Theology and Bioethics

By McCormick, Richard Arthur | The Hastings Center Report, March-April 1989 | Go to article overview

Theology and Bioethics


McCormick, Richard Arthur, The Hastings Center Report


Theology and Bioethics

As we enter neighborhood homes, many of us have been quickened with the peculiar hospitality of a sign that reads: "Beware of dog." There are doubtless many people around who believe that an analogous sign is in place when a theologian is present to discuss the ethical dimensions of biomedicine. Theologians just may bite. Or perhaps worse, they may not. At their worst they are seen as extremely dangerous. At their best, they are harmless, that is, useless. For these reasons they should preferably be out of sight, or at least on a short leash. Perhaps Alasdair MacIntyre had something like this in mind when he observed:

Theologians still owe it to the rest of us to explain why we should not treat their discipline as we do astrology or phrenology. The distinctiveness and importance of what they have to say, if it is true, make this an urgent responsibility.(1)

Clearly implied in MacIntyre's ultimatum is the conviction that theologians have not successfully articulated the "distinctiveness and importance of what they have to say." Faintly implied--unless I misread him--is the assertion that they really cannot because they do not have that much to say. An urgent task is thus transformed into an impossible one--and under threat of relabeling as disciplina astrologica. I like neither the odds nor the possible outcome. But to avoid the latter I must risk the former.

Theology and Faith

Both terms is my title need explication and narrowing if I hope to avoid unthreatening generalizations and verbal incontinence. First, then, theology. Theology starts when faith begins reflecting on itself. This pirates the definition of Anselm of Canterbury: fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). Two things should be stated at the outset. First, there are different faiths (for example, the Catholic faith, the Jewish faith, the Muslim faith). Second, the communities in which these faiths originate exist in history and therefore must continually reappropriate their inheritance in changing times and diverse circumstances--often with different purposes in view. On the first count it is clear that there can be radically different theologies, and on the second that there can be many theologies within an individual faith community. This means, of course, that how theology is said to relate to bioethics can vary from community to community, and within the same community at varying times.

Let me narrow the proportions of my "urgent responsibility" by saying, first, that I will speak as an adherent of the Catholic faith (it is the only one I know from experience) and therefore will understand theology as reflection on that faith only and second, that I make no claims that my reflections are the only theology of that faith. Rather my reflections should be seen as one possible way of approaching the subject, and are not meant to detract from the validity or beauty of any other faith or theology.

But such narrowing is not enough. I must make explicit the implications of the statement that theology is reflection on faith. There is the danger in our time that the term "faith" will be collapsed into a bloodless, intellectualistic acceptance of credal statements. When "I believe" is sterilized into mere affirmation of propositions, faith has lost its heart and soul. In this sense Johannes B. Metz states: "Christ must always be thought of in such a way that he is never merely thought of."(2) Merely to "think of" Christ is to trivialize Him, to reduce Him to one more (among many) observable historical event, to an example of humane benevolence. For the person of Christian faith, Jesus Christ is God's immanent presence, His love in the flesh.

Let me borrow from the late Joseph Sittler at this point.(3) Sittler has noted that the theme of the biblical narratives is God's "going out from Himself in creative and redemptive action toward men. …

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