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Bioethics and the Catholic Moral Tradition

Author(s): Pádraig Corkery

ISBN13: 9781847302458

ISBN10: 1847302459

Publisher: Veritas

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  • This is a user-friendly presentation of the approach and conclusions of the Catholic moral tradition in relation to contemporary issues in bioethics. Providing questions to facilitate further reflection and group discussion, Pádraig Corkery draws on his experience of teaching bioethics at both undergraduate and postgraduate level and favours a less technical approach to the subject. This is an accessible book addressing the ethical issues that arise from developments in science and medicine.

  • Pádraig Corkery

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    The question of whether there is a catholic Christian bioethic or a distinctive Christian approach to bioethics is an important one that needs to be teased out at the very beginning of this project. How does the Christian and, in particular, the Catholic tradition evaluate actions and attitudes in the domain of healthcare that are often complex? What are the sources of wisdom employed by Christian teachers and theologians to guide their decisions on issues as diverse as embryonic stem cell research and behaviour modification?

    Catholic tradition employs three sources of wisdom that enable it to reach moral conclusions on specific issues. These fonts of wisdom are the Christian Scriptures, the ongoing living tradition of a believing community and, finally, the natural law tradition. These can be clearly seen in the following quotation from Evangelium vitae, which identifies the sources used by the Church when formulating its opposition to euthanasia:

    This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the Churchs
    Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

    At the outset of this introduction to bioethics from the Catholic tradition, it is important to identify, as sharply as possible, what each of these sources of wisdom have to offer moral reflection in the complex and dynamic world of bioethics.


    From the outset, we can say with certainty that the Christian Scriptures do not give us clear and unambiguous answers to many of the questions in contemporary healthcare. Nor should we expect them to. The primary purpose of Scripture is revelation: to reveal to us God and Gods interventions in human history. In the course of telling us about God, Scripture does, of course, tell us something about morality , but that is not its primary purpose. It was not, therefore, written as a rulebook that sets out clear and unambiguous answers to complicated questions. The book of the Christian Scriptures was also written, over a long period of time, in very different contexts and cultures and, therefore, its horizons are very different to ours.

    If Scripture is not a rulebook that provides us with immediate answers to contemporary questions, we are entitled to ask how it helps us in moral reflection. This question has been reflected on by the Magisterium and Catholic theologians over many years, but particularly since Vatican II. One of the most important renewals promoted by Vatican II was that of moral theology, the discipline of the Catholic theological tradition that reflects on the moral implications of human activity in light of the Christian message. In particular, the Council insisted that moral theology and moral reflection should be nourished and rooted in the Scriptures. Since then, Catholic theologians and the Magisterium have attempted to put Scripture at the heart of moral reflection. Part of this ongoing journey is to tease out exactly how we can use the moral teachings of the Scriptures in our reflections on contemporary issues that have no resonance with the culture and issues of biblical times. A recent publication from the Pontifical Biblical Commission is a good example of a scholarly reflection on this subject, which sets out useful criteria to enable an engagement between Scripture and contem porary moral reflection. In the course of this section we will engage with this text in some detail.

    From the outset of our reflection, we can say that the Scriptures give us a unique framework or worldview from which we can approach the issues that confront us today. They provide us with a narrative or canvas that gives us a very particular stance on life. In a decisive manner, the Christian Scriptures give us a way of understanding ourselves, the world we inhabit and others. We all work out of a worldview that impacts decisively on what we see as important and informs our decision-making. The Christian worldview or stance on life can be reflected on under several headings.


    In the Christian self-understanding, the world we inhabit is a gift from a loving and personal God. Moreover, it is a world that is good with its own purpose and internal logic. It was given to humankind as a gift to be used wisely and responsibly. This is a very different starting point from one that views creation as a result of random chance with no inbuilt purpose or goal. The important thing to note here is that this starting point or worldview does have an impact on how we evaluate our relationship with the created order. If God is the Creator, then, in the language of the Christian tradition, we are creatures called to use wisely and responsibly the gifts we have been given. If we are creatures, then by implication we are not the Lord of creation. God alone is Lord.

    A contemporary rendering of this insight argues that we are called to be responsible stewards of the creation gifted to us. This self-understanding places obvious and immediate limits on human interventions in Gods creation. We are not free to manipulate or interfere with creation in a random and haphazard way. Rather, our interventions must respect the nature and value of the gift we have been entrusted with. This insight is central to the developing Catholic literature on ecology as a moral issue. In his recent encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI argued that creation contains a grammar that explains its nature and purpose. As responsible stewards we are called to respect and honour this grammar in our engagements with creation.


    The Christian worldview proposes a very particular view of the human person , a Christian anthropology. In this understanding, the human person is created in the image of God. There are several implications that flow from this assertion that have profound implications for how we engage with people and what we see as important in life. In the first place, the Christian tradition claims that all persons are created in the image of God, not just a few or the virtuous. There is a radical equality among people that needs to be respected in our daily engagements with others and in our political and social structures. Sadly, both the Church and wider society were slow to honour this implication of Christian anthropology. Today, thankfully, the equality of persons is almost universally recognised in principle, but still needs to be honoured in practice in many different societies and structures.

    Because we are created in the imago Dei we each have a dignity that is intrinsic to us. It flows from our very nature as sons and daughters created by God and in the likeness of God. Each one of us in some mysterious way reflects the life and love of our Creator. Biblical authors used human language and images, the only descriptive tools available to them, to describe this awesome truth. The important point here is that our dignity is intrinsic to us. It is not dependant on our health, wealth, achievements, sexual orientation or religious affiliation. This Christian claim is in direct opposition to some contemporary worldviews that would link human dignity to achievement, sexual orientation or health.

    Secondly, our creation in Gods image reveals that there is a Godly or spiritual dimension to each person. Christian anthropology asserts that we come from God and go to God; God is our origin and destiny. This Godly or transcendent dimension needs to be acknowledged and nourished if we are to adequately engage with the person in society. This truth about the human person boldly proclaims that we are more than one-dimensional. We are an integrated totality of body and spirit. Consequently, in the words of the Gospel, we are not satisfied by bread alone. This aspect of Christian anthropology informs Christian reflections on the phenomenon of consumerism and some political philosophies that reduce the person to a onedimensional existence. The Christian tradition, in contrast, claims that human fulfilment is to be found in being more rather than having more.

    Finally, the creation account in the Book of Genesis reveals that the need for relationships is a fundamental dimension of human existence. Human persons are social by nature, called into a web of relationships that enable the person to blossom and reach their potential. We are, in the Christian tradition, always understood as persons-incommunity, called to relationships of mutuality, love and respect. This aspect of our nature has significant implications for the spheres of politics, economics and social policy that are well teased out in the growing corpus of Catholic social doctrine. The principles of the common good and solidarity, in particular, honour this dimension of human existence and its implications for the societies we inhabit and construct.

    To summarise, then, the understanding of the person as created in the imago Dei has decisive implications for our engagement with people and for what we see as important when we are involved in moral decision-making.


    An important dimension of Christian anthropology and of the Christian worldview is that humanity is sinful and finite. The biblical authors brilliantly describe this reality in their account of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. Our first parents, motivated by the desire for power and tempted by Satan, disobeyed God by eating of the apple. The consequences of this action are told to us in relational terms. The relationships of respect and mutuality that existed up to that point were ruptured and replaced by relationships of domination and shame. Adam and Eve fought with each other while attempting to place the blame on the other. Their relationship of mutuality was replaced by one of domination. Both were ashamed before God and tried to hide. The cosy relationship between the world of nature and humankind was replaced by a relationship of enmity and toil. Adam and Eve had to leave paradise and earn their bread by the sweat of their brow in a sometimes hostile environment.

    This account of the human condition as sinful and prone to selfishness is part of the Christian worldview and selfunderstanding. It is part of the canvas or background against which Christians work and conduct their moral reflections. It gives a realistic picture of the human condition and alerts us to the danger of self-deception and self-preoccupation. In particular, it calls us to be alert to the sins of pride and selfishness and how those sins may impact on our behaviour and moral reflections.


    In the Christian self-understanding, the person of Christ has a defining role. Christians understand themselves as a community formed in His name and are inspired to shape their lives around His example. Christians, of all denominations, see themselves as disciples of Christ called to witness to Him and the values of the Gospel in the world. Through their daily lives, they see themselves contributing to the transformation of the world and the building up of Gods kingdom. For them the person and example of Christ are normative. In the words of the Gospel, Christians are called to do likewise and to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. It is a central part of the Christian self-understanding that Christ came among us as a model of right relationships. His person, actions and attitudes show us how to live out our lives in keeping with our nature and dignity as sons and daughters of God. We believe that his behaviour is not only instructive, but normative for all who strive to live the good life.

    In the Gospels, Christ calls us to be a particular kind of person: kind, loving, forgiving, and so on. The character of the follower of Christ is beautifully unpacked in the many parables and stories recorded in the four Gospels. The Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-31), the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29- 37), The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Lk 18:9-14) and the Widows Mite (Mk 12:41-44) all highlight different aspects of the disciples character. The Beatitudes (Mt 5:1-12) express even more clearly the horizons out of which we are called to live our lives. We are invited to allow these stories to shape our imaginations and set our horizons so that we, too, will become forgiving, compassionate and loving people. Moral theology calls these elements of the Gospel formal norms because they call and enable us to become a particular kind of person: a Christ-like person, who acts with justice, love and compassion.

    But, you may ask, is there anything more concrete in the life of Christ and the Gospel narratives? The emphasis on love, compassion, interiority and service of others is, you might suggest, very vague and unhelpful. We need something more concrete and definite in order to engage with contemporary moral issues! There are, of course, moral teachings in the life of Christ and, indeed, in the Old Testament that are more focused and definite. The Ten Commandments and Christs teaching on divorce spring immediately to mind. These are what moral theologians have called material or concrete norms. Although these are helpful they are not unproblematic, as the treatment of the fifth commandment today and over the centuries has shown. There is need to distinguish between specific moral teachings that are universally binding and those that are culturally conditioned or case sensitive.


    The final element of the worldview, or landscape, that Christians work out of is that of resurrection destiny. We believe that as Christ rose from the dead to new life, we, too, will share that destiny. This faith is prayerfully articulated in the Preface of the Mass for the Dead: Lord, for your faithful people life is changed not ended. When our earthly body lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.

    The reality of Christian hope is an important element in the Christian worldview that has significant consequences for how we engage with suffering and death. Our moral reflections on, say, martyrdom or issues at the end of life, including euthanasia, are deeply shaped by faith in a resurrection to new life. Equally, the moral reflections of those who are without hope of resurrection, who view death as the final and defining reality, are shaped by that belief.

    The Scriptures then provide the framework or context out of which Christians live their lives and engage in moral reflection. Belief in a loving creator God, in the person of Christ and in eternal life gives Christians a unique orientation in life. This orientation includes the identification of certain attitudes and actions as life-giving and moral, and others as contrary to morality. Questions still remain, however, as to the precise role the Scriptures play in moral reflection. Because the Scriptures contain many passages that are concerned with human behaviour and morality, we must have some criteria to enable us to determine those that are of abiding significance.

    We can be clear, as stated earlier, about what the Scriptures cannot provide: clear and automatic answers to complex issues like those raised by recent developments in reproductive technologies. We cannot jump immediately from the pages of the Gospels or other scriptural texts and arrive at a conclusion about the morality of an issue that was beyond the wildest dreams of the scriptural authors. Our engaging with Christ and the Scriptures must be more patient, sophisticated and nuanced. Catholic biblical scholarship has, over recent decades, developed tools, like exegesis and hermeneutics, which enable us to engage with Scripture in ways that are respectful of its nature and limits and yet yield fruit for moral reflection. These tools help us to understand the context in which the Scriptures were written and the nature of the texts themselves. They also enable us to distinguish between moral teachings that are culturally conditioned and, therefore, not universally binding, and those that have an enduring validity. The Biblical Commission, in their recent publication, proposed two fundamental criteria and six specific criteria to help us draw moral insight from the Scriptures. The fundamental criteria it proposed, which we have encountered already, are the biblical understanding of the human person and the normative example of Christ. How we understand the human person has inevitable and significant consequences for moral reflection, as does the acceptance of Christs life as normative for humanity. The six specific criteria proposed by the Biblical Commission, which I will now examine, are very helpful in enabling us to discern the relevance of the moral message of Scripture for today. These criteria are: convergence, contrast, advance, the community dimension, finality and discernment. They were proposed by the Biblical Commission as essential tools in the ongoing conversation between Scripture and moral reflection. They enable us to identify the various kinds of moral norms in the Bible and their respective significance for moral reasoning. For that reason they are worthy of further elaboration.


    The criterion of convergence recognises that there is frequently a convergence between the insights of the Bible and the insights of surrounding societies on morality. The Commission fleshed out this claim by citing numerous examples. Accounts of the creation of the world by a personal divinity, for example, and the origin of sin and evil contained in Genesis are also to be found in the accounts and myths found in other cultures. It is also true that the laws of the Old Testament (for example, Ex 20-23; Deut 12-26) also belong to the great legislative tradition of the ancient East like, for example, the code of Hammurabi. Justice, and especially the protection of the weak, was the foundation of many societies in Near Eastern culture. The Wisdom of the Bible shows a close resemblance also to the wisdom of Amenemope and Ptah-Hotep, especially on matters dealing with the protection of the weak and the vulnerable (cf Prov 22:17-24).15 Finally, Paul acknowledges and appreciates the natural law in Romans 2:14-15 and integrates into his teaching themes that were very familiar to contemporary philosophers and teachers of morality. The best example, according to the Commission, occurs in Romans 7:16-24. This text deals with the enslavement of human beings to their habits and passions and their lack of true freedom. It was taken from Euripides Medea and has parallels in Ovid (Metamorphoses 7:20-21) and Epictetus (Dissertations 2:17-19). Though it notes that many of Pauls stances and exhortations are close to those of the Stoics, the text identifies Pauls originality with, among other things, his understanding of the role of the Spirit. In terms of its relevance for today, the principle of convergence reminds us that Christians can join with others in looking for solutions to contemporary ethical issues. Our shared humanity and the natural law tradition provides the basis for dialogue and agreement among Christians and others. The principle is also a reminder that a Scripturebased morality is always reasonable and, therefore, accessible to people of good will everywhere.


    The principle of contrast reminds us that the Bible is unambiguously opposed to certain norms and customs followed by some societies and individuals. This is clearly evident in the writings of the prophets and in the New Testament writings. The Commission developed the principle of contrast under the general rubric of idolatry or infidelity to God as Lord of all. The principle is clearly seen in the struggle of the prophets against idolatry among the people of Israel. The prophets Hosea, Amos and Jeremiah, as well as others, rallied against the cult of Baal and the cult of home-made divinities (Hos 4:7-14, 10:1-2, 13:1-3; Amos 2:4-8; Jer 7:1-15). Enforced pagan worship is confronted and condemned in First and Second Maccabees and the Book of Wisdom.19 Paul in his time voiced his opposition to pagan worship and confronted the paganism of the Roman Empire in Acts 19:24-41. Finally, in the Book of Revelation we witness the confrontation between the kingdom of God and the anti-kingdom of Satan.

    The relevance and implication of this principle for today is that it mandates believers to confront attitudes and actions that are in opposition to Gods ways and sovereignty. Modern forms of idolatry appear as self-idolatry, be it of individuals, social classes or states. When human freedom is elevated to a supreme value and when systems of thought or philosophy exclude any transcendent value they become idolatrous. For this reason the Christian tradition is rightly critical of and opposed to consumerism, materialism and hedonism. The principle of contrast, in short, motivates and enables believers to confront systems, attitudes and actions that usurp or deny Gods place in our lives and world.


    The third principle, advance, highlights an important fact about biblical morality that has implications for how we engage with scriptural texts in moral argument. The content of the principle is that biblical morality, like revelation itself, progressed and developed in a gradual way. This development of biblical morality reached its peak in the coming of Christ, who confirmed and deepened the teaching of Moses and the prophets. Consequently, we must decipher the moral message of the Old Testament definitively in light of the New Testament. This principle alerts us to the danger of using biblical texts in isolation, as stand alone texts, rather than interpreting and understanding them in light of the ethos of Christs life and teaching. The Commissions text took three examples of moral teaching to elucidate the principle of advance in biblical morality. The first example is that of conflict with ones neighbour. In biblical morality there is a gradual development in how such conflict is handled. There is an advance from excessive vengeance (Gen 4:23-24) to equality of retaliation (Ex 21:23-24) until, finally, the chain of retribution is overcome (Mt 5:38-42). Jesus goes beyond the earlier morality, found also in the law codes of other ancient oriental peoples, and introduces a radically new approach: But I say to you. Do not resist the evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek (Mt 5:38-42). The second example of advance concerns marriage. In Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:8, Jesus brings to completion the gradual development of biblical teaching on the nature of marriage. In the Old Testament we find both polygamy (Gen 4:19, 29:21-30; 1 Sam 1:2, 25:43) and divorce (Deut 24:1-4). Jesus rejects these practices and roots his teaching in the original will of God the Creator. This teaching is carried on by Paul and the early Church (1 Cor 7:10-11). The nature of divine worship is the third example of advance elaborated on in the Commissions text. In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus engaged with three important expressions of divine worship: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. He is critical, not of the practices themselves, but of the intention or attitude that often motivated these actions. The goal of these actions, he reminded his listeners, was to worship God and not to acquire praise from others or to become preoccupied with rubrics. Through Christ and the new covenant, a new kind of worship, which sets aside the old cultic system, is possible. This theme is well developed in the letter to the Hebrews 8:1, 9:28, where the author underlines the superiority of the sacrifice of Christ and of the new covenant.

    The implications of these three advances for those who embrace the Christian vision are, in the eyes of the Commission, an unlimited willingness to forgive, unconditional loyalty to ones chosen partner, and a spiritual and interior worship of God that leads on to a solid commitment to transformation of the world.

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