Bioethics and theology in conversation

A reflection on the formation of conscience at a recent conference of the Pontifical Academy for life in Rome challenged participants to immerse their experience in that of the poor.

From Dr Michael McCabe’s editorial in the latest Nathaniel Report Issue no 21, April 2007

A reflection on the formation of conscience at a recent conference of the Pontifical Academy for life in Rome challenged participants to immerse their experience in that of the poor.

The prefect for the Congregation of the Evangelisation of Peoples, Cardinal Ivan Dias used prophetic and challenging words as he called participants to place bioethics and theological reflection within a bigger context – by using the scriptures, the ministry of Jesus, and Pope Benedict’s Encyclical Deus Caritas Est as paradigms for his theological reflection, he built a bridge between the academic and the pastoral needs of all people.

His reflection was notable for the way in which it was grounded with the experience of people, particularly the poor. As closing speaker of the conference his synthesising and inspirational style challenged those present to engage fully with the community. His challenge was a timely reminder of the call of the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes.

As Abraham Heschel puts it, in the process of listening to the words of the prophets ‘one cannot long retain the security of a prudent, impartial observer. The prophets do not offer reflections about ideas in general. Their words are onslaughts, scuttling illusions of false security, challenging evasions, calling faith to account, questioning prudence and impartiality.’ (Abraham Heschel: The Prophets II New York: Harper & Row, 1962: xv.)

Cardinal Dias clearly linked the conference theme of the formation of conscience with the call to discover connections between justice and charity and of the need to prayerfully work for justice and integral human development:

‘To form conscience means to be convinced that as long as in some part of the world people are dying of hunger, there will be elsewhere those who eat for two, not because they are hungrier than others, but because they have greater abundance.’

He warned of the dangers of focusing merely on technological possibility to the detriment of relationships:

‘Human procreation remains impossible outside a context of love. It is not enough to have procreated life to generate it. It is necessary to love because only love gives life.

‘At times exaggerated procreation sought for at any cost and with any means, makes people forget that love can “regenerate” people who are already born, but humiliated in their dignity as children of God.’

He also linked new birth technologies with the shadow side of globalisation: ‘…what injures the dignity of life is not so much a couple that wants a child through artificial procreation at any cost, but cultures and markets that are obsessed with finding responses to desire and at times to the whims of individuals or nations and forget about the real needs of the majority of mankind.’

The split between academic, scientific or theological discourse and people’s lived experience can also occur when the discussion begins from an us-and-them perspective.

In bioethical and theological conversations there is a continual danger of thinking in terms of parallel universes which can unwittingly lead participants to an us-and-them mindset, so much so that nothing good is seen in any opposing point of view or in perspectives that use different fonts of wisdom as their starting point.

Such a mindset can demonise science and scientists. Fundamentally this prejudiced mindset fails to understand the richness of the Incarnation which weaves together the eternal and the mortal in Christ.

In part this is because the issues in both disciplines are so complex that we tend to compartmentalise and use labels and caricatures as ways of making sense of particular issues. However, labels such as ‘culture of death’ and ‘the gospel of life’; ‘relativism’ and ‘absolutism’; ‘subjectivism’ and ‘objectivity’; ‘individualism’ and ‘community’, while being a type of conversational shorthand to describe a tendency in the culture can in fact limit insight and close down discussion and the shared search for truth.

As Andrew Greeley noted in one of his novels, such words are themselves labels ‘under which one may subsume a number of often contrasting and sometimes contradictory developments and ideas.

‘Such constructs may be useful for shorthand conversation and perhaps for undergraduate instruction, but they ought not to be reified as if there is some overpowering reality in the outside world that corresponds with them.’ (Andrew Greeley The Bishop and the Beggar-Girl of St Germain, 2001:22.)

The wisdom of the theological and moral tradition and the wisdom of bioethical reflection deeply enrich and inform the prophetic voice together with the lesson of history and knowledge from science. All these fields help to open hearts with insight but they can also close down conversations and dialogue when any one of them is used exclusively, or is disconnected from people’s lives.

This is why it is necessary not merely to focus on areas of agreement or on areas where we are convinced of the truth. We need to pay particular attention to areas of discord, to what disturbs and shocks and upsets because these areas frequently contain the key to fresh insights in complex debates.

We must above all resist a narrowing of our vision and a disconnection between the academic and the real. As the prophets remind us, whatever causes us to step outside our comfort zones and re-evaluate our perspectives can in fact enrich us personally as well as enable us to more readily discover truth in the reality of people’s lives.