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Christian Personalism's Place in Bioethics

Interview With Bishop Elio Sgreccia

VATICAN CITY, JULY 8, 2004 (Zenit) - In the face of approaches that diminish man and even attack respect for life, Christian personalism "reveals itself as an indispensable basic option," explains Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

It is, moreover, a cultural platform that has given origin in Rome just over a year ago, at the initiative of the Center of Bioethics of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, to the International Federation of Centers and Institutes of Bioethics of Personalist Inspiration (FIBIP).

On June 21-22, the federation held its second congress at the university. To understand Christian personalism and the FIBIP better, we interviewed its president, Bishop Sgreccia.

Q: What is understood by Christian personalism?

Bishop Sgreccia: When, 20 years ago, the School of Medicine of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart decided to establish the Institute of Bioethics, a choice was made of constructive and solid content, namely, to put at the center of bioethical reflection the dignity of the human person, recognized in every human being from conception until natural death, in all conditions of life, sickness, proximity of death, handicap.

This idea corresponds to the position of Christian personalism, especially from the ontological point of view, which refers to the human being, who must be valued and promoted. This choice has revealed itself increasingly as a basic, indispensable and distinctive option.

Q: There are other schools of bioethics that describe themselves as more oriented to freedom ...

Bishop Sgreccia: Freedom does not subsist without responsibility. For example, a family that builds itself in freedom without responsibility means that it is open to divorce, abortion, de facto unions and even homosexual unions.

There is no freedom without responsible commitment toward other human beings; for this reason the freedom of personalism is true freedom, charged with responsibility.

Q: There is also a current of thought that defines itself as utilitarian.

Bishop Sgreccia: Utilitarianism is oriented to the solution of problems, to cancer sufferers or terminal patients, only insofar as they are useful, and thus proposes euthanasia and no access to certain treatments or surgical interventions for the elderly.

Utilitarianism values persons and treatments according to their economic viability. Therefore, it proposes taking human embryos as they might be useful to produce medicines, to produce cellular lines, all this without respecting human dignity.

We are also opposed to so-called contractualism where ethics follows the majority. Executing a contract between social agents results in attacking those in society who are voiceless, namely, children, the sick, the elderly, the mentally ill, the disabled.

These are persons who cannot enter into a contract, while there are persons who negotiate for them to their detriment. This varied and diverse cultural scene calls for dialogue with personalism which is a strong concept, for a committed dialogue which appreciates the whole man and all men, and the common good, which is not only the good of the majority, but the good of all through the good of each without neglecting anyone, especially the neediest.

Q: What place does personalism have in the Federation of Bioethics Centers?

Bishop Sgreccia: Personalism is the cultural platform on which different bioethics centers have found themselves, among which are the School of Bioethics of the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, and other centers of Argentina, Chile, the United States, etc.

It was born from their spontaneous desire to be together. Established last year, then made official as the Federation of Centers and Institutes of Bioethics, it assumed Christian personalism as its fundamental philosophy. The federation has the formal affiliation of 31 centers in five continents. We have received new requests for affiliation which we are studying.

Besides this organization, we organized two days of study to see how, through personalism, we could address certain problems, not only those of biomedicine, which perhaps are many, but also those of health education, health, ecology, and bio-law.

The European Constitution has just been launched and, especially on the concept of family and the mention of the Christian roots, it doesn't seem to move in the direction of Christian personalism. What is your opinion in this regard?

Bishop Sgreccia: I think that this Constitution does not respect the European reality. From the objective point of view, it is culturally lacking and does not reflect the truth. Europe has a multi-century and multi-generational relationship with the Christian tradition. To deny this is a historical and cultural falsehood.

Moreover, not to pronounce oneself on decisive values such as those relating to the family, which is the fundamental cell of civil and social coexistence; not to stress respect of life from procreation to natural death; not to make reference to these strong values -- means to prefigure a Europe that will be lacking in adequate cultural instruments for its construction.

It is known, for example, that in demographic terms, Europe is committing suicide. The percentages of fertility are very low; growth is under zero. We are witnessing the phenomenon of empty cradles. It is clear that children are born from families. To destabilize the family means to undermine the process of procreation, not to defend the family and life means not to prefigure a Europe of the future.

It is well known that even the economy cannot make do without solid families and many children. Several Nobel Prize recipients have demonstrated that an economy is solid when there is a sufficient number of children born in solid families.

Immigration is helping us, but the European population is moving backward. Europe must choose if it wants to be an old continent in which only the ruins remain, or if it wishes to be a Europe in continuity and confront its human capital with other cultures.

It is obvious that the loss of Europeans would be a loss for the whole world. The cultural and civil qualities of Europe were developed thanks to the interior cement of the Christian faith. It is a real shame to see the Constitution born under the wind of secularization, a wind which I hope is passing away.

Q: The Earth Charter is mentioned in the European Constitution, which some Catholic scholars like Michel Schooyans define as neo-pagan. What do you think?

Bishop Sgreccia: I think analogously that the Earth Charter suffers from a biocentric approach, where man is no more than one element among others, defined in fact as the most harmful of the biosphere.

However, I think that to safeguard the earth and maintain its great heritage it is important to exalt human responsibility, because the only being responsible for the other beings is man. Nothing less can come about from his humanity and his responsibility. To wish to reject man's activity in the universe means to allow the patrimony of all the several forms of life to drift.


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