The Catholic Moral Tradition And The Genome Project And Diversity Project

Dr. John Fleming
Director, Southern Cross Bioethics Institute
Adelaide, South Australia
Reproduced with Permission

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Natural Law
  3. The Genome Project & The Genome Diversity Project
  4. Pius XII And Human Genetics (1953)
  5. The Rise Of Modern Eugenics
  6. The Catholic Response To Disability
  7. John Paul II & The Purpose Of Genetic Medicine
  8. John Paul II And The Genome Project
  9. Progress
  10. Conclusion
  11. End Notes

1. Introduction

Catholic moral theology is distinct from philosophical ethics. Philosophical ethics proceeds on the basis of reason alone and appeals to those who have not heard or do not accept the Christian gospel.1 Moral theology, however, “reflects upon the truths of faith … to make clear how faith should shape Christian life.”2 Moreover, Catholic moral theology is to be pursued “in the light of faith, under the guidance of the magisterium of the Church.”3

This is not to suggest that the Catholic Church rejects the findings of philosophical ethics. On the contrary, The Second Vatican Council urged a revision of ecclesiastical studies such that the “main object to be kept in mind is a more effective coordination of philosophy and theology so that they supplement one another in revealing to the minds of the students with ever increasing clarity the Mystery of Christ.”4

Philosophical subjects should be taught in such a way as to lead the students gradually to a solid and consistent knowledge of man, the world, and God.5

From the Catholic point of view faith does not contradict reason, nor reason faith. The First Vatican Council (1869-1870) insisted that faith and reason were complementary.

Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason. God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth.6

In his recent Encyclical Letter, Fides et Ratio7, Pope John Paul II reminded the Catholic Bishops that “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”8

In this Encyclical Pope John Paul traces the history of Christian theology, the synthesis of faith and reason in which the truth about God is proposed and explored, from the early Fathers such as Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers, Dionysius called the Areopagite, and St Augustine through St Anselm and Thomas Aquinas. From the late mediaeval period onwards the legitimate distinction between theology on the one hand and philosophy and science on the other, became a tragic separation and even an opposition. The Catholic Church, however, continued to insist upon the need for the synthesis of faith and reason. Credo ut intellegam9. Intellego ut credam10. Thus Pope John Paul II renews the call of the church for intellectuals to take seriously both philosophy and Revelation.

For between the vocation of the Blessed Virgin and the vocation of true philosophy there is a deep harmony. Just as the Virgin was called to offer herself entirely as human being and as woman that God’s Word might take flesh and come among us, so too philosophy is called to offer its rational and critical resources that theology, as the understanding of faith, may be fruitful and creative.11

On this basis the findings of the physical and philosophical sciences, in so far as they reveal the truth about man and about the created order, must be in harmony with the truths revealed by God in Christ and which may be found in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.12

Thus the Catholic Church, in its commitment to truth, including moral truth, is uniquely placed to morally evaluate developments in the applications of scientific knowledge. Unafraid of the truth wherever it may be discovered, in fact rejoicing in an ever deeper and more profound scientific knowledge of the universe, the Catholic magisterium and Catholic and Protestant moral theologians have been in the forefront of ethical reflection not only on the human genome project but on the entire scientific enterprise. This is not surprising since Judaism, Christianity and Islam all propose a view of reality which is accessible to human inquiry.13

The Catholic Church has acknowledged the enormous benefits to human beings which scientific, medical, and psychological experiments on human individuals and groups can bring. Such scientific research, including applied research, is seen as “a significant expression of man’s dominion over creation” and as “precious resources when placed at the service of man and promote his integral development for the benefit of all.”14 This general approval of the scientific project is subject to certain important qualifications.

First, science and technology are essentially human projects. They are “ordered to man, from whom they take their origin and development; hence they find in the person and in his moral values both evidence of their purpose and awareness of their limits.”15

Secondly, the Church rejects any idea of “moral neutrality” in scientific research and its applications. It is an essentially human project involving human choices and is, accordingly, a profoundly moral project.16

Thirdly, the Catholic Church rejects any morality which seeks to approve scientific research and its applications solely on the basis of technical efficiency, or on the basis of a utilitarian calculation whereby benefits to majorities are purchased at the expense of others, and especially on the basis that it serves prevailing political, social, or economic ideologies.17

Science and technology by their very nature require unconditional respect for fundamental moral criteria. They must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights, of his true and integral good, in conformity with the plan and the will of God.18

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