Christian Doctrines, Ethical Issues, and Human Genetics

By Mahoney, Jack | Theological Studies, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Christian Doctrines, Ethical Issues, and Human Genetics

Mahoney, Jack, Theological Studies

[The basis of Christian ethics is a balance of the doctrines of creation, sin, redemption, and fulfillment which are at the heart of all human situations. Applying these four doctrines to human genetics leads to: recognizing a creative human role that respects the inner constitution of the human creature; being alert to the human capacity to misuse God's gifts and creatures; welcoming the opportunity to extend God's healing power in history; and promoting human solidarity in the application of genetic development for the common good.]

WHEN CATHOLICS APPROACH ethical questions in various fields from social and political issues to economic and medical areas, what resources do they possess, precisely as Catholics, to enable them to address these issues? And what light would such Catholic resources provide in the field of human genetics? These are the two questions that I address in this present study. As I consider the first question--what resources address ethical issues--there is a series of layers of reply. The first obvious reply, particularly for Catholics, can be that they have the teaching of the Church as a guide, and, behind that, the Bible with its codes of moral instructions ranging from the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Bible to the Sermon on the Mount and the Great and the New Commandments proclaimed by Jesus in the New Testament.

As one considers such detailed ethical codes, however, one can reasonably ask what lies behind these moral rules to give them their compelling force and intrinsic authority. An attractive answer is that such moral commands are the practical expression of moral values, such values as life, or love, or truth, or justice, or human dignity and human freedom. "Thou shalt not kill," for instance, is more than the forbidding of murder; it expresses the obligation to show practical respect for the value of human life. As John Paul II explained in his encyclical Evangelium vitae: "As explicitly formulated, the precept 'You shall not kill' is strongly negative: it indicates the extreme limit which can never be exceeded. Implicitly, however, it encourages a positive attitude of absolute respect." (1) In fact, I suggest that a moral rule or commandment is in reality a single-value pressure group, a verbal injunction to respect one specific value in our behavior. This is why when one sometimes talks of a conflict of rules or of viewing moral dilemmas as having to choose between obeying one rule and breaking another, one is operating at a superficial or surface level of ethical analysis. What one is really faced with is a deeper conflict, a competition between conflicting moral values, each of which is claiming to be expressed in our behavior and each of which can be expressed verbally as a moral precept to be observed. As the pope went on to recognize, after pointing out the implicit respect for human life contained in the negative commandment "you shall not kill," "there are in fact situations in which values proposed by God's Law seem to involve a genuine paradox," a conflict of values which he saw, for example, in the case of defending oneself from attack, "when," as he pointed out, "the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life." (2) Earlier in his papacy John Paul II had given a most interesting--and authoritative--illustration of this need to choose at times between moral values, in his 1982 message to the United Nations on the moral acceptability of nuclear deterrence. As he observed: "the situation is complex and a number of values come into play, some of them at the highest level. Different points of view can be expressed. The problems must therefore be faced with realism and honesty." (3)

One can take a further step: where do these moral values come from? Why should we respect life, truth, and justice? One reply is that we respect them because God, through the Bible and the Church, so commands. Another reply that represents a strong philosophical current within the Catholic tradition of Christian reflection is because it is the properly human way to behave. …

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