An especially convincing piece of evidence for the special place that the Catholic Church holds in the world is the field of medical ethics. While most religious traditions have almost nothing to say on sensitive (or even mundane) medical ethics questions the Catholic Church has a gigantic and impressive body of teaching on all of the various ethical questions that arise. The Church also has a body of teachings that are not simply reactive to questions AFTER they have arisen, the Church has a beautifully consistent and ancient set of teachings that can help steer medical professionals and patients as NEW horizons continually open up.
The Church is consistent on its teaching as to why embryonic stem cell research is disastrously heinous but adult stem cell research ought to be pursued with gusto; it has been consistent on the immorality of contraception and the pill while also conducting and financing cutting edge research in the fields of fertility and Napro technologies. The Church has clear teachings that condemn In Vitro Fertilization, euthanasia, cloning, research which mixes human and animal DNA, etc.
Even though the Catholic Church is essentially THE voice in the medical ethics field, some would say a fissure has recently developed in that impressive body of teachings.
The issue centers around In Vitro Fertilization. The Church has said, from the inception of the process, that IVF is gravely immoral. IVF is a process that takes sperm from a man, extracts eggs from a woman, sees the fertilization of the eggs by the sperm in a laboratory environment, and then attempts to implant the fertilized eggs in the woman. The Church says this is gravely immoral for several reasons
1) The sperm is retrieved by masturbation - a gravely immoral act in itself
2) The process of conception is stripped from its proper environment - the sexual act between husband and wife
2a) The immorality could be further complicated by the scenario where the sperm and egg donor are not the mother and father of the child. Indeed, the process could even involve a 5th parent - the surrogate mother who carries the child to term
3) The process of IVF produces multiple embryos, and there is always embryos left over. Now it is possible to see which embryos are "optimal" through genetic testing (i.e. lowest chances of birth "defects" and lowest chances for cancer, Parkinsons, etc.)
What most people don't realize is that there is always embryos "left over"; embryos not implanted either because they were rejected as "genetically inferior" and/or the process simply produces too many to implant. In 2006, CBS News reported that there were 400,000 embryos frozen in the U.S. Most storage facilities will hang on to the embryos for a few years, but after a few years, as space shrinks and electrical costs rise, most places will thaw the embryos and dispose of them.
So here is the question that has caused consternation in the Catholic medical ethics field the past few years - is it morally permissible for a woman to "adopt" a frozen embryo? As Catholics we believe wholeheartedly that the embryo is a child, but we also believe that it is wrong to in some way be complicit in a completely immoral process.
Lest the atheists revel in the predicament that Catholic ethicists find themselves in, it should be noted, at the outset, that the Church predicted this would be one of the horrible by-products of the process, and thus one of the reasons that the Pandora's Box of IVF should never be opened. Some seem to be taunting the Church's inability to speak definitively on the issue, but that really is illogical because the Church SAID IVF would cause this very issue - an issue which has no answer.
With all that background being filled in, this past week two of my favorite people, Fr. Tad Polarchyz and Dr. Janet Smith, squared off on the issue - taking different sides in the debate, and I think reading the write up on the discussion will be a very helpful read for Catholics who may field questions on this issue. Again - if people say "why doesn't the Church have an answer on this one?" the response should be "The Church does have a response - don't do IVF in the first place!"
Click here to read the write-up on the discussion by two brilliant medical ethicists from our Church.