Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, April 26, 2018

msgrliptak_halfQ. How can Catholic theologians reply to recent reports that life has recently been "created" in a laboratory?

A. In fact, life has not recently been "created" in a laboratory.

On 20 May, a group of geneticists in the United States claimed that it had "created a living artificial cell." The team was headed by J. Craig Venter. (See the June Transcript, p. 15, a story by Carol Glatz for CNS.)

What actually happened, according to Carlo Bellieni, writing for the Vatican journal, L’Osservatore Romano, was to "create" only an "optimal motor" of life. (26 May, p. 13, Eng. ed.) The Vatican newspaper goes on to cite scientist Jim Collins’s assessment: "This doesn’t represent the creation of life from scratch."

Indeed, the original New York Times article about Craig Venter’s accomplishment was quite guarded. For example, the Times cited the cautious judgment of geneticist David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology: "He [C. Venter] has not created life, only mimicked it."

"DNA," explained Bellieni, "can be reconstructed; this doesn’t amaze us. But … DNA is only one of the ‘motors of life’ …"

Hence, the recent "creation" of an "optimal motor" of life, albeit not of life itself, is nonetheless "a high-level work of genetic engineering, a step beyond the replacement of DNA parts," as Bellieni concludes in L’Osservatore Romano in May. However, "life has not been created." (Italics added.)

Genetic engineering has considerable (perhaps awesome) potential for good; the treatment of chromosomal diseases is an example. Whatever experiments occur, of course, the fundamental rules of bioethical procedures must be honored, beginning with the dignity of each and every human being as created by God from the moment of conception.

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About Cremains

Q. Is it permissible, under Church norms, to scatter cremation ashes in the ocean?

A. The basic operative norm here is that cremains should be accorded the same reverence that is shown to the lifeless human body. The Church’s preference for burial, owing to the sacredness of the human body, destined for resurrection in Christ, is manifest in the Church’s funeral liturgy.

Whereas cremation is permitted, it lacks the same value as burial. Thus, the basic rule in the Order of Christian Funerals allows for cremation when extraordinary circumstances render it "the only feasible choice." (No. 413) However, it recommends that, if chosen, the cremation take place after the funeral, so that the body may be present for the Mass and any exsequial rites.

If cremation is chosen, even the use of a special container for the ashes is urged. Also, the very manner in which this vessel is carried and temporarily placed should signal reverence for the corporeal remains of the human body.

Cremains should be buried in a grave, or entombed in a mausoleum, or even consigned to the sea. Furthermore, the Ritual directs that "the practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend [is not] the reverent disposition that the Church requires." (No. 216)

Burial of a body at sea has long been recognized as a reverential ceremony. Hence, the basis for burying at sea cremated remains enclosed in suitable urns or caskets.