National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Cosmetic or Reconstructive?

BY Tom and Caroline McDonald

August 10-16, 2008 Issue | Posted 8/5/08 at 12:30 PM


My daughter and her husband have a baby with a prominent facial deformity that can easily be corrected with surgery. They seem to be ignoring it, and the only reason we can figure for this is that they consider it the way God made the baby, something she will just have to deal with as she gets older. Is there a responsibility on the part of Catholic parents to do what they can to ease the pain of “being different” if a medical solution to a problem like this is readily available?

It is likely the case that your daughter and her husband want their child to grow up knowing that she is loved unconditionally and that she is made in God’s image, regardless of physical appearance. Their commitment to that principle is admirable, but we think their execution of it is misplaced in this particular situation.

This seems to us like a case of loving, well-intentioned parents misapplying the Church’s moral teaching. It is commendable for Catholic parents to steer clear of the world’s overemphasis on the body. The Catechism tells us that, “if morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for its sake, to idolize physical perfection” (No. 2289).

On the other hand, there is a huge difference between the cult of the body and correcting a physical deformity. The underlying principle that helps us sort this out is once again found in the Catechism: “The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body … t is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature” (No. 365).

In other words, we should not rely on physical beauty and perfection as the sum total of the value of the person. Cosmetic surgery that attracts undue attention to one body part or another tends to objectify the person and would be wrong. As the old saying goes, the eyes are the window to the soul. The Church tells us that the body and soul are, in a sense, a window to one another. We should never view persons as objects, but as whole selves.

We believe corrective cosmetic surgery to be different, however. It is morally acceptable to heal a damaged body. Think of the trouble this child may encounter; a facial deformity will, like it or not, be a hindrance to being appreciated as a whole person by others. Obviously, people should not make superficial judgments, but they do and they will. An adult may be better able to handle this, but a child will have a rough go of it.

Children can be exceptionally cruel to each other, and this may be a recipe for a great deal of avoidable misery. The argument that this is the way God made her just doesn’t fly with us.

Apply the same line of reasoning to a child born with a faulty heart or brain tumor. We would beg our doctor to do everything he could to correct this condition and restore our daughter to health. Our best advice: If this was our daughter, and the corrective surgery was a safe, non-risky procedure, we would not hesitate to pursue it.

Our prayers are with your family.

The McDonalds are family-life coordinators for the

Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama.