ROME – While maintaining its stance against IVF, the Vatican issued a new document Tuesday sounding an alarm about declining birth rates and touting alternatives to methods of artificial reproduction the church sees as morally unacceptable.
The text also reiterates the Church’s traditional opposition to contraception, despite speculation in some quarters that Pope Francis might be rethinking the teaching of St. Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning artificial birth control.
Called the Global Family Compact, the document is an initiative of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences and the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, consisting of four main action points, and was accompanied by a message from Pope Francis.
It encourages Catholic universities, institutes and research hubs to study family life and the challenges families face with the aim of encouraging more young people to get married and have children amid a rapidly aging culture in which couples frequently opt against marriage and choose to start families later for financial and social reasons, presenting challenges in terms of infertility and ethically questionable methods of reproduction.
Apart from encouraging couples to get married and have lots of children, the compact also touches on challenges such as poverty, single-parent households, and the impact of war, as well as reproduction and the challenges that can at times accompany the process of attempting to welcome a new life into the family.
In several places the compact encourages both infertile couples and those simply wishing to grow their families to consider adoption and it urges Catholic universities and research centers to promote this option, while condemning methods of artificial reproduction.
The compact specifically recommended “promoting the establishment and development of centers for the study and monitoring of cases of couple infertility, where alternative solutions to assisted reproduction are proposed,” such as NaPro-Technologies, which monitor women’s reproductive cycles and seek natural solutions to infertility.
It said that centers that monitor and study infertility and which offer alternatives to assisted reproduction ought to be promoted and financially supported.
In section 1.3 of the compact, dedicated to the challenges of “welcoming new life,” the document notes that both among married and unmarried couples, “contraception, abortion and sterilization are widespread practices” that have increasingly “transformed the meaning of procreation.”
Procreation has gone “from a natural inclination and gift of God to a project and result of a procreative will that tends to dominate life,” the compact said, and criticized the assisted reproduction industry.
“Assisted reproduction, embryo selection to avert the birth of children with genetic disorders or unwanted sex, embryo and gamete donation, [all] lend themselves to a selective mentality by which adults end up projecting unjustified expectations onto their desired children,” it said.
The mentality of “a healthy child only at the right time” is now the dominant cultural attitude surrounding reproduction, especially in advanced countries where newer, streamlined technologies are available.
Those who choose prenatal diagnosis for “eugenic purposes” belong to a “reproductive culture which sees the birth of a child as the fulfillment of a mere desire, rather than the acceptance of a priceless gift.”
The compact argued that sex is inevitably tied to procreation, and that marriage is the best place for this to happen. It called for greater education in the emotional and reproductive aspects of sex, so that it does not become “trivialized” among youth.
It also hit back against what Pope Francis has dubbed “the throwaway culture” in which those with disabilities are excluded, often facing violence, stigma and abuse stemming from “the denial of the person’s dignity and an identification of the person with a pathology.”
Given current societal trends, in which many couples are choosing to have children later, the compact said greater support must also be given to couples who have families at an older age while incentives for invitro must be avoided.
IVF, it said, is wrong because it produces “large numbers of embryos destined to die or remain frozen, raising significant ethical issues,” and diverts vast resources that could be used to support couples that already have large families, or who are seeking to procreative help through other means.
Yet while condemning embryo donation, one thing the Vatican’s new Family Global Compact does not specifically address is the question of embryo adoption.
The terms refers to prospective parents choosing to “adopt” an embryo whose biological parents have signed away their parental rights, meaning they are frozen with no one waiting for them. It’s an alternative many couples are increasingly turning to, including many Catholics reluctant to use IVF techniques.
The cost is often much more manageable for those hoping to start a family, and while still debated among theologians, for many Catholic couples it represents a viable alternative to other, more dubious forms of assisted reproduction.
Representatives from the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life did not respond to a Crux request for comment on whether embryo adoption will be studied as part of the compact research and whether it could potentially be a viable option for infertile couples seeking to welcome a child.
The compact’s clear and definitive stance against contraception and assisted reproduction comes after debate on these issues flared up last year over a publication from the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life included contributions from theologians suggesting the Church change its stance.
In the book, titled, Theological Ethics of Life. Scripture, Tradition, Practical Challenges, some theologians appeared to suggest that in certain limited circumstances, couples might be justified in choosing artificial contraception, or methods of artificial reproduction.
Critics hit back against the volume, accusing the academy and its president, Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, of attempting to orchestrate a change in Church teaching, while the academy itself defended the text, saying its role as an academy is to facilitate dialogue among top academic and theological minds on key issues of modern interest.
At the time, the academy also sent but within hours walked back Tweets arguing that St. Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae – which reinforced the church’s teachings on marriage and upheld its condemnation of artificial contraception – was not covered by the dogma of papal infallibility, meaning it can be subject to change.
In his message for the compact, Pope Francis – who has repeatedly lamented society’s falling birthrate and has urged couples to have more children – said its main goal is “to enable the pastoral care of families in the particular churches to benefit from the research and the educational and training programs in Catholic universities.”
Doing this can help promote a culture of family life “in this time of uncertainty and a certain shortage of hope,” he said, saying it is within the family that “God’s dreams for the human community are realized.”
“Hence, we cannot resign ourselves to the decline of the family in the name of uncertainty, individualism and consumerism, which envision a future of individuals who think only of themselves,” he said.
The family, he said, is “a community of life and love, a unique and indissoluble covenant between a man and a woman, a place where generations meet, a source of hope for society.”
Francis closed his message thanking those who have joined the compact and those who will do so in the future, and invited those who plan to join “to devote themselves with creativity and confidence to every initiative that can help put the family once more at the heart of our pastoral and social commitment.”
For the launch of the compact, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life held a webinar Tuesday afternoon with the heads of more than 40 research centers and institutes for the family situated around the world in order to coordinate its implementation.
A new website for the compact has also been created where the text can be found in Italian, English and Spanish, as well as a brochure and various other materials, including the pope’s message, the explanation of the logo, and contact information for those who want more information.
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