December 8, 2021

Only connect: the Pope’s global bioethics

Latest document causes media storm

The publication of a document by Pope Francis on the environment on Thursday has created a media storm. Laudato Si’ (Be praised, in Italian) is an encyclical, the most authoritative form of Vatican instruction, and is addressed not just to Catholics but to “every person living on this planet”.

Francis hopes that it will influence a Paris summit on climate change at the end of the year. Given his immense popularity and moral prestige, some pundits believe that his contribution could be a game-changer.

In a sense, Laudato Si’ is also an extended meditation on bioethics. Ever since the birth of the discipline in the 1960s, there has been a tension between freedom bioethics with a focus on autonomy and the limits of human intervention on the body and global bioethics, which integrates human activity into ecology. Francis clearly favours the latter approach. The phrase “Everything is connected” is a constant refrain in the document.

So from his perspective, opposition to embryonic stem cell research and opposition to the destruction of the Amazon rain forest are related; preservation of the natural order is paramount. “The natural environment has been gravely damaged by our irresponsible behaviour,” he writes. “The social environment has also suffered damage. Both are ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless.”

Unsurprisingly, then, he rejects the view that man is defined by dominating and transforming nature. There is a natural order in the environment and in human life which must be respected. Technology, he says, “proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.” “This is a point which he uses to attack abortion:

“Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”

Far from being a Marxist rant, as some US conservatives have alleged, the Pope is deeply theological – as if one would expect anything else. “Here we can add yet another argument for rejecting every tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures. The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God.”

Rather than “bioethics”, Francis calls his approach “an ecology of man” which established limits on the exercise of human freedom.  And this is what underlies his hostility towards gender theory: “

The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it”

Benedict XVI, despite his reputation as a hard-line conservative, saw that he had much in common with Greens, more perhaps than with many political conservatives. They respected the natural order, even if they did not respect God. Francis seems to be following in B16’s footsteps. 

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