Editorial: Nathaniel (Hebrew: "Gift of God")

Michael McCabe
Issue 30, April 2010

Nathaniel Liam McCabe Knoef was born on December 12, 1998 and died on February 2, 1999. He lived for seven and a half weeks. At his farewell Mass I offered the following reflection on his short life:

...Nathaniel you have shown us with Martine and Stephen that Christ is not separate from the rhythm of life and death but is present – so totally present that all suffering and disappointment can be redemptive. What does that mean?

...it means that in Christ, and only in Christ, can we face the profound changes that occur in life and in death...

...Nathaniel you have shown us in your very short life that, to face the deep and painful change that comes in your death, we do not need new knowledge or new skills so much as we need to be reminded of what we already know...

...Nathaniel you have helped us look at a bigger picture – a Christ picture – you have reminded us that in Christ we are all loved and loveable. You have reminded us that long before any walls or distinctions, or, dare we say it, prejudices were put in place we are the beloved children of God. As beloved children of God you have reminded us that we are called to share in the very life of God...

...It's hard at times Nathaniel to think of God as both our origin and our destiny – perhaps that is why we have allowed ourselves to drift apart as a family. Perhaps that is also why we drift apart as a community - within the church and beyond it? Perhaps that is why we all suffer from the sophisticated illusion of travelling alone guided only by personal choice? Perhaps that is why we find it so difficult to combine faith with reason in a way that is neither simplistic nor disappointing? And perhaps that is why we also equate the possibilities offered by technology with informed and holistic healthcare?

...Nathaniel you have taught us by word and example. In little more than seven weeks you have reminded us of what we already knew but had lost sight of..."

--From the homily Mass of the Angels Nathaniel Knoef

At this Mass of the Angels we had no idea that Nathaniel's name would live on and become known internationally as New Zealand's own Catholic Bioethics Centre – the official agency for bioethics for the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference. It was only when we were thinking about possible names that we asked Nathaniel's parents Martine and Stephen if we could use his name for the Centre.

And so it was, on May 1, just a matter of months after he died, that we opened the Nathaniel Centre on the ground floor of the Mercy Convent in Guildford Terrace Wellington. Later that year in September Cardinal Thomas Williams, Archbishop of Wellington formally blessed the Centre which bears Nathaniel's name. Now, eleven years after its opening and after serving as its first Director, it is time to write this, my last editorial and to welcome John Kleinsman as its next Director.

In many respects Nathaniel's short life of seven weeks has provided the wellspring and inspiration for my ministry in bioethics over the past eleven years. At his birth he was diagnosed with multiple and incurable health problems and Martine and Stephen, his parents, faced many ethical issues associated with his care. Throughout the last eleven years the need for a Catholic resource in bioethics where ordinary people could go for help and advice has been highlighted again and again.

The story of Nathaniel and his family highlights the fact that the opportunities, dilemmas and questions that form the content of bioethics arise from, and play out against, the backdrop of real human situations. It is a consequence of the technological age in which we live that we find our 'simple' human stories are increasingly intertwined with highly complex technological, medical, institutional, social and cultural realities. All of these factors come into play in ethical discernment and ethical discussion.

Without a doubt the contemporary marvels of medicine and technology have enhanced our ability to flourish in many ways. And yet, one of the risks of our age is that at those key points in our journey when we find ourselves called to confront the frailties and vulnerabilities that are part and parcel of being human, the very presence of technology all too easily becomes a way of avoiding the deeper personal and spiritual questions relating to our origin and destiny; technology unwittingly presents as an obstacle to our encountering what Gerard Manley Hopkins refers to as "the dearest freshness deep down things."

As I look back over the last eleven years the bioethical landscape has undoubtedly changed. At the same time, many of the same issues and questions remain, even while they are often presented wrapped in ever more layers of complexity that call for an ever more nuanced and reflective approach. For example there is the greater use of technology at the beginning and end of life and yet the same fundamental issues of relatedness, personhood and of our shared humanity continue to underpin our reflections on what we should do. Paradoxically, the call to be more reflective and nuanced in our approach all too often goes unheard, ignored in favour of a 'fundamentalist' approach that appeals because of the way in which complex realities are made to appear reducible to simple choices.

A truly Catholic approach to bioethics is characterised by the interplay between faith and reason. As John Paul II once put it: "Faith and reason are like the two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." These two realities set up a tension which is challenging and difficult to live with. That this is so is evidenced by those who err either to one side or to the other. There are some in our own Catholic tradition who emphasise the role of faith in a way that undermines reason. There are others who view the scientific or medical imperative as the trump card.Then there are those who believe that the two realities need to be held up separately and alongside each other while maintaining that they are unrelated. At such times matters of faith are reduced to the margins and public discussions are impoverished because they lack deeply human spiritual insights.

Given their ability to deal with paradox and uphold contradiction, stories are one way of holding together the tension between faith and reason. Stories draw us together and reinforce the common bonds of our humanity; they make us stop and think; they invite deeper reflection; they inspire; they are memorable; they put us in touch with our compassionate side; they raise new questions; they reinvigorate and restore hope in surprising ways; they draw us back into the "dearest freshness deep down things"; they offer unexpected ways through the complexity; they remind us again of what we already know but have lost sight of. We need stories to remind us of what is most important, stories that can be told and re-told. Nathaniel's story is one such story.

Nathaniel's story reminds us that beneath the complex ethical issues that define bioethics there are ordinary people searching for truth, striving to do what is right but above all striving for connectedness and communion in God and each other. At his Mass of the Angels his parents Martine and Stephen said this:

We think of Nathaniel as a little angel in transit. Although he didn't stop in for long he quickly became our greatest teacher. During his life Nathaniel has brought many people together. He has touched people's hearts and he has revealed to us a deep sense of God's wisdom and loving presence...

For the gift of Nathaniel's life and for the gift of The Nathaniel Centre I pray thanks.


Rev Dr Michael McCabe, Director, The Nathaniel Centre 1999 – 2010