Tinkering with God: Just How Moral Is Conservative Catholic Morality? a More Humane Medicine Needs a Liberal Catholic Bioethics Based on Natural Law

Article excerpt

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH DESperately needs a broader perspective on the pressing moral issues facing humanity today. Over the centuries, Christianity has been torn apart by what we could most easily describe as arguments between liberals and conservatives and looking from the outside, one could get the impression that Christianity is all about ethical and doctrinal formulae. Especially since the Reformation, the way Christians and other religious people relate to one another is by arguing about who is right and who is not. But the arguments can easily ignore the basic moral values that are endorsed by major religions and which all believers share.

Perhaps the primary problem within the Catholic community today is that there is no unifying influence that can heal the liberal/conservative split any time soon. In the medium term, the only reasonable thing to do is to insist upon respect for one another and attempt to use history and tough reasoning to advance honest dialogue. We can also take a few small steps toward healing splits by examining how natural law, understood in a liberal way, can provide a foundation for bioethics to which persons from different backgrounds can agree. In this process, we do need to answer some basic questions. What is the relationship between reason and authority in Catholic moral teaching? Can a humane medicine and a defensible bioethics be grounded in a Catholic natural law perspective? Are all Catholics obliged to accept the official position of Catholic bishops on issues such as stem cell research, even when that position aligns the church with the most extreme conservative moralists?

We need to push for a more open cross-disciplinary communication and for serious attention to developments in contemporary science, technology and ethics. I do not presume to provide final answers, but rather support attempts to start an ongoing dialogue between scientists, biotechnologists, bioethicists and healthcare professionals. Dialogue in the liberal tradition has to take into account the reflection and insights that have already taken place on these topics in history. But we cannot stop there. Rather we must use that historical perspective to argue for openess to future change.


In the Catholic tradition, reality, was always the foundation of ethics, but reality is not reducible to bits of matter coming together by chance, as some strands of postmodernist thought would have it. Reality is much more complex than what pure chance can produce and it is never finished. Catholic moral standards are grounded in the very structure of reality which poses questions and makes answers to serious investigation possible. There is a sense in which morality in this tradition is based on physics, but not physics reduced to bits of matter randomly clashing. Rather, the reality on which Catholic morality is based is a created, structured, intelligible reality" which can be accessed by the mind of a philosopher, a mystic, a poet or a scientist.

However, when it comes to interpreting functioning in the real world, this dependence on reality seems to break down. In official Catholic (Vatican) interpretations (as opposed to academic ones) of natural law, the morality of any given action is based on a distinction between secundum naturam and contra naturam. This distinction tends to be all too clear. Secundum naturam is action or behavior in conformity with nature in the narrowest physiological sense. For example, human intervention into nature is permitted, but only as long as the intervention corrects or improves a pro-creative function of sex organs. Physiologically viewed, sexual intercourse is reduced to nature's system for reproduction. It is all about eggs and sperm and the system for bringing these two cells to procreativity.

In current official Catholic teachings, sexual intercourse is right and good for married couples as long as the couple does not interfere with reproductive physiology. …