ROME—Sterilization, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, family planning, artificial insemination, and cloning are no longer terms that are limited to specialists in the realms of medicine and science.

The rapid advance of biotechnology often leads to public confusion about what is really at stake when science moves forward. With each new discovery, the line between right and wrong seems to become more blurred. Generally, the debate pits two opposing schools of thought against each other: those who, in the name of scientific progress, claim absolute freedom in applying certain technologies, and those, most notably the Catholic Church, who instead, insist on respect for the human person and the sanctity of life as a starting point for the discussion.

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II wrote: “[A]ll that we do as the ‘people of life and for life’ should be interpreted correctly and welcomed with favor. When the Church declares that unconditional respect for the right to life of every innocent person—from conception to natural death—is one of the pillars on which every civil society stands, she ‘wants simply to promote a human state. A state which recognizes the defense of the fundamental rights of the human person, especially of the weakest, as its primary duty’ (101).

A better understanding of ethical issues connected with the development of new biotechnologies was the focus of a recent conference sponsored by two Rome-based institutions. The Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum and the Institute of Bioethics of the Catholic University Sacro Cuore conducted the second annual convention “Bioethics for Priests” Sept. 14 to 19 in Rome. Among the participants were 80 priests and three bishops from five continents—Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

The objective of the conference was to overcome the rigidity that has characterized the bioethics debate. Sponsors said the conference was not focused on using teachings as a shield against criticism nor to criticize more libertarian views on the issues. Instead, ways of bringing magisterial teachings to the pastoral level were explored, including developing a fruitful dialogue between the faithful, and doctors and scientists.

Professor Janet Smith, who teaches philosophy at the University of Dallas, in Irving, Texas, treated the theme of new family paradigms. “During the international conferences organized by the United Nations in Cairo, Beijing, and Istanbul,” she explained, “the United States and Western countries sought to convince the other delegates to adopt the sexual mores and family lifestyles of the West. Furthermore, programs of population control were imposed on developing countries. But are we really sure that this is the most advanced model of the family in the world?

“If we examine the results of this lifestyle,” Smith continued, “characterized by maximal sexual liberty, relationships conducted without responsibility, the spread of contraceptives to the extent that the right to procreation is denied, etc., we see that the familial institution is destroyed. There has never been as high an incidence of divorce as there is now. In the United States, an entire generation of children is growing up educated in single-parent families.”

Smith said that according to child-care experts, children who grow up in single-parent families are more likely to experience sexual abuse, to commit crimes, and to become divorced themselves when they get married. From a statistical point of view, 6 percent of children were born into single-parent families in the ‘60s. Today that figure is 31 percent.

Smith quoted Stanford University economist Robert Michael saying that “the increase in the use contraceptives is the principal cause in the increase of divorce.”

“From his studies we see that the percentages of divorces doubled in the decade 1965-1975, in the same period when the spread of contraceptives was the greatest. Professor Michael attributes 45 percent of the increase of divorces to the spread of contraceptives.”

Smith said she believed “that this is due to the fact that the mentality associated with the use of contraceptives in premarital relationships is contrary to the aims and principles of marriage. Having sexual relationships with birth control is a very bad preparation for matrimony. For these reasons I believe that what the Catholic Church maintains with regard to the defense and reinforcement of the family is much better than the United Nations’ position.”

Father Gonzalo Miranda LC, a Spanish professor of bioethics and moral theology at the sponsoring institutions, emphasized the importance of “the study of anthropology about sexuality—especially regarding many of today's problems in bioethics. However, we must deepen the human value of sexuality. Sexuality is not limited to the corporeal sphere. Sexuality pertains to mankind; it belongs to the category of being, not having, and it is a means of existing as a person. When we do not take account of the ethical dimensions of sexuality, we are aiding disorderly behavior. There is news every day about incidents of egoism, tension, litigation, abuse, violence, and even death because of sex.”

Father Miranda then treated the question of chastity. “Unfortunately there is often a reductive and purely negative vision of the virtue of chastity. We should correctly understand chastity as an eminently positive and deeply human virtue. The chaste person knows how to moderate his sexual tendencies for the good of the whole. Seen as such, chastity is nothing other than an expression of the greatness of humanity, the ability to control our tendencies and actions and to live in a full, joyful way, in the midst of a thousand daily difficulties—this is the stupendous and dramatic dimension we call sexuality.”

Regarding technology for artificial procreation that offends human dignity, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, director of the Institute of Bioethics of the Catholic University Sacro Cuore said:

“More than half a century has passed from the first artificial insemination in Italy, and 19 years have passed since the birth of the first test tube baby. Ten years ago the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published Donum Vitae, which in the name of Catholic teaching re-expressed the refutation of artificial procreation technologies. The new technologies for human reproduction constitute a violence against women whose bodies are used as laboratories and as new fields for experimentation.”

Bishop Sgreccia clearly confirmed that the Church “intends to safeguard the full dignity of the human embryo and indeed the dignity of the whole person. It is a matter of avoiding the return of the time of Kronos, (a pagan God—Saturn in Roman mythology—who killed his first five children in reaction to an oracle's warning that one would overthrow his rule) who devoured his own children. Our pledge is to protect the unity of the bonds of parenthood in a society that always lacks such bonds and that seeks to weaken the monogamous family. We want to ensure that the act of procreation is maintained at a level worthy of humanity, rich in spirituality and safeguarded from manipulative and transforming domination.”

Among the participants of the convention, the denunciation by an Italian missionary in Kenya, Father Giovanni Tortalla of the Cottolengo order, surprised those attending the conference when he reported how the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were pressuring local governments to adopt radical plans of population control. Kenya was becoming blackmailed, he contended, by being promised funding for a national sanitation program only if they accept a program of population control.

Those in attendance left the conference with a sense that priests must not only be versed in theology, but should stay abreast of the most recent scientific discoveries.

Antonio Gaspari is based in Rome