This guest post by Kent Lasnoski, Assistant Professor of Theology at Quincy University, is particularly appropriate given that in yesterday’s Gospel reading we are told of Jesus proclaiming his mission to “set the captives free.” (Lk 4:14-21)

Among the most troubling, recent challenges of moral discernment comes to us in the form of the approximately 600,000 human embryos held in cryogenic stasis at -196 degrees Fahrenheit. This stasis constitutes a grave situation of injustice, captivity, blindness, and oppression. The freezer withholds what is due the embryo, its natural maternal habitat and care. The embryo is held as captive either by her own parents or by the clinic itself, as they wait for the proper ransom or for the embryo’s usefulness to run stale. All parties become blinded to their own dignity and the dignity of the embryo frozen, which itself may never see the light of her mother’s eyes. This situation of being called “spare” and shelved is what the CDF calls the “absurd fate” of cryogenically preserved human embryos.

The question immediately follows: what can we do? When thinking about frozen embryos, four general possibilities come to mind. First, we could maintain the cryogenic stasis indefinitely, either in labs or in our homes. A second alternative compares the cryogenic stasis to an extraordinary medical intervention, an intervention which can be withdrawn without desiring or seeking the death of the embryonic person. A third alternative is thawing the embryos for research purposes. In one case, the embryos could be used after they have died—as any other cadaver might be. Second, researchers could study and use the cells from embryos that survive the thawing and rehydration process as living subjects. All three of these alternatives, however, must all be ruled out of hand, as they deny the dignity of the embryonic person and close off the possibility of that person’s integral human development.

The fourth and final genre of alternatives seeks to bring about the development and birth of the embryo. Three solutions present themselves herein: (1) creation and implementation of an artificial womb; (2) homologous embryo transfer; or (3) heterologous embryo transfer. As techniques within the fertility industry’s context of conceiving and bringing to term children apart from the consummation of marriage, all three of these procedures have been ruled out by the Catholic Church (DV 5–II, 5–I–6; DP ). The question remains, however, what if an embryo were transferred into the womb of a genetic stranger not as a treatment for infertility, but as a fulfillment of the corporal works of mercy—specifically, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and ransom the captive? In other words, could embryo adoption or rescue be morally good?

I believe this to be an open question for three reasons: (1) there is no consensus among theologians, even among those who never dissent; (2) the USCCB stated that Dignitas personae does not close the question: and (3) the statements from DP 19 that might seem to close the question do not have the rhetorical strength or vocabulary of other pronouncements on intrinsically immoral acts (e.g., John Paul II on abortion in Evangelium vitae and Paul VI on contraception in Humanae vitae).

Assuming that it is an open question, I wondered what avenues for discerning the answer might be? Avenues of fundamental moral theology have reached a standstill (e.g., act analysis of the moral object, the unity of genetic and gestational motherhood, and the risk of scandal). Catholic social teaching has been applied in some places, and Scripture comes up here and there, but no argument from the riches of Catholic tradition has been attempted. I would like to suggest three loci in Scripture and one locus in Catholic tradition that deserve development (a development I am currently attempting to publish). First, to Scripture. Perhaps the most obvious locus is the anunciation to Mary. The anunciation has been invoked by both opponents and supporters of embryo adoption, and both have mistakenly attempted to claim too much for the anunciation, which cannot be a proof text for this case. Mary does, though, offer us a site where human dignity is reclaimed and proclaimed anew amidst scandal and injustice. That Mary conceives apart from her marriage was scandalous. That Jesus was to be carried and born into a world that hated him and wanted his destruction from before he was even born is an injustice. Mary’s fiat set in motion humanity’s ransom from captivity to sin.

The second scriptural locus is Matthew 25:31–46, where we find the corporal works of mercy. Christ’s historical reference was to aid those who preach the gospel. I argue that the captive, oppressed among us (e.g., frozen embryos) are the preachers of the apostles of the gospel for us by giving us the opportunity and the invitation for radical Christian hospitality.

The third Scripture site is Jesus’ proclamation of the Kings om Lk 4:18–19. His message about proclaiming “release to the captives” and the “recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those oppressed,” I argue, can and has authentically been brought forward in the life of the Church, which brings me to the final point that needs development—tradition.

The Church’s own tradition offers us, I think, a new argumentative strategy and an axiomatic situation in with the redemptionist religious orders of the middle ages. Of all the argumentative strategies, the argument from tradition is least used in the context of embryo adoption. I have not seen any robust attempt to bring Catholic tradition to bear on the question. On the one hand, this should not shock us, as embryo adoption is so dependent on new technologies, but on the other hand I find it shocking; humans have been messing up the world since day one. What pride we must have to think that the systemic and personal sin of IVF and embryo transfer constitute entirely new ways of sinning. What inattention we might be guilty of if we assume the Church’s vast treasury of caritative actions in history offers us no paradigm for translating Christ’s proclamation of liberty into our modern language of sin.

The Trinitarian and Mercedarian orders of high medieval Europe raised money to ransom persons captured in piracy, war, or raids. Particularly, they ransomed those too politically unimportant or too poor to garner their own ransom. These groups, which grew out of lay movements begun by St. Peter Nolasc and St. John de Matha enjoyed the legal and financial support of both the Church and royalty—though not without suffering opposition as well. The ransomers either bought back the enslaved Christians or substituted themselves for the enslaved until such time as money could be raised.

How could this situation be axiomatic for discerning the present situation of embryo adoption, though? The connection is fourfold: (1) both situations involve a potentially scandalous, or seemingly immoral act and the seeming cooperation in an evil system; (2); both are proper acts of the Church as Benedict XVI lays out in Deus Caritas Est—namely, works of charity and mercy witnessing to the dignity of the person rather than direct systemic changes to bring about justice; (3) both situations accomplish their end by a Christoform gift of self for the life of a stranger; and (4) both clearly enact the principles of solidarity and preferential option for the poor that are so central to Catholic social teaching. Allow me to elaborate.

First, buying embryos from an IVF clinic could scandalize Christians and encourage the IVF industry itself, making it more profitable. Likewise, buying back Christian slaves from Muslim captors seemed by many to contribute only more to the whole economic system that had built up around and regulated the use of slaves captured in military victory or in piracy. In fact, prices for slaves went up in part because of the redemptionist orders’ work. Second, the redemptionist orders, no doubt, understood this fact, which is why the Mercedarian Constitution emphasizes that they are not seeking systemic justice, but rather “to uphold and increase the important work of mercy implicit in visiting and redeeming Christian captives from the power of Saracens and of others who are against our law.” For this specifically God has established this order.” This work of mercy itself gives prophetic witness to those working in the IVF industry that the child is valuable not as an instrument to parental fulfillment, but as an end in him or herself, made in the image of the invisible God.

Third, these works of mercy take a particular shape; they are Christoform. Not only did redemptionist orders give money, but they gave themselves in the place of captives should need arise. Each Mercedarian made a fourth vow: “that I will remain, held as a pledge, in the power of the Saracens if this be necessary for the redemption of Christ’s faithful.” Does not the woman welcoming the embryo into her womb offer her own body as a pledge for the possibility that this embryonic person will attain its destiny of life on earth and life in union with God.

Finally, these works of mercy enact a solidarity with and preferential option for the poor. Both the redemptionist orders and the couple who adopts a frozen embryo witnesses to the fact that the one’s own human flourishing is wrapped up in the integral human development, the common good, of each and all of one’s neighbors, especially the weakest, least desired among us. If the Church supported these redeptionist orders, perhaps it can support now spouses seeking to ransom frozen embryos.

Hopefully what I have offered here is, if not a convincing argument, a new argumentative avenue or strategy that will help the church discover the moral truth regarding embryo adoption. Hopefully this way of looking at the issue, apart from the question of fundamental sexual ethics, will help us see clearly what other kinds of questions are at stake when considering the “absurd fate” of those human embryos so held in captivity and so horrifyingly deemed “spare.”