The Secularization of Bioethics

William E. May
© Culture of Life Foundation 2011
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

Bioethics in the United States is dominated by secularists who reject religious faith, which they believe is a remnant of a superstitious age that has no place in the public square. This is the position taken by such influential writers as Peter Singer, Daniel Callahan, Arthur Caplan, Ronald Green and many others, by scores of bioethics centers at think tanks such as the Hastings Center (founded by Callahan and Willard Gaylin, M.D.), and centers at prestigious universities. In addition, many well-known and influential Catholic bioethicists repudiate their own Church's teaching and for it substitute in large measure the "received wisdom" common to secularist bioethicists and institutions, among them Daniel Maguire, Thomas Shannon, James Walters, and others.

Father Joseph Tham (born in Hong Kong, raised in Canada, with an M.D. from the University of Toronto) became a priest of the Legionaries of Christ and received his doctorate in bioethics from the Regina Apostolorum in Rome under the direction of Edmund D. Pellegrino, M.D., a well-known American Catholic bioethicist who served as a chairman of President Bush's Committee on Bioethics. His doctoral thesis was The Secularization of Bioethics: A Critical Study (Rome: Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum, 2007). In 2008 Culture of Life Foundation posted Tham's essay "The Secular Turn of Bioethics," which in some ways summarized the conclusions of his study.

I will use Tham's Culture of Life article to describe briefly how ethics, and with it, bioethics, became secularized. I will then consider what can be done to remedy the situation, first examining Tham's views on this issue as outlined in his doctoral study and then offering some ideas of my own rooted in the thought of Germain Grisez and his associates.

How ethics and bioethics became secularist

From antiquity and in all cultures religion has played an important role. In Western culture the Christian religion shaped the cultures of Europe and the Americas. As a result, the fundamental principles of ethics were rooted in Christian faith and in a natural law common to all persons compatible with that faith. In the early development of medical ethics and of bioethics some of the leading figures in the United States were priests and Catholic laymen dedicated to the teaching of the Church.

Despite this, since the Enlightenment that took root in Europe in the sixteenth century there has been a struggle to rid all forms of religion from public life and culture - law, science, philosophy, education. Tham believes that theology and ethics were probably the last strongholds of religion but then they too began to grumble. First to fall in the United States were Ivy League universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. These were founded by fervently religious Protestants, but beginning in the 1900's they rapidly became secularist in order to become more inclusive. This process was slower in the Catholic community but it quickly developed from 1968, the year Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae was published and repudiated by many of the best known and influential Catholic theologians and institutions. In 1967 presidents of major Catholic colleges, led by Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University, issued their infamous declaration of independence from the authority of pope and bishops (an event Tham does not consider), and the secularism of Catholic theology, in particular moral theology, was manifested in the consequentialist ethical approach known as "proportionalism," a position repudiated as incompatible with Catholic faith by Pope John Paul II in his 1993 Encyclical Veritatis Splendor. In the meantime, the most influential Catholic theologians in the US informed the Catholic people that they were free to reject Church teaching on contraception, abortion, euthanasia, use of embryonic stem cells, etc. Despite John Paul II's condemnation of this moral theory many Catholic theologians and institutions still propose it, rejecting Church teaching, and advocating these secularist views.

What can be done to rectify this situation?

Tham observed, in his Culture of Life article, that "Secular bioethics has been deemed inadequate for a lot of right-thinking individuals, especially when some of its devotees justify such preposterous theories as infanticide and eugenics [among these are Fletcher, Green, Maguire]. Moreover, many people are dissatisfied with the inability of contemporary bioethics to address the deeper questions of life, those regarding human nature, suffering and death, the meaning of health and the ends of medicine." He ended that article by noting that all these questions have been addressed by religion for centuries, but he then simply noted that much work needs to done.

Tham's Proposals:

In his doctoral study Tham devotes his final chapter, Chapter Six, "Religious Corrective to Secular Bioethics," (pp. 355-410) to different kinds of contemporary theological ethics. In concluding the chapter he proposes, with others, that "orthodoxy" is the linchpin to a successful contribution of religious, i.e., theological, ethics to contemporary debates in bioethics (see pp.410-411). In his "Conclusion" (pp.413-422) Tham argues that "possible dialogue partners [for secularist ethics] to rehabilitate the place of reason in ethical reasoning are the recuperation of virtues and a reassessment of claims of natural law" (p.418). He notes that talk of virtue and character development in ethics makes us realize the intimate link between spirituality and morality, or what I would call the unity of the spiritual and moral life. Such talk helps us see that ethics is not legalistic or minimalistic. He also emphasizes that Alisdair McIntyre, whose After Virtue was first published in the '80s, later rediscovered natural law theories. Tham has deep appreciation for the work of Pellegrino on virtue ethics and bioethics and for the anthropology, metaphysics, and natural philosophy of Jacques Maritain and believes that these authors make excellent contributions to the development of a soundly based approach to bioethics. But I would like now to summarize Grisez and associates' understanding of the role that religion plays in setting priorities and commenting on it.

The priority of religion in the natural law of Grisez and associates

Here I cannot and do not wish to summarize the very important presentation of the natural law and its requirements in the work of these authors, who root their understanding in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and endeavor to make up for some lacunae in his presentation. I can begin by saying that one requirement of the natural law is that we put order into our lives and that in order to do so we need to have our priorities straight [They argue that the basic human good of "religion," which they understand to be a harmonious relationship with God or "the more than human source of meaning and value."].

They argue that an overarching purpose of human life can be established by a religious commitment -- i.e., a commitment to bring oneself into harmony with the more-than-human source of meaning and value -- and cannot be established without such a commitment. Why?

To show why they remind us that the first principles of practical reason are underived and that we know that they are underived - that is, they are known immediately as self evidently true: the basic principle being that good is to be done and pursued and its opposite, evil, is to be avoided. And by good they mean goods such as life itself, including bodily integrityand health, knowledge of the truth, harmonious relationships with others human persons and the "more than human source of meaning and value" or good of religion, etc.. The integral directiveness of all these principles is a truth that we discover, an objective truth about what-is-to-be-done. The is-to-be of this directiveness points to a transcendent source, which can be thought of only as if it were a person anticipating human fulfillment and leading human persons to it. Indeed, harmony with this source is one of the goods fulfilling human persons. From all this it follows that a basic responsibility of human persons is to seek religious truth, embrace it when one seems to find it, and live according to it.

We soon come to understand that our endeavor to realize the ideal of integral human fulfillment, to which we are directed by the first moral principle, is not of itself sufficient, for its realization is beyond our own power. In short, we come to recognize that we need help to realize this ideal; we inevitably suffer failure in our own endeavors to participate in the goods perfective of us and realize that we can ultimately succeed only by putting our trust in the more-than-human source of meaning and value, i.e., God.

Some persons may not have as yet come explicitly to recognize that God exists but nonetheless reject the notion, central to secularist ethics, that "man is the measure of all things and the source of meaning and value." Such a person knows that there is a "more than human source of meaning and value" but does not yet know that this source is the living God.

The natural law is our own intelligent participation in God's eternal law or loving plan of human existence. Unfortunately, our knowledge of this law has been obscured by the secularist environment in which we live. That environment mediates meanings, i.e., understandings of human existence and morality that contradict the truths of natural law. Nonetheless, it is possible, I believe, to raise questions that will be of help in leading many in our culture to re-examine those culturally endorsed meanings and to discover how erroneous they are.