The following is the shortened text of an address given by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado, at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, on 11 April 2011. The text originally appeared in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good , the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ, (website www.winst.org) and is reprinted with permission.
All law in some sense teaches and forms us, while also regulating our behaviour. The same applies to our public policies, including the ones that govern our scientific research. There is no such thing as morally neutral legislation or morally neutral public policy. Every law is the public expression of what somebody thinks we "ought" to do. The question that matters is this: Which moral convictions of which somebodies are going to shape our country's political and cultural future - including the way we do our science?
The answer is pretty obvious: if you and I as citizens don't do the shaping, then somebody else will. That is the nature of a democracy. A healthy democracy depends on people of conviction working hard to advance their ideas in the public square - respectfully and peacefully, but vigorously and without apologies.
Politics always involves the exercise of power in the pursuit of somebody's idea of the common good. And politics always and naturally involves the imposition of somebody's values on the public at large. So if a citizen fails to bring his moral beliefs into our country's political conversation, if he fails to work for them publicly and energetically, then the only thing he ensures is the defeat of his own beliefs.
We also need to remember that most people - not everyone, of course, but most of us - root our moral convictions in our religious beliefs. What we believe about God shapes what we think about the nature of men and women, the structure of good human relationships, and our idea of a just society. This has very practical consequences, including the political kind. We act on what we really believe. If we don't act on our beliefs, then we don't really believe them.
As a result, the idea that the "separation of Church and state" should force us to exclude our religious beliefs from guiding our political behaviour makes no sense at all, even superficially. If we don't remain true in our public actions to what we claim to believe in our personal lives, then we only deceive ourselves. Because God certainly isn't fooled. He sees who and what we are. God sees that our duplicity is really a kind of cowardice, and our lack of courage does a lot more damage than simply wounding our own integrity. It also saps the courage of other good people who really do try to publicly witness what they believe. And that compounds a sin of dishonesty with a sin of injustice.
As these concerns are especially pertinent to scientific progress, here let me present some thoughts from two very different sources. Here's the first source:
"Science, by itself, cannot establish the ends to which it is put. Science can discover vaccines and cures for diseases, but it can also create infectious agents; it can uncover the physics of semiconductors, but also the physics of the hydrogen bomb. Science [as] science is indifferent to whether data are gathered under rules that scrupulously protect the interest of human research subjects ... [or by] bending the rules or ignoring them altogether. A number of the Nazi doctors who injected concentration camp victims with infectious agents or tortured prisoners by freezing or burning them to death were in fact legitimate scientists who gathered real data that could potentially be put to good use."
The same source goes on to worry that, "today, many of the bio-ethicists who claim to counsel and guide the moral course of American science "have become nothing more than sophisticated (and sophistic) justifiers of whatever it is the scientific community wants. ... In any discussion of cloning, stem-cell research, gene-line engineering and the like, it is usually the professional bioethicist who can be relied on to take the most permissive position of anyone in the room."
Now, from my second source:
"What is our contemporary idiocy? What is the enemy within the [human] city? If I had to give it a name, I think I would call it 'technological secularism.' The idiot today is the technological secularist who knows everything ... about the organisation of all the instruments and techniques of power that are available in the contemporary world - and who, at the same time, understands nothing about the nature of man or about the nature of true civilisation."
The words from my first source appeared in 2002 from the author and scholar Francis Fukuyama. If you know his work, you know that Fukuyama clearly supports the benefits of science and technology. He is not - to my knowledge - a religious believer, and based on his writings, he seems to have little use for Christianity. But he's also not a fool. He sees exactly where our advances in biotechnology could lead us if we don't find an ethical way of guiding them.
The words from my second source were written exactly 50 years ago, in 1961. They come from John Courtney Murray, the great Jesuit priest and Christian scholar. Murray was a thoughtful man, and he chose his language very carefully. He used the word "idiot" in the original Greek sense of the term, which is quite different from its meaning in modern slang.
For the Greeks, the "idiot" was not a mentally deficient man. Rather, he was a man who did not possess a proper public philosophy, or as Murray says, "a man who is not master of the knowledge and skills that underlie the life of a civilised city. The idiot, to the Greek, was just one stage removed from the barbarian. He is the man who is ignorant of the meaning of the word 'civility'."
As I said, these two sources are very different. One was a believer. The other is not. Father Murray died more than four decades ago, long before today's stem-cell and cloning debates. But both men would agree that science and technology are not ends in themselves. They're enormously valuable tools. But they're tools that can undermine human dignity - and even destroy what it means to be "human" - just as easily as they can serve human progress.
Everything depends on who uses them, and how. Fools with tools are still fools and the more powerful the tools, the more dangerous the fools. Or to put it another way, neither science nor technology requires a moral conscience to produce results. The evidence for that fact is the record of the last century.
Now I've talked about these things so far for a simple reason. The moral and political struggle we face today in defending human dignity is becoming more complex. I believe that abortion is the foundational human rights issue of our lifetime. We can't simultaneously serve the poor and accept the legal killing of unborn children. We can't build a just society, and at the same time, legally sanction the destruction of generations of unborn human life. The rights of the poor and the rights of the unborn child flow from exactly the same human dignity guaranteed by the God who created us.
Of course, working to end abortion doesn't absolve us from our obligations to the poor. It doesn't excuse us from our duties to the disabled, the elderly and immigrants. In fact, it demands from us a much stronger commitment to materially support women who find themselves in a difficult pregnancy.
All of these obligations are vital. God will hold us accountable if we ignore them. But none of these other duties can obscure the fact that no human rights are secure if the right to life is not. Unfortunately, abortion is no longer the only major bioethical threat to that right in our culture. In fact, the right to life has never, at any time in the past, faced the range of challenges it faces right now, and will face in the coming decades.
Physician-assisted suicide, cloning, brain-computer interface (BCI) research, genetic screening of unwanted fetuses, genetic engineering of preferred physical and intellectual traits, cross-species experimentation, and developments in neuroscience - these things already raise serious questions about the definition of "human nature" and the protection of human dignity in the years ahead.
In Europe and the United States, our knowledge classes like to tell us that we live in an age of declining religious belief. But that isn't quite true. A culture that rejects God always invents another, lesser godling to take His place. As a result, in the words of the great Jewish bioethicist Leon Kass, we live in an age of "salvific science." In the place of the God who became man, "we have man become as god." And in place "of a God who - it is said - sent his son who would, through his own suffering, take away the sins of the world, we have a scientific saviour who would take away the sin of suffering altogether."
The irony is this: the search for human perfection implied in modern science - or at least, the kind of science accountable to no moral authority outside of itself - leads all too easily to a hatred of imperfection in the real human persons who embody it with their disabilities. The simplest way to deal with imperfections is to eliminate the imperfect.
In our daily lives, Kass warns, "the eugenic mentality is taking root, and we are subtly learning with the help of science to believe that there really are certain lives unworthy of being born. ... [T]he most pernicious result of our technological progress ... [is] the erosion, perhaps the final erosion, of the idea of man as noble, dignified, precious or godlike, and its replacement with a view of man [as] mere raw material for manipulation and homogenisation."
Dr Kass made those remarks at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, itself a monument to the murderous and genuinely satanic misuse of science and politics in the last century. But he wasn't speaking about genocide in the past, in some faraway, alien dictatorship. He was talking about the temptations we face today in our own democratic societies, the temptations to create "a more perfect human" - and, in the process, to pervert science and attack our own humanity.
The great French scholar Jacques Maritain once wrote: "The devil hangs like a vampire on the side of history. History moves forward nonetheless, and [it] moves forward with the vampire." The devil is condemned to work within time. He works in the present to capture our hearts and steal our future. But he also attacks our memory, the narrative of our own identity. And he does it for a very good reason.
"The way we remember history conditions how we think and choose today, in our daily lives. That's why one of the first things we need to do, if we want to 'live as Catholics,' is to remember what being 'Catholic' really means - and we need to learn that lesson in our identity not from the world not from the tepid and self-satisfied and not from the enemies of the Church, even when they claim to be Catholic but from the mind and memory of the Church herself, who speaks through her pastors."
Good and evil
Jacques Maritain and Leszek Kolakowski came from very different backgrounds. Maritain was deeply Catholic. Kolakowski was in no sense an orthodox religious thinker. But they would have agreed that good and evil, God and the devil, are very real - and that history is the stage where that struggle is played out, both in our personal choices and in our public actions where human souls choose their sides and create their futures. In Kolakowski's own words, "we are not passive observers or victims of this contest, but participants as well, and therefore our destiny is decided on the field on which we run."
Politics is the exercise of power; and power - as Jesus himself saw when Satan tempted him in the desert - can very easily pervert itself by doing evil in the name of pursuing good ends. But this fact is never an excuse for cowardice or paralysis. Christ never absolved us from defending the weak, or resisting evil in the world, or from solidarity with people who suffer.
Our fidelity as Christians is finally to God, but it implies a faithfulness to the needs of God's creation. That means we're involved - intimately - in the life of the world, and that we need to act on what we believe: always with humility, always with charity, and always with prudence - but also with courage. We need to fight for what we believe. As Kolakowski wrote, "Our destiny is decided on the field on which we run."