryos, and without crossing any moral lines? Absolutely.

There are an expanding number of ways to derive such cells. For example, in March of 2006, German scientists published a paper in the journal Nature describing a new way to derive pluripotent stem cells. They removed special cells called germ cells from the testicles of mice, and transmuted them into pluripotent stem cells. Shortly afterwards, a biotech company in California called PrimeCell Therapeutics reported the same results in humans. No embryos were required at any point in the process.

Another example: In August of 2006, scientists from Japan published results in the journal Cell indicating that by adding a combination of four different protein factors to adult mouse cells, they could change them into pluripotent stem cells. This kind of direct conversion of adult cells into embryonic-type cells is called dedifferentiation or reprogramming, and is a very promising direction for future research. These kinds of novel approaches do not depend upon the destruction of young humans.

Acceptable forms

Another important source for obtaining pluripotent stem cells would be from certain mature body tissues including the bone marrow and the umbilical cord. Normally, stem cells from bone marrow and umbilical cord are not pluripotent, but multipotent (somewhat restricted in their possibilities for differentiation).

However a growing number of researchers are finding that there may be a rare subpopulation of genuinely pluripotent cells that are also present in these adult sources. That is to say, stem cells as flexible as the ones that come from embryos may be naturally present at very low levels in bone marrow and umbilical cord, or may be derivable from such sources.

All of us are embryos who have grown up. Such embryos should not be destroyed, exploited, or otherwise strip-mined for scientific purposes. We can all support those forms of stem cell research, including pluripotent stem cell research, which do not depend on such degrading practices against the youngest members of our species.

Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, Pa.

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Serpent in the garden: Brings spiritual death

photo of Christopher West

A Culture 
of Life 

Christopher West 

How tempting is the thought of determining for ourselves how we are to live. "I don't care what God says. I'm gonna do what I want to do." If we recognize this tendency in ourselves, then we recognize that we've inherited original sin.

But why would we ever doubt God's love and provision for us? Why would we ever have eaten from the tree from which God, in his love for us, told us not to eat? Why would we do it?

Because, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, "behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy."

Father of Lies

This seductive voice is the Father of Lies, the deceiver, Satan. He is envious of the fact that humanity is created in God's own image and likeness and is called as male and female to share in divine life. So Satan sets out to keep us from God's life by convincing us that God doesn't love us.

Placing doubt in the woman's mind, the serpent says: "Did God say, 'You shall not eat of any tree of the garden'? . . . You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gn 3:1, 4-5).

The implication: God doesn't want you to be like him; God is withholding himself from you; God is not love. If you want to be "like God," then you have to reach out and grasp it for yourself.

Now, wait a minute. God had already created them in his image and likeness (see Gn 1:26). Satan's trying to sell them something they already have. When the woman saw that the fruit was "pleasing to the eye," she took some and ate it. She gave some to her husband, and he ate it. Then their eyes were opened, and they realized they were naked, so they covered themselves (see Gn 3:6-7).

Spiritual death

What's happened here? Before they ate the fruit they were both naked and felt no shame. Now their experience of nakedness changed. Why? God, who is Truth, cannot tell a lie. He said that if they ate from the tree they would die. Now, they didn't immediately fall over dead, but they did die spiritually.

It was the Spirit that was given to them as the calling and the power to love. When the Spirit "died" in our first parents, so did their ready ability to love in the image of God as male and female. Absent the Spirit, sexual desire became inverted, self-seeking.

Shame and dignity

Adam and Eve no longer clearly saw in each other's bodies the revelation of God's plan of love. They each now saw the other's body more as a thing to use for their own selfish desires. In this way the experience of nakedness in the presence of the other - and in the presence of God - became an experience of fear, alienation, shame: "I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself" (Gn 3:10).

Their shame was connected not so much with the body itself but with the lust now in their hearts. For they still knew that since they were created as persons for their own sakes, they were never meant to be looked upon as things for another person's use. So they covered their bodies to protect their own dignity from the other's lustful "look."

This is, in fact, a positive function of shame, because it actually serves to protect the "nuptial meaning of the body."

Christopher West is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute in West Chester, Pa. His column is syndicated by www.OneMoreSoul.com and reprinted from his book Good News About Sex and Marriage: Honest Questions and Answers About Catholic Teaching (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

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