Introduction to Jewish and Catholic Bioethics: A Comparative Analysis

Introduction to Jewish and Catholic Bioethics: A Comparative Analysis

Introduction to Jewish and Catholic Bioethics: A Comparative Analysis

Introduction to Jewish and Catholic Bioethics: A Comparative Analysis


Leavened with compassion, common sense, and a readable style, this introduction to complicated bioethical issues from both Jewish and Catholic perspectives is as informative as it is undaunting. Aaron Mackler takes the reader through methodology in Roman Catholic moral theology and compares and contrasts it with methodology as it is practiced in Jewish ethics. He then skillfully wends his way through many topics foremost on the contemporary ethical agenda for both Jewish and Catholic ethicists: euthanasia and assisted suicide, end-of-life decisions, abortion, in vitro fertilization, and the ever-growing problem of justice regarding access to health care and medical resources. A concluding chapter summarizes general tendencies in the comparison of the two traditions, and addresses the significance of convergence and divergence between these traditions for moral thinkers within each faith community, and generally in western democracies such as the United States.

As Mackler overviews these issues, he points out the divergences and the commonalities between the two traditions -- clarifying each position and outlining the structure of thinking that supports them. At the heart of both Catholic and Jewish perspectives on bioethics is a life-affirming core, and while there may be differences in the "why" of those ethical divergences, and in the "how" each arrived at varying -- or the same -- conclusions, both traditions, in the words of James McCartney as quoted in the introduction, "are guided by the principle that life is precious; that we are bidden to preserve and guard our health; that we are bidden to intervene in nature to raise the human estate; and that our lives are not our own, but are part of the legacy bequeathed to us by the Creator." This book has been carefully crafted in that spirit.


One of the classic, if apocryphal, narratives about comparisons of religious traditions is related by Protestant ethicist James Gustafson. Three speakers were asked to offer Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant perspectives on a particular moral issue. the priest began, “The Church teaches that… .” the rabbi began, “The tradition teaches that….” and the minister began, “Well, now I think that… . ”

A second anecdote arises from my work with an interdisciplinary and interreligious commission that addresses issues of bioethics and public policy. a Catholic attorney reported half-jokingly that he had asked his bishop what he might do if an issue arose for which he was uncertain about Catholic teaching. “If you want to know the Catholic position,” he was told, “follow the rabbi”—referring to a very traditionalist Jewish member of the commission.

I use these anecdotes to illustrate three points. First, even an oversimplified account can be instructive. a full analysis of Jewish and Roman Catholic approaches to bioethics would require many books. the comparison in this book necessarily involves some broad strokes and simplifications. Nonetheless, I believe it conveys general characteristics that generally are accurate and important.

Second, as religious intellectual traditions with extensive histories of engagement with bioethics, Roman Catholicism and Judaism share important foundational elements and substantive positions. Nevertheless, as the first anecdote suggests, there are differences as well, including divergent methodologies. Jewish approaches generally are based on tradition, especially halakhah—a term meaning “path” or “way” and denoting Jewish law. Although Catholic moral approaches accord significant weight to tradition, more commonly they are centered on natural law, together with magisterial teaching.

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