Editorial: Bioethics and Theology in Conversation

Michael McCabe
Issue 21, April 2007

Every academic discipline has its own language, jargon and way of understanding reality. It can take the novice and undergraduate some considerable time and more than a little concentration before he or she becomes even remotely familiar with the various contours of a particular field. Once that familiarity has been achieved it can then be a relatively short step before the scholar or student finds him or herself enclosed in a comfortable academic bubble split-off from the lived reality of people's lives and concerns. Such an unwitting split is an ever-present danger in academic, scientific or theological study and discourse.

Perhaps that is why many bioethical and theological conversations tend to lose sight of the person and why conferences in these disciplines can seem to be rather ethereal and academic rather than an experience grounded by a shared search for the truth reflected in people's lives. Perhaps that is also why conference participants frequently, and somewhat lamentably, speak about the "real work" occurring at the coffee breaks?! Often it is the coffee or meal break that helps to re-establish the bigger picture and provides a bigger context for what has gone before.

In the fields of bioethics and moral theology the role of the theologian is twofold: "to draw elements from the surrounding culture that illumine one or other aspect of the mystery of faith" [1] and to do so in a way that feeds the spiritual growth of ordinary people. Thus the conversation must necessarily be grounded, and not so academic or ethereal that the "hopes and dreams, the joys and sorrows" of all people are lost or overlooked.

It is no easy feat to achieve this twofold task. However, during a recent Conference of the Pontifical Academy for Life in Rome Cardinal Ivan Dias, the Prefect for the Congregation of the Evangelisation of Peoples achieved just such a goal. His words were prophetic and challenging as he called participants to place bioethics and theological reflection within a bigger context. By using the Scriptures, the ministry of Jesus, and Pope Benedict's Encyclical Deus Caritas Est as paradigms for his theological reflection, he was able to build a bridge between the academic and the pastoral needs of all people.

His reflection was notable for the way in which it was grounded with the lived experience of people, particularly the poor. As closing speaker of the Conference his synthesising and inspirational style challenged those present to engage fully with the community. His challenge was a timely reminder of the call of the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes.

As Abraham Heschel puts it, in the process of listening to the words of the prophets "one cannot long retain the security of a prudent partial observer. The prophets do not offer reflections about life in general. Their words are onslaughts, scuttling illusions of false security, challenging evasions, calling faith to account, questioning prudence and impartiality." [2]

Cardinal Dias clearly linked the Conference theme of the formation of conscience with the call to discover connections between justice and charity and of the need to prayerfully work for justice and integral human development: "To form conscience means to be convinced that as long as in some part of the world people are dying of hunger, there will be elsewhere those who eat for two, not because they are hungrier than others, but because they have greater abundance."

He warned of the dangers of focussing merely on technological possibility to the detriment of relationships: "Human procreation remains impossible outside a context of love. It is not enough to have procreated life to generate it. It is necessary to love it because only love gives life. At times exaggerated procreation sought for at any cost and with any means, makes people forget that love can 'regenerate' people who are already born, but humiliated in their dignity as children of God."

He also linked new-birth technologies with the shadow-side of globalization:

"...what injures the dignity of life is not so much a couple that wants a child through artificial procreation at any cost, but cultures and markets that are obsessed with finding responses to desire and at times to the whims of individuals or nations and forget about the real needs of the majority of mankind."

The split between academic, scientific or theological discourse and the lived experience of people's lives can also occur when the discussion begins from an "us-and-them" perspective.

In bioethical and theological conversations there is a continual danger of thinking in terms of "Parallel Universes" which can unwittingly lead participants to an "us-and-them" mindset, so much so that nothing good is seen in any opposing point of view or in perspectives that use different fonts of wisdom as their starting point. Such a mindset can demonise science and scientists. Fundamentally this prejudiced mindset fails to understand the richness of the Incarnation which "fuses" and "weaves together" the eternal and the mortal in Christ.

In part this is because the issues in both disciplines are so complex that we tend to compartmentalise and use labels and caricatures as ways of making sense of particular issues. However, labels such as "culture of death" and "the gospel of life"; "relativism" and "absolutism"; "subjectivism" and "objectivity"; "individualism" and "community", while being a type of conversational short-hand to describe a tendency in the culture can in fact limit insight and close down discussion and the shared search for truth. As Andrew Greeley noted in one of his novels, such words are themselves labels "under which one may subsume a number of often contrasting and sometimes contradictory developments and ideas. Such constructs may be useful for shorthand conversation and perhaps for undergraduate instruction, but they ought not to be reified as if there is some overpowering reality in the outside world that corresponds with them." [3]

The wisdom of the theological and moral tradition and the wisdom of bioethical reflection deeply enrich and inform the prophetic voice together with the lesson of history and the knowledge from science. All these fields help to open hearts with insight but they can also close down conversations and dialogue when any one of them is used exclusively, or is disconnected from people's lives.

That is why it is necessary not merely to focus on areas of agreement or on areas where we are convinced of the truth. We need to pay particular attention to areas of dissonance and discordance, to what disturbs and shocks and upsets because these areas, these flash-points, frequently contain the key to fresh insights in complex debates. We must above all else resist a narrowing of our vision and a disconnection between the academic and the real. As the prophets remind us whatever causes us to step outside our comfort zones and re-evaluate our perspectives can in fact enrich us personally as well as enable us to more readily discover truth in the lived reality of people's lives.


[1] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, Vatican City: Saint Paul Books and Media, 1990:9.

[2] Abraham Heschel: The Prophets Vol II New York: Harper & Row, 1962:XV

[3] Andrew Greeley, The Bishop and the Beggar-Girl of St Germain 2001:22


Rev Michael McCabe 
The Nathaniel Centre