In his annual foreign policy address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See, Pope Francis this month made some striking remarks on a topic not typically associated with foreign policy.
“The path to peace calls for respect for life, for every human life, starting with the life of the unborn child in the mother’s womb, which cannot be suppressed or turned into an object of trafficking. In this regard, I deem deplorable the practice of so-called surrogate motherhood, which represents a grave violation of the dignity of the woman and the child, based on the exploitation of situations of the mother’s material needs. A child is always a gift and never the basis of a commercial contract. Consequently, I express my hope for an effort by the international community to prohibit this practice universally. At every moment of its existence, human life must be preserved and defended; yet I note with regret, especially in the West, the continued spread of a culture of death, which in the name of a false compassion discards children, the elderly, and the sick.”
The Holy Father often tries to do two things at once: (1) hold fast to traditional doctrine (if often in ways that are intentionally and helpfully nonpolitical) and (2) emphasize the pastoral value of mercy. This is evident in his description of the Church as a field hospital which tries to stabilize deeply wounded people.
It is striking and can be disorienting when he does one without the other, or when certain people or groups emphasize one without the other. Here, when it comes to his engagement on surrogacy, he emphasizes Church teaching without referencing mercy — as he does in so many other contexts, including abortion and irregular relationships.
Thus his remarks, though powerful and needed, get only two cheers from me.
In a culture like ours, where surrogacy is an unquestioned good — especially (but not only) in contexts of infertility and same-sex marriage — speaking in such morally and legally clear terms is admirable and even brave. One hopes that his allies, including some who accept and promote surrogacy, will be given the grace to hear what he’s saying.
The Holy Father is speaking from his central moral theological commitment: resisting Western-style consumer throwaway culture. Instead of seeing God’s creation — including human beings — as merely products to be used and discarded, he wants us to recognize their proper value.
The global surrogacy consumer network not only exploits vulnerable women, but also treats children as items for purchase. Tragically, in most cases of IVF, the “excess” human beings are often discarded as if they are waste.
And it is doing so on a growing scale. An estimated 18,400 infants were born in the U.S. via surrogates from 1999 to 2013, according to one study. But now, with the advances in surrogacy-related technology and growing popularity in the media, the global industry is expected to become worth $129 billion in the next decade (up from $14 billion in 2022).
The desire to have a biological child is, for many, one of the most powerful desires in nature. But that desire cannot change the truth — a truth Christians like the Holy Father are bound to proclaim — that no one has a right to a child. Children are gifts from God to which we can be open, but can never demand.
If everyone has the right to purchase a child on the open market (or even the “right to procreate” via the financial support of the government), this feeds the consumerist throwaway culture about which the Holy Father rightly warns us.
But what about mercy and the Church as a field hospital? My wife and I — along with so many others — know firsthand the incredible pain of infertility. I wish the Holy Father had acknowledged that this pain is in part driving the demand for surrogates.
Those bearing the pain of infertility as well as those who have used surrogates and are now beginning to question what they have done are among those who are hurting. They need the Church to be a field hospital which emphasizes God’s mercy on the way to speaking the truth in love.
And they need a Church which focuses on other ways faithful Christians can be fruitful. Our spiritual father, St. Joseph, certainly provides a primordial example in his fatherhood of Jesus. (He was a foundational inspiration — and remains an ongoing help — for and with our three adopted children.)
But let's move even beyond adoption. The Church must do a much better job making space for childless people in the Church, both single and married. Far too often, one of the first questions I hear from Catholics I meet is, “How many children do you have?” Can you imagine how such a question hits for those bearing the pain of infertility?
Having biological children is a wonderful gift to be given by God, and we must continue to make cultural space for these gifts, especially in a culture that is often hostile to children. But let us also make space for the wounded people in the Church bearing the pain of not having been given this gift — and let us do so in ways that make it clear we value the gifts they bring to the table just as much.