Theological Issues in Genetics

By Walter, James J. | Theological Studies, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Theological Issues in Genetics


Walter, James J., Theological Studies


CONTEMPORARY molecular genetics and reproductive medicine are posing far-reaching questions for theological reflection. In this second section of the Notes on Moral Theology my focus is on three topics that highlight some of these questions. I will consider these topics in the light of two hermeneutical themes that are currently shaping and informing moral debates. Both have biblical foundations and are frequently used to describe the human person--created good in the divine image but, since the fall, prone to hubris and the irresponsible exercise of freedom. My analysis focuses on statements from Christian committees and task forces, as well as various pronouncements on these topics from ecclesial communities and theological writings.

IMAGO DEI

The distinctiveness of human beings in the plan of creation is often described in reference to the fact that they are created in the image of the divine. However, given the variety of meanings of imago Dei within Christian theology, I will discuss only two aspects of that theme: stewardship and created cocreatorship.(1) The decision about which of the many aspects to select depends not only on how one reads Scripture (especially Genesis, Psalm 8, and the accounts of Jesus' healing of the sick) but also partially on where one stands vis-a-vis two important theological themes: the nature and extent of human responsibility to pursue genetic progress, and the theological doctrine that grounds both human intervention into genetic material and our knowledge of God's purposes.

Human Gene Transfer

There are four types of human gene transfer that are likely to be developed as a result of the Human Genome Project: somatic cell therapy, germ line therapy, somatic cell enhancement, and germ line enhancement. Nearly all the task forces, ecclesial communities, and individual theologians who have addressed the first of these types, somatic cell therapy, have approved of its use once the scientific and technical difficulties have been solved.(2) On the other hand, many of the same have rejected the use of both types of enhancement gene transfer (somatic and germ line).(3) The one remaining form of human gene transfer, germ line therapy, remains theologically and morally the most contentious.(4)

Examination of the positions on human gene transfer clearly reveals different theological models of the imago Dei that shape and inform the authors' moral visions and judgments. Stewardship over creation is historically one of the aspects of the imago most frequently appealed to as a model, for it accentuates the fact that humans are entrusted with responsibility for conserving and preserving creation. It tends to place limits on human freedom to alter what the divine has created, and at times it claims some knowledge of God's purposes by reference to a doctrine of creation. The U.S. National Council of Churches adopts many aspects of this theological model as the presupposition of its moral acceptance of somatic cell therapy. The human role in the creative process of creation involves responsibility for what God has made and for living in harmony with all creation.(5) Joseph Cassidy and Edmund Pellegrino also argue morally for somatic cell therapy and against all forms of enhancement technologies based on their view of the human as the steward (not cocreator) over human germ plasm for future generations. In addition to the scriptural sources and the teachings of the magisterium, they contend that we acquire insight into God's will by using the knowledge God has built into creation.(6)

Another aspect of the imago has recently emerged as a model in both Protestant and Catholic circles; it is most often characterized as "created cocreator."(7) This model recognizes that we are indeed created beings, and thus we ultimately rely on the divine for our existence. Though only God creates ex nihilo, we mirror the divine in our capacity to create, even if that ability is restricted to fashioning materials already in the created order. …

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