Defending faith and reason in public life

Defending faith and reason in public life

Eamonn Keane

Shortly before he died, Pope John Paul II left us a beautiful book titled Memory and Identity which was a compilation of reflections by him on some of the most challenging issues with which he had to engage.

Regarding the question of respect for the dignity of unborn human life and the legislative choices made by the parliaments of today's democratic regimes, the late Pope said: 'When a parliament authorises the termination of pregnancy, agreeing to the elimination of the unborn child, it commits a grave abuse against an innocent human being, utterly unable to defend itself.

'Parliaments which approve and promulgate such laws must be aware that they are exceeding their proper competence and placing themselves in open conflict with God's law and the law of nature' (p.152).

Recently we witnessed the scorn poured on Cardinal Pell by some members of the NSW State Parliament because he had the temerity to remind Catholic politicians that voting for a bill legalising therapeutic cloning had grave implications for their participation in the life of the Church.

This deluge of abuse would easily have given the impression that the Cardinal was archaic in his view of the relationship that should exist between science, morality and law. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Among other things, therapeutic cloning involves destructive experimentation on human embryos. As such, its moral nature overlaps with the question of the morality of procured abortion insofar as the question of the moral status of the human embryo is central.

To resolve this question, it is necessary to discern when the life of a human being begins.

With the advance of scientific understanding, it has become clear that from the moment of the fusion of the human gametes (male sperm and female egg) we have the initial stage of a continuous human life. The scientific knowledge regarding this newly conceived zygote points to the existence of a new human being distinct from that of its parents. This new human life has an inbuilt capacity to initiate, sustain, control and direct its own development.

Since it is a human being, justice demands that the human embryo be regarded as the subject of inalienable human rights, the most fundamental of which is its right to life. Corresponding to this, there exists a fundamental and inalienable ethical demand that politicians not use their power to negate the right to life of the human embryo.

Also, as the bearer of inherent dignity and inalienable human rights, the human embryo should never be treated merely as an object of use no matter how noble the purpose of this use may be. Coupled with this, the human embryo should always be recognised as a member of the human family - not to do so would be to dehumanise it.

In applying a utilitarian calculus to their work, scientists who engage in embryo destroying research sometimes try to mitigate public concern about it by pointing to its alleged benefits.

Science and ethics

While progress in the treatment of disease is desirable in itself, nevertheless the survival of a humane society demands that good science and good ethics march hand in hand.

Therapeutic cloning is predicated on a commodified view of human life insofar as the human embryo is brought into existence in a laboratory in order to be bartered, frozen, used for research purposes and destroyed. Consequently, being opposed to therapeutic cloning is not equivalent to being 'anti- science', as some of Cardinal Pell's detractors have alleged.

Both John Paul II, and his successor Benedict XVI, have been tireless in pointing out that the democratic vision will flounder unless it recognises that freedom must be directed to the preservation and defence of human dignity and the safeguarding of human rights.

If, on the basis of moral relativism and sceptical agnosticism, parliamentarians in democratic societies do not allow themselves to be guided by truth, reason and transcendent values, then they will be left with nothing but their own self-defining will as the basis for their deliberations. In the end, this can only engender new forms of totalitarianism.

The widespread destruction of innocent human life occurring today is expressive of the spread of practical atheism, something which Vatican II stated is facilitated by Christians who are 'careless about their instruction in the faith,' or who 'present its teaching falsely,' or fail to bear witness to it in their 'religious, moral, or social life'(Gaudium et spes, n. 19).

In establishing his Church, Christ inscribed in it the teaching office of the Pope and of the bishops in communion with him. It is an office of service, fashioned after the example of Christ himself who came into the world to serve and to bear witness to the truth.

An aspect of a bishop's service to his people is to transmit to them the Church's moral doctrine. In doing so he helps them acquire a healthy conscience that will enable them to distinguish good from evil. In this teaching capacity, the bishop is an instrument of the Holy Spirit 'who convinces the world of sin, of righteousness and judgement' (Jn 16:7f).

In telling Catholic politicians that in voting for the deliberate killing of innocent human beings they would be giving counter-witness to the faith they claim to hold, Cardinal Pell was doing no more than his duty. He was asking them to act in accord with right reason and in doing so he has again shown himself to be a defender of human rights and of the dignity of the human conscience.

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