Thursday, May 26, 2005

Reflecting on Sen. Gordon Smith's Mormon Theology of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

This week's debate about embryonic stem cell research has given me pause to reflect on when, 3 years ago, President Bush made his first decision about the subject. Of course, I felt his decision was too much of a compromise, seeing as how the existing stem-cell lines would eventually become insufficient, leaving demands for more lines years later. And not only that, that more Republicans, many of whom claim to be "pro-life", would be demanding funding for this research. That got me thinking about this article by Drew Clark, published in MSN Slate in 2001.

The Mormon Stem-Cell Choir

In the article, Clark basically outlines a Mormon theology of stem-cells by first noting, of course, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official position on embryonic stem-cell research, or when life begins, and other relevant topics in modern bioethics. But he then proceeds to give the moral and theological opinion of Sen. Gordon Smith and Orrin Hatch:
While pundits chatter on about the role of Catholic leaders in the stem-cell debate, the influence of Mormons (—members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) goes almost unnoticed. [Orrin] Hatch and [Gordon] Smith have become the leaders of a movement within the Republican Party to urge President Bush to fund embryonic stem-cell research. All five Mormon senators (the others are Sens. Robert Bennett, R-Utah; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; and Harry Reid, D-Nev.) have come out for such funding. They have helped move the debate away from right-to-life absolutism without sacrificing pro-life theology. The LDS Church, not the Vatican, is playing the pivotal role in the struggle over stem cells.
You'll see in a minute why this argument is absurd. Clark continues...
In an audience last week with Bush, Pope John Paul II restated the Catholic Church's opposition to abortion and "related evils" such as euthanasia, infanticide, and the destruction of human embryos through stem-cell research. That statement drew upon the pope's 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae and his 1987 encyclical, Donum Vitae (Gift of Life). Both documents elaborate on the Catholic position that life begins at conception, equating abortion and [embryonic] stem-cell research with murder... Leaders of the LDS Church have been far more circumspect about both subjects. The church released a statement of neutrality on stem-cell research in July. What the LDS Church didn't issue, —and what its statements on abortion similarly avoid, is any statement about when life begins, and hence whether embryos constitute human life.
It seems to me that without such a statement, the LDS Church is not able to engage the subject from a scholarly or theological level at all. As Clark goes on to note, the position is vague:
Rather than referring to the Biblical commandment "Thou shalt not kill," the church's 1991 statement on abortion cited a scripture from The Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of revelations received by Joseph Smith, whom the church regards as its first prophet. The scripture reads, "Thou shalt not steal; neither commit adultery, nor kill, nor do anything like unto it." The phrase "like unto it" suggests that while most abortions are sinful, they are not quite the same as murder.
This is where it gets strange. Such a vague statement, which seems deliberate, of course, leaves the door open for a wide array of interpretation. And so we get into the theology proposed by Sen. Smith, buttressed by his understanding of Mormon teaching.
Mormon doctrine holds that each person lived as a spirit child of God prior to being born and receiving a physical body on Earth. From this point of view, it makes no sense to say that life begins at conception. Instead, Mormons would say that life on earth begins when the spirit and body are united.
But why doesn't it make sense to say that? Of course, as Catholics, we reject the notion of the pre-existence of the soul, but why is it impossible to say that the soul, regardless of whether it pre-existed or whether it is created at that moment, joins the body at the moment of conception? Sen. Smith offers an alternative:
In his testimony, Sen. Smith made this very point. Without calling attention to his Mormon beliefs, he cited Genesis 2:7, "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Smith went on to explain, "This allegory of creation describes a two-step process to life, one of the flesh, the other of the spirit." He compared stem cells to "the dust of the earth, —they are essential to life, but standing alone, will never constitute life." As Smith portrayed it, the onset of life, the union of spirit and body, takes place when the embryo is implanted in a womb.
Aha! At last.... but wha..? I think what Sen. Smith means to say is that human embryos, from which stem-cells are harvested, do not constitute life by themselves. That's quite a bold statement. Sen. Smith goes from that to say that the union of spirit and body must occur, not at conception, but at implantation. This line of reasoning seems like a stretch. Of course, given that we know that an embryo, which is formed at the instant of conception, is a distinct human organism with everything within itself necessary to develop into an adult human being, it makes no scientific or theological sense to argue that it is nothing at all until implantation. Yes, at implantation, the embryo will begin to receive nourishment and shelter, fueling its development, but nourishment and shelter do not define what the embryo is, ontologically speaking. So, even if Sen. Smith doesn't want to concede life at conception, why pick implantation as that moment? One could extend his argument to assert that the spirit doesn't join the body until some other arbitrary time... how about at birth? How about one month after birth? But, with Sen. Smith's line of reasoning, what happens if an embryo develops ex utero? If, in some distant future, we are able to develop a child outside of the womb, would that child then not have a soul because implantation never occured? It seems inconsistent.

Clark does mention the response of the Catholic Church to Sen. Smith's theology:
Richard Doerflinger, the associate director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, later described Smith's theory as "amateur theology."
I have to agree. Sen. Smith's argument that life can only exist at implantation and never before, frankly, makes no sense to me, given what we know about embryonic development. It seems to me that the only consistent position is to argue that a distinct human life can only begin at conception... a human life that is in a constant stage of human development until its natural death.

After Slate published this article, I found myself involved in several discussions with a few members of the LDS Church who wholeheartedly supported Sen. Smith's theology, as reported by Drew Clark. Of course, as I mentioned, Sen. Smith does not represent the official position of the LDS Church, but it seems to be an opinion that is gaining support amongst its members and among "pro-life" Republicans.
Doctrinal Development and the Early Church

From On Development in Religious Knowledge, by St. Vincent of Lerens (400-450 AD)
But some one will say, perhaps, "Shall there, then, be no progress in Christ's Church?" Certainly; all possible progress. For what being is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it? Yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself, alteration, that it be transformed into something else.

The intelligence, then, the knowledge, the wisdom, as well of individuals as of all, as well of one man as of the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning.

The growth of religion in the soul must be analogous to the growth of the body, which, though in process of years it is developed and attains its full size, yet remains still the same. There is a wide difference between the flower of youth and the maturity of age; yet they who were once young are still the same now that they have become old, insomuch that though the stature and outward form of the individual are changed, yet his nature is one and the same, his person is one and the same. An infant's limbs are small, a young man's large, yet the infant and the young man are the same. Men when full grown have the same number of joints that they had when children; and if there be any to which maturer age has given birth these were already present in embryo, so that nothing new is produced in them when old which was not already latent in them when children. This, then, is undoubtedly the true and legitimate rule of progress, this the established and most beautiful order of growth, that mature age ever develops in the man those parts and forms which the wisdom of the Creator had already framed beforehand in the infant? In like manner, it behooves Christian doctrine to follow the same laws of progress, so as to be consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age, and yet, withal, to continue uncorrupt and unadulterate, complete and perfect in all the measurement of its parts, and, so to speak, in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits?

This rather should be the result,--there should be no discrepancy between the first and the last. From doctrine which was sown as wheat, we should reap, in the increase, doctrine of the same kind--wheat also; so that when in process of time any of the original seed is developed, and now flourishes under cultivation, no change may ensue in the character of the plant. There may supervene shape, form, variation in outward appearance, but the nature of each kind must remain the same. God forbid that those rose-beds of Catholic interpretation should be converted into thorns and thistles. God forbid that in that spiritual paradise from plants of cinnamon and balsam darnel and wolfsbane should of a sudden shoot forth...
A beautiful concept so essential in understanding the Church. St. Vincent goes on to summarize:
But the Church of Christ, the careful and watchful guardian of the doctrines deposited in her charge, never changes anything in them, never diminishes, never adds, does not cut off what is necessary, does not add what is superfluous, does not lose her own, does not appropriate what is another's, but while dealing faithfully and judiciously with ancient doctrine, keeps this one object carefully in view,--if there be anything which antiquity has left shapeless and rudimentary, to fashion and polish it, if anything already reduced to shape and developed, to consolidate and strengthen it, if any already ratified and defined to keep and guard it. Finally, what other object have Councils ever aimed at in their decrees, than to provide that what was before believed in simplicity should in future be believed intelligently, that what was before preached coldly should in future be preached earnestly, that what was before practised negligently should thenceforward be practised with double solicitude? This, I say, is what the Catholic Church, roused by the novelties of heretics, has accomplished by the decrees of her Councils,--this, and nothing else,--she has thenceforward consigned to posterity in writing what she had received from those of olden times only by tradition, comprising a great amount of matter in a few words, and often, for the better understanding, designating an old article of the faith by the characteristic of a new name.
Ever ancient, ever new.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Trinity Sunday
O Trinity of blessed light,
O Unity of princely might,
the fiery sun now goes his way;
shed thou within our hearts thy ray.

To thee our morning song of praise,
to thee our evening prayer we raise;
O grant us with thy saints on high
to praise thee through eternity.

All laud to God the Father be;
all praise, eternal Son, to thee;
all glory, as is ever meet,
to God the holy Paraclete.
St. Ambrose of Milan (English translation: John Mason Neale, 1851)


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