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Humanae Vitae, CRISPR, and Stewardship of Life

“But the most remarkable development of all is to be seen in humanity’s stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that we are endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of our own lives —over the body, over the mind and emotions, over social life, and even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life.”

These words appear near the beginning of Saint Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”), published on July 25, 1968 – now fifty-three years ago. It is perhaps most remembered for its promotion of Natural Family Planning and openness to life, but that is just one consequence of its ennobling vision of humans as co-creators with God, entrusted by the Maker of all with this stewardship of the very sources of human life, and the profoundly holy vocation to parenthood. Thanks to all who are parents for accepting this witness to generosity in love and life.

Over the years, Pope Paul’s teaching has often been described as “prophetic.” This is true in two ways. First, in Scriptural terms, “prophetic” simply means that the speaker is conveying not merely human words, but the Word of God. In this sense, Pope Paul’s encyclical is prophetic: he is teaching from his responsibility to hand on God’s wisdom, guided by the Holy Spirit, about the transmission of human life. He knew it would not be welcomed by some: “It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise …like [Jesus] to be a ‘sign of contradiction.’” (HV, 18).

Second, the more common use of “prophetic” implies looking into the future, predicting accurately what is to come. In this sense, too, Pope Paul’s words have proved prophetic. Re-read the opening quote and consider CRISPR. This is a gene-editing technique discovered less than a decade ago. It mimics, but is now able to some degree to control, the same process bacteria have always used naturally to combat viruses that invade the cell.

“CRISPR” stands for “clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats” – a phenomenon at the level of cellular DNA discovered by accident and considered meaningless. In fact, these “repeats” are sections of DNA that has been damaged by a virus and where the cell "cuts out" the foreign DNA and repairs itself. This process has happened for millennia in our cells, unknown to us. Now the technology exists to alter DNA relatively simply at will. While there is great positive potential for therapies, the ethical implications of this capability are also sobering, and governments worldwide are wrestling with what boundaries to draw. (For more on CRISPR, consider "The Code Breaker" by Walter Isaacson, recounting the history and very current implications of what science can achieve).  In 1968, Pope Paul foresaw the consequences of the loss of perspective that would occur when the gift of life – co-created by spouses cooperating with the Creator in accord with the natural means God established – was reduced to a merely biological problem to be solved by technology. As he notes, our capabilities to impact human nature must always be at the service of the human person’s authentic good, even beyond this earthly life. Humanae Vitae has generated much controversy over the years, but the document itself is a beautiful and realistic affirmation of the dignity of marriage, the challenging vocation of parenthood, and the gift that each person is – beginning as a child – made in the very image of God. In a world marked by so much indifference to human dignity, violence, and debate around our identity as men and women, it is instructive and inspiring to turn back the page to an earlier time when these issues were just emerging in our culture, and hear again the voice of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church to navigate these issues.

For many more resources, see and click on the highlight for NPF Week: “To Have, to Hold, to Honor.”

Fr. Tom

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