Religion and Theology
Lisa Sowle Cahill
The methods and aims theology brings to medical ethics now can be examined in light of its role in the evolution of the field of modern medical ethics, where theology interacted with developments in moral philosophy. One important factor that has increasingly defined theological medical ethics in the last decade is the social analysis of research and health care, including their expanding international dimensions. This chapter will focus on Christian theology and medical ethics. However, the literature in other religious traditions is growing (Sullivan 1989), and in Judaism is rich and abundant (Bleich and Rosner 1979; Bleich 1981; Feldman 1986; Green 1986; Novak 1990; Davis 1991; Newman 1992; Gellman 1993). In this chapter, I describe characteristics of theological approaches to medical ethics, discuss the history of theology in medical ethics, and then use a paradigm offered by James Gustafson to describe these types of approaches to this field.
The one characteristic that most unifies theological approaches to medical ethics is the grounding of ethical argument in religious claims, and in the history and theological traditions of a religious community. For example, virtually every theologically grounded method in Jewish or Christian medical ethics originates from the conviction that humanity is a creature in a created and interdependent natural world; that the Creator is good, just, and powerful; that humanity is sinful, as well as responsible for good moral behavior; and that God offers human beings healing or salvation from moral and spiritual wrongdoing. These claims are explicated and refined variously in different religious traditions, although the general outlines remain the same.
The differences in theological method as applied to medical ethics result from differences in the way these fundamental claims about God and creation are understood and applied in religious traditions. One key set of differences has to do with the certainty and stability of theologically based moral norms. Another concerns the similarity between religious views of ethics and nonreligious views. Cloning is an example. Some rheologians would look for clear norms about right and wrong that can be derived from theological foundations and applied in a reliable, constant manner, consistent with past tradition. They might take the position that since humanity is finite and only God is the Creator, for humans to take such radical control over reproduction as to create children from only one parent would be tantamount to “playing God,” and would always be sinful. The sinfulness of cloning is thought to be directly and clearly entailed by the created nature of humanity and