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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 ...

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