In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ preaches upon what seems to be a slight topic: the taking of oaths. He exhorts His listeners “not to swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King”; and, amplifying this point by magnifying the example, Our Lord concludes: “Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.” (Mt 5:34-36)
We live in an age of oaths. The world’s food supply, we are promised, will not last and carbon will soon clog our climate. Yet, we are also assured that technological progress will quickly produce a post-human leap forward into an unimaginable future. Human activity will soon usher in either the Apocalypse or Paradise, our prognosticators have not decided which.
A corrective to these unfounded excesses, Christ’s caution against oaths reminds us that the human condition is frail; man cannot make such guarantees because he lives day to day in need and weakness. This necessity, however, is not a curse, for it enables us to depend upon the Divine: for daily bread, forgiveness, and protection from danger and evil. Within the limits of human life, we can promise only ourselves, renewing the commitments we make to our neighbor and to God day by day: thus, do we let our Yes mean Yes, and our No mean No (cf. Mt 5:37).
But, to this, Christ adds a crucial addendum: “Anything more is from the evil one.” In other words, fantasies about the limitless promises of progress are not just dangerous daydreams; they are a door to the very evil from which we would be delivered. To say that such unreal visions have a demonic character seems to be an overstatement. But, sadly, recent history teaches us otherwise; the central planners of the last century outdid the brutality of all past ages. Millions were sacrificed on the same altar of progress at which benighted futurists now sing their hymns.
Whereas the despotisms of the last century held up the idol of the State for veneration, the emerging ideology of our age is a blind faith in technology as such. It is no longer the idealized State, but the god-like Scientist, who promises earthly salvation.
We have all been the beneficiaries of modern science, of course. But, although the means which science gives us to accomplish the corporal works of mercy is absolutely unparalleled, it exposes us to an equally unprecedented danger: the technology that can make us more human by relieving human suffering also enables our radical dehumanization.
In vitro fertilization (IVF) offers a case in point. While this procedure is “pro-natal” and seems to be “pro-life,” it actually proves that even with the best intentions, any act which separates the components of human reproduction from their nuptial context degrades the very human life that it mechanically contrives.
The professionals who perform such “fertility treatments” are certainly well meaning and the couples whom they take as clients are often desperate to participate in the mystery which abortion ends so violently. Yet, to the earnest question of such couples – “what could be wrong with a doctor helping us conceive a child?” – there is, indeed, a powerful answer: the process of procreation is absolutely essential.
It would seem that our culture has already learned that sex is significant; yet the significance of sex – what it signifies – is in dire need of explanation. While everyone agrees that expressions of human sexuality can be more or less meaningful, our age –which prides itself on its lack of inhibitions – blushes before the deepest possibility of this meaning. It hesitates to see sex as a symbol. The act which both enacts and renews the marital covenant is a physical allegory which the mutual self-giving of spouses literally embodies. And the fecundation which can occur through this sacrament is itself the act’s most powerful sign; it shows us the meaning of human life as it reveals the origin of that life in love’s unreserved, generous, and joyful embrace.
By its very nature, this physical rite in which spouses participate invites God to repeat His sacred and sovereign act of creation. It cannot, therefore, be substituted. To displace the miracle of procreation into a petri dish is an insult to human dignity – of the technician who performs the procedure, of the couple from whom fertile sex cells are extracted and of the child who is artificially conceived. Such manipulation is appropriate for an amoeba; but it is a sacrilege to man. Moreover, what is created cheaply is thoughtlessly destroyed. That embryos are frozen, scattered, extinguished, and – most horrifically of all – exposed to experimentation, only illustrates the indignity inherent in the procedure itself.
The pro-life movement’s unflinching opposition to IVF may seem, to some, as backward as certain Christian sects’ prohibition against blood transfusions. But it is not. Rather, we insist upon the dignity of human life – the act that engenders it and the promise which it fulfills: “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven” (Gen 26:4). Just as contraception breaks the promise of sex by stifling its most sublime possibility, so IVF, which seeks this end through a degrading detour, forces this fulfillment without the promise, coercing conception outside of the only act that is equal to its sanctity. Although life is a gift that is cherished too little in our world, and IVF seems to offer hope to childless couples, fertility at the expense of human dignity is too high a price to pay; indeed, IVF offers only a false promise, because fertility is precisely what it removes from the process of procreation. Instead of the circumvention of IVF, we must accept this perpetual challenge: of living in gratitude for the gifts which we have.