Politics and the Devil by Charles J. Chaput, Part II

In 03 Archbishop Charles Chaput on 2011/12/01 at 10:09 AM

Dwelling on the issue of science for just another moment, let me present some thoughts from two very different sources. Here’s the first source:

Science, by itself, cannot establish the ends to which it is put. Science can discover vaccines and cures for diseases, but it can also create infectious agents; it can uncover the physics of semiconductors, but also the physics of the hydrogen bomb. Science [as] science is indifferent to whether data are gathered under rules that scrupulously protect the interest of human research subjects . . . [or by] bending the rules or ignoring them altogether. A number of the Nazi doctors who injected concentration camp victims with infectious agents or tortured prisoners by freezing or burning them to death were in fact legitimate scientists who gathered real data that could potentially be put to good use.

The same source goes on to worry that, today, many of the bioethicists who claim to counsel and guide the moral course of American science “have become nothing more than sophisticated (and sophistic) justifiers of whatever it is the scientific community wants. . . . In any discussion of cloning, stem-cell research, gene-line engineering and the like, it is usually the professional bioethicist who can be relied on to take the most permissive position of anyone in the room.”

Now, from my second source:

What is our contemporary idiocy? What is the enemy within the [human] city? If I had to give it a name, I think I would call it ‘technological secularism.’ The idiot today is the technological secularist who knows everything . . . about the organization of all the instruments and techniques of power that are available in the contemporary world—and who, at the same time, understands nothing about the nature of man or about the nature of true civilization.

The words from my first source appeared in 2002 from the author and scholar Francis Fukuyama. If you know his work, you know that Fukuyama clearly supports the benefits of science and technology. He is not—to my knowledge—a religious believer, and based on his writings, he seems to have little use for Christianity. But he’s also not a fool. He sees exactly where our advances in biotechnology could lead us if we don’t find an ethical way of guiding them.

The words from my second source were written exactly 50 years ago, in 1961. They come from John Courtney Murray, the great Jesuit priest and Christian scholar. Murray was a thoughtful man, and he chose his language very carefully. He used the word “idiot” in the original Greek sense of the term, which is quite different from its meaning in modern slang.

For the Greeks, the “idiot” was not a mentally deficient man. Rather, he was a man who did not possess a proper public philosophy, or as Murray says, “a man who is not master of the knowledge and skills that underlie the life of a civilized city. The idiot, to the Greek, was just one stage removed from the barbarian. He is the man who is ignorant of the meaning of the word ‘civility’.”

As I said, these two sources are very different. One was a believer. The other is not. Father Murray died more than four decades ago, long before today’s stem-cell and cloning debates. But both men would agree that science and technology are not ends in themselves. They’re enormously valuable tools. But they’re tools that can undermine human dignity—and even destroy what it means to be “human”—just as easily as they can serve human progress. Everything depends on who uses them, and how. Fools with tools are still fools; and the more powerful the tools, the more dangerous the fools. Or to put it another way, neither science nor technology requires a moral conscience to produce results. The evidence for that fact is the record of the last century.

Now I’ve talked about these things so far for a simple reason. The moral and political struggle we face today in defending human dignity is becoming more complex. I believe that abortion is the foundational human rights issue of our lifetime. We can’t simultaneously serve the poor and accept the legal killing of unborn children. We can’t build a just society, and at the same time, legally sanctify the destruction of generations of unborn human life. The rights of the poor and the rights of the unborn child flow from exactly the same human dignity guaranteed by the God who created us.

Of course, working to end abortion doesn’t absolve us from our obligations to the poor. It doesn’t excuse us from our duties to the disabled, the elderly and immigrants. In fact, it demands from us a much stronger commitment to materially support women who find themselves in a difficult pregnancy.

All of these obligations are vital. God will hold us accountable if we ignore them. But none of these other duties can obscure the fact that no human rights are secure if the right to life is not. Unfortunately, abortion is no longer the only major bioethical threat to that right in our culture. In fact, the right to life has never, at any time in the past, faced the range of challenges it faces right now, and will face in the coming decades. Physician-assisted suicide, cloning, brain-computer interface (BCI) research, genetic screening of unwanted fetuses, genetic engineering of preferred physical and intellectual traits, cross-species experimentation, and developments in neuroscience—these things already raise serious questions about the definition of “human nature” and the protection of human dignity in the years ahead.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: