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… . ”1
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.