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When Bioethics Turned Secular

Interview With Physician Father Joseph Tham


ROME, OCT. 11, 2007 (Zenit) - Recent news on the creation of hybrid embryos in England, and the U.S. debate on the use of embryos in research and cloning, all point to an increasingly secular agenda in life issues.

Legionary of Christ Father Joseph Tham, a physician and bioethicist who recently defended his doctoral dissertation on "The Secularization of Bioethics: A Critical History," told us that this is yet another effect of the trend to push religion out of the social sphere.

The author of a book on natural family planning, "The Missing Cornerstone," he teaches at the School of Bioethics of the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Can you tell us something about the religious roots of bioethics?

Father Tham: Since time immemorial, religion has been an integral part of medical ethics. Recent studies have demonstrated that even the Hippocratic oath is a product of a religious community founded by Pythagoras.

In the West, Christianity has clearly influenced the founding of hospitals and the care of the sick. There is a long tradition of medical ethics based on the sacraments and the virtues since the Middle Ages.

Many of the codes of ethics professed by physicians today were undoubtedly of Christian inspiration, and Catholics have produced very sophisticated manuals on medical ethics up until recently.

In fact, if you look at the names of the pioneers in the early days of bioethics, which began in the late 1960s in America, a majority of them were clerics or were very committed to religion.

Q: Why has bioethics turned secular?

Father Tham: In part, there has been a struggle since the Enlightenment to cast religion out of all spheres of society. We can certainly see this happening in the areas of culture, science, economics, law, philosophy and education.

Most people would agree that Europe and many countries in the West have become very secular today, and Benedict XVI has repeatedly spoken about this.

What happened in the '60s and the '70s was that many theologians and religious ethicists turned secular. Unwittingly, they have yielded to the secular culture that was exerting a great deal of pressure for them to conform.

Q: What are some of the reasons that caused them to turn away from their religious roots?

Father Tham: The causes are complex, and some of them are, as I said, the cultural ambience of the time. Remember, the '60s were kind of crazy years. Among these, I will mention two crucial events: one is the secularization of the academy and the other is the theological debates in this period.

Many Ivy League universities such as Princeton, Yale and Harvard were originally founded by Protestant denominations. Religion was practiced and promoted in these schools originally, but at the turn of the last century, partly because of economic pressures and partly to become "inclusive" in the increasingly plural culture, many of these academies dropped their distinctive Christian features.

Catholic colleges and universities were also affected by this desire to shed themselves of their "sectarian" image. Thus, many institutions of higher studies became severed from their religious roots. This is still hotly debated today among Catholic educators, as witnessed by the question of implementing John Paul II's apostolic constitution "Ex Corde Ecclesiae."

Since most bioethicists were reared in this academic circle, many of them moved along with their institutions down the secular path.

The '60s were also a period of theological experiments and controversies. At the turn of the last century, the Protestant denominations were embroiled in the questions of demythologization of the Scripture, Protestant liberalism, the Social Gospel movement, and the "death of God" theologies. Their Catholic counterparts, around the same time, were modernism and semirationalism. All these tendencies came to the fore in the '60s in leading theological currents.

Vatican II sought to address many of these issues as the Church confronted the postmodern era. However, a major incident that greatly impacted the development of moral theology was the contraception controversy, especially with the issuance of the encyclical "Humanae Vitae" in 1968.

Q: How did this encyclical affect the beginning of bioethics?

Father Tham: As you may recall, "Humanae Vitae" was not well received by many Catholics. Some 600 theologians signed a letter of protest that originated from Father Charles Curran. This definitely undermined the Church's authority in making pronouncements in the areas of morality.

As a result of this rejection of official Church teaching, many theologians began to criticize natural-law theory, especially its insistence on objective moral evil and absolute norms.

What came as a result of this discontent has been termed the "new morality," or proportionalism, which has plagued many seminaries and theology departments since then. This was specifically addressed by Pope John Paul II in the 1994 encyclical "Veritatis Splendor." But the problem persists in many parts of the Church.

Q: Has this affected bioethics directly?

Father Tham: Certainly; proportionalism tends to emphasize the consequences and circumstances of the moral act. When carried to the extreme, it could justify abortion or euthanasia because there are more good consequences than bad ones. It is the common rationale we hear today in many of these bioethical debates where the ends justify the means.

On a historical note, many of the founders of bioethics were disenchanted Catholics who defected from the Church structures to found alternative secular bioethical institutes, and in the process marginalized the input of theology.

Q: Can you give us a few examples of people who were affected by this?

Father Tham: André Hellegers was a gynecologist who sat on the papal birth-control commission established to inform the Pope on the morality of the pill. He was quite disappointed with "Humanae Vitae" and he eventually founded the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown.

Daniel Callahan was editor of Commonweal magazine and was very upset with the encyclical. He co-founded the Hastings Center. Both the Kennedy Institute and the Hastings Center were influential in the early years of bioethics.

Albert Jonsen, Warren Reich and Daniel Maguire were all former priests turned bioethicists, all of them prominent in the field for their secular orientation.

Q: In your dissertation, you mentioned the secularizing effects of bioethics on theologians.

Father Tham: Yes, a glaring example of this would be Joseph Fletcher. He started writing in the 1950s when the word "bioethics" did not yet exist. In those days, he was an Episcopalian priest, but by the 1980s, Fletcher had left ministry and become an atheist, humanist, and member of the Euthanasia Society.

In the end, he advocated not only euthanasia but also non-voluntary sterilization, infanticide, eugenic programs, and reproductive cloning. He even went as far as proposing the creation of human-animal hybrids, and chimeras or cyborgs to produce soldiers and workers or to harvest organs. He eventually died an avowed atheist.

Q: Is there a future for religion in bioethics?

Father Tham: Secular bioethics has been deemed inadequate for a lot of right-thinking individuals, especially when certain academics are proposing such preposterous ideas as infanticide and eugenics.

In addition, many people are dissatisfied with the inability of contemporary bioethics to address the questions of human nature, of suffering and death, and of what constitutes a good life, health and the ends of medicine.

Religion has been addressing these issues for centuries. Hence, there seems to be a ray of hope for theology to play a more significant role in bioethics debates in the future. However, the challenge is great.

There is a need for theologically trained bioethicists, and this would also imply the need to recuperate sound theological investigations, especially in the religiously inspired academies.

I sense that the tide is changing with a new generation of laypeople and religious who are willing confront this secular and relativistic mind-set.

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Keywords

Bioethics, Secular, Tham, Embryos, Cloning

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